Over the course of one month, we had packed up the house, took leave of our dear friends in Canada and said a painful, last goodbye to JD, our one-of-a-kind Boston Terrier who had been my soul tie through undergrad, graduate school, my career in Los Angeles, my marriage to Andrew and then our move to northeastern Alberta. He’d survived three Canadian winters right along with us and had taught Pux (our younger Boston) everything he needed to know for the journey ahead. The long drive east across Canada then down into the States was bittersweet yet often filled with humor. At the end of a long day’s drive, we would stack our wine collection, along with our luggage, on the hotel trolley and wheel it to our room in a desperate effort towards climate control. We caught more than one gimlet eye from fellow guests and often just smiled in return, knowing full well we looked like a band of ragtag bootleggers. We made it to Virginia just in time to celebrate the 4th of July – appropriate but unintentionally timed. We were still sleeping on an air mattress to the chagrin of Pux, our-entitled-yet-adorable-Boston, when Andrew’s birthday rolled around a couple of weeks later.
I had started working as a vineyard hand and cellar tech (a bucket list job for me) on the outskirts of the northern Shenandoah (Middleburg AVA for wine). From there, I’d quickly found a charming restaurant with an inspired young chef where I booked a table for Andrew’s birthday celebration. We arrived at the historic Ashby Inn, cradled inside rolling foothills that harkened back to memories of rural Bavaria, and took a seat beneath wisteria vines on the flagstone terrace. After three years of Canadian cuisine, nothing sounded better than their salt-brined fried chicken over corn succotash and the arrival of our order did not disappoint. The wine list was even more impressive and I quickly selected a Chenin Blanc from the tiny French appellation of Savennières. Although I’d come to love Savennières’ unique expression of the varietal in my sommelier studies, the marriage of flavors in this meal was a revelation and it remains one of my favorite pairings to this day. In fact, I’ve paired it with Thomas Keller’s brined fried chicken again and again for wine tastings.
You may be thinking Chenin Blanc? Ugh, sweet wine, but no. It’s true that the more commonly known French village for Chenin Blanc is Vouvray where there as well as the new world (California and South Africa) offer examples of the grape that are off-dry, meaning they have residual sugar and are not fermented completely dry. This is not the case in Savennières where climatic conditions allow the wine to be finished bone-dry, without a hint of residual sugar, while still retaining ample acidity and freshness. The result is one of my favorite white wines out there and somewhat of a guarded secret among sommeliers the world over. Savennières’ racy crisp freshness and mineral verve cuts through the heat (and the fried chicken’s fats) like a hot knife through room-temp butter. The expansive mouthfeel delivers a haunting bounty of roasted yellow apple, apricot, preserved lemon peel and quince, wrapped inside a blanket of wet wool, chamomile, honey comb and aged cheese that leaves you pondering the complex genius behind the liquid nectar with each immensely satisfying sip.
Chenin Blanc has been rooted in the picturesque village of Savennières since around the 9th century and is believed to have been popular as far back as the times of Charlemagne. Comprised of three rolling hills of schist, which gives the wine its unique mineral fingerprint, Savennières is a prime example of the power of terroir, capturing a sense of place that is totally inimitable. If you have yet to fall in love with the Chenin Blanc varietal, this small appellation will redefine your impressions of the grape forever after. Although not all wines are created equal – here are a few of my favorite producers to look for in your quest.
Clos de la Coulée de Serrant
Justly revered as one of the greatest white wines in the world, this single estate is one of only three in France to have their own AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlées), which is quite an honor. The vineyard was first cultivated in 1130 by Cistercian monks and the site continues to live up to its legacy. Today, the old vines are lovingly tended by Nicholas Joly and his daughter. The estate has been farmed biodynamically since 1984 and has been a beacon of the farming practice within France’s winemaking community for decades. Few names conjure this level of well-earned esteem; the pedigree and sheer magic in the bottle is entirely worth the lofty price tag.
With the king of Savennières behind us, we move on to other outstanding producers. While Joly’s wines do require you to open your wallet as wide as it goes, wines of Savennières actually offer a shocking price-to-quality for the most part. Because they are lesser known in the mass US market, many of the greatest examples of Savennières can be fetched without sticker shock. So here are a few:
Château d’Epiré ($23+)
This wine is a bit of a staple here in our house. Imported by one of my wine heroes, Kermit Lynch, Château d’Epiré is one of the oldest domaines in Savennières and it’s been in the Bizard family since the 17th century! Part of their beautiful estate also borders the aforementioned, famed Coulée de Serrant and their vineyards are farmed lutte raisonnée, which means they are treated organically unless an extreme emergency arises. In other words, you’re getting some serious varietal purity as well as reflection of terroir here. For under $25, this world-class wine is a steal, which is why the Greers keep it stocked. https://shop.kermitlynch.com/product/detail/16FBI01.html
Domaine du Closel ($32+)
What do I love about Domaine du Closel? On top of the magnificent wine, the domaine is the product of some pretty incredible women. Matriarch, Michèle de Jessey not only led the family estate for years, she was the first female to ever take the helm of an AOC (French appellation). Today, her daughter, Evelyne, is at the helm where she has been responsible for the organic and biodynamic conversion in the vineyards, which translates to an almost religious purity in the glass that exemplifies everything we love about Savennières.
Domaine de la Bergerie ($30)
Domaine de la Bergerie is a family operation that organically (seeking certification) farms their parcels a mere stone’s throw away from Nicholas Joly’s legendary La Coulée de Serrant. Their mature vines are grown in sandy schist and volcanic soil, which gives the wine an inimitable mineral fingerprint that speaks of the power of Savennières terroir.
Other producers to keep an eye out for are Thibaud Boudignon, Eric Morgat and Patrick Baudoin.
For a pairing you’ll never forget, give Thomas Keller’s fried chicken from his book Ad Hoc a whirl. As my Dad likes to say, “it’s so good, it’ll make you take back shit you didn’t steal!”
A votre santé!