Many wine drinkers look down their noses at Chinon and its twin from across the Loire, Bourgueil. They are called pleasant, fruity "little" wines that best accompany a light luncheon.
Luncheon indeed! Have they never heard of Rabelais and his own Pantagruelian consumption of these wines? At that time François I was king of France and he spent much of his time in one or another of his Loire chateaux.
Perhaps because the king shared Rabelais' enthusiasm for Chinon and Bourgueil, they were court favorites and considered among the best red wines of the realm. Claret was barely fit to ship off to the English, and in any case, it did not come into its own until it was bottle-aged, a development that took place more than a century later.
Wines in those days were not aged, but drunk straight from the barrel from year to year. And this certainly gave an advantage to the Loire reds, for they are as pleasant to drink young as when, in the right vintages, they may be aged for 20 years or more.
Chinon and claret have something else in common – their grapes. Although the Cabernet-Franc is called the Breton at Chinon and Bourgueil, it came from Bordeaux, together with its little-used but permissible cousin, the Cabernet-Sauvignon. It probably got its local name from the Breton sailors whose ships brought it up from Bordeaux.
Neither Chinon nor Bourgueil could be thought of as a rival to the great classified chateaux of the Médoc. You could, however, enliven more than one tasting of red Graves by slipping in a Chinon from a good year, especially one from a grower as conscientious as Charles Joguet. He lives in the village of Sazilly, upstream a few kilometers on the Vienne from Chinon.
Joguet does not do things by halves. Unlike most growers in the region, who blend everything they grow into a single cuvée, he keeps each type of wine separate and bottles each separately.
Thus, he has red wine from young vines (6 to 15 years old) and red wine from old vines (40 to 76 years old). The old-vine wines are further subdivided according to the soil they are grown on, clay and sand or the local soft limestone called tuffeau. Joguet also makes a delightfully refreshing rosé.
A tasting in his cellars took me back to 1959, two years after Joguet inherited 2.5 hectares of vines from his father.
Joguet had begun as a sculptor but he threw himself into winemaking, determined to make the most of what he had. He has enlarged his vineyards to 11 hectares, not all of which are in production.
He has worked very closely with Jacques Puisais, head of the analytical laboratory at Tours, and the two have patented a new type of stainless-steel vat. It has a movable grille inside that can be used to push the floating chapeau of skins, stems, and so forth, down into the lees, to retain the aromatic substances that are usually lost during fermentation without this operation.
This is a new invention that should prove itself in time, but even his more traditionally made older wines are remarkable. I tasted a series of wines, of which certain ones stood out:
A 1976 from old vines won a gold medal at the Paris Salon de l'Agriclture. It is a full, complete, very well-balanced wine, ready to drink and yet capable of aging well.
The 1964 is still young but very elegant with great depth and fruit. Its acidity should help it to continue to age.
The 1959 is a richly aromatic, even funky, wine, mellow but very sound. What is terrible about these wines is that no more are available, even of the 1976. These came from Joguet's private cellar and even he has precious few. This is the problem everywhere in Chinon and Bourgueil: Everything is sold and drunk up much too fast, depriving the great years of a chance to show what they are really worth.
Perhaps if the condescending drinkers were not in such a hurry to drink up these "little" wines, they might just discover how truly remarkable they can become.