If we had arrived a couple of hours earlier, we could have seen it with our own eyes. How the Roche aux Moines in Savennières reached for the sun while the mist danced in the valleys below. On our way from Muscadet to Savennières, right to the west of Angers in Anjou, we pass the bridges over the branches of Loire. There we capture the sight of the last fairies as they play right above the water surface. And the sun glitters so beautifully in the dewy cobwebs.
Domaine aux Moines is waiting for us and we can see the estate through the haze high up on the hill. This is the place where female hands create an elegant, expressive and very storable wine of Chenin Blanc. Madame Monique Laroche was the woman behind the wine up and including the vintage of 2000. The following year, her daughter Tessa , oenologist from the University of Reims, assumed the responsibility for the domain and became the next generation Madame Laroche at the helm.
“You are very welcome,” had Tessa written in the reply mail to our request for a visit. “We will be in full harvest, but my mother will take care of you.”
It almost feels a little solemn as we stroll out in the vineyard together with Madame Monique Laroche. We marvel at the wild-growing, very small cyclamen in light purple right beside the vineyard. Soon we proceed in between the straight rows of vines. The sun shines, it is wonderfully tepid. But it is not just the rays from the sun that warm us. We have a feeling of treading sacred Chenin Blanc land, and we do it on the very first day of the harvest. Our hearts beat a little extra and just the experience per se warms us inside.
We start by going to the newly planted part of the vineyard, a fine south west facing slope. Grapes were grown on these three hectars in the early 1900s. Now the area is once again cleared and was planted in three waves; 2010, 2011 and 2012. But it is not until five years from planting that the grapes can end up in a bottle with AOP Roche aux Moines on the label. So far it will only be Vin du France. The new planting will of course be a valuable addition to the vineyard and implies that the previous eight hectares of Chenin Blanc are increased to eleven. Only one hectar differs with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, used for the red Anjou Village.
Tessa Laroche stands with the secateurs at the ready when we meet her on our stroll between the vines. Domaine aux Moines harvest in several rounds, tries, and choose the best point of time for each cluster of grapes. This year they plan for three tries. We take a look at the new part of the vineyard together, the vines and the grapes. “Organic cultivation, with some biodynamic elements,” she explains.
We talk about 2013. It is not an easy vintage. The weather has been miserable also on this usually sun permeated hill. Flowering did not start until the fourth of July. Green harvest in September. Normally, harvest is in the end of September. This year, the start is today, Monday October 7th. But Monique remembers 1993. Then it was even worse, the harvest did not start until November 11.
We take a look in the winery. Hydraulic press. Stainless steel tanks where the fermentation is started before a part of the must is transferred to barrels, new and old ones. When the fermentation is ready, a soutirage is made to get rid of the gros lie, the big lees. What is created afterwards, fin lie, is not removed and, depending on vintage, battonage is sometimes applied. The wine gets a long rest. The 2012 was bottled in March 2014. The very best years, a special cuvée is made that spends as much as 25 months in barrel. The latest vintage of this wine was the 2011.
We continue our stroll behind the house and through the garden. More beautiful small cyclamen, and four of the estate’s twelve hectares of vines. Some have reached the respectable age of 88 years. Here the yield is as low as 12 hl/ha.
The vineyard on Roche aux Moines dates back to the Middle Ages. As on so many other places, it was the monks who started to grow grapes. The house from the 1600th century is stately. It was the home of the monastery abbot until the French revolution. Then, after the sale in 1793, the property wandered through a long series of hands before it came into the possession of the family Laroche in 1981.
Madame Laroche took care of the vineyard and the winemaking from the very beginning. Her pharmacist education had included lessons in the basics of winemaking. Her husband appreciated good wine, but was an attorney and remained so. We understood that it was not easy being a female winemaker at the time. The men snorted and condemned the wines without testing them. A woman could just not make wine, impossible. That was the prevalent opinion. How wrong they were.
Time for tasting!
Domaine aux Moines 2011, a year with a very small harvest, 16 hl/ha, barely half of the usual 30 hl/ha. In this case, small is beautiful. Half was raised 16 months in barrel, the rest in steel tanks. 14,5% alcohol.
Beautiful bright golden hue. Large complex, fruity nose with lusciously nestled hints of oak. Green apples, peach, apricot and honey tones spiced by a whiff of jasmine and rising minerality. We are struck by the power on the palate; fruity apples, nectarine, citrus and with well-integrated aromas from the barrels. Dry, over medium-bodied with crisp acidity. Long, complex finish with honey. To sum up; balanced and stuffed with flavours, elegant and expressive. Beautiful, young with the potential to age in pleasure, for many, many years. Can we manage to keep our fingers away for 20 years?
Monique makes some excuses when reaching for the next wine vin. “Unfortunately we do not have any more dry wine to sell from the 2000s. The demand has been substantial from Japan and USA.” So we dive into the previous century.
Domaine aux Moines 1999. Deep, bright golden yellow. Pronounced aroma with dried fruits, honey and almonds. More than medium bodied, fresh-rounded acidity and quite dry. Stylish complex with ripe fruit, apple, pear, honey and fine minerality in the tail and very good length. A grown up wine with deepened beauty – wonderful ripe, delicious! “It can be stored for another decade,” says Monique. “Will add even more complexity and honey.” We would gladly drink it now. Why not with a grilled lobster on the plate?
We discuss the fruity aromas in the 1999 and Monique says “coing”. “Coing??” we wonder, puzzled. We can not spell the name, even less know how the fruit looks or tastes. “As a mix of apple and pear,” she explains. And certainly, it is true. We could conclude that by ourselves when we went to buy some lunch in a store right after the visit. There we found lots of coing in the fruit counter. The taste? Well, we could say that it tastes like … coing. And sure, there were clear aromas of coing in the 1999.
Domaine aux Moines 1998. Golden yellow. Very elegant, complex aroma with dried fruits, honey, nuts and minerals. Relatively full-bodied, high acidity, completely dry. Long, complex finish. Light on the palate, elegant, elegant… The word elegant comes back again, and again. Aromas and flavours are so deeply wrapped up in each other that it is difficult to disentangle them. But why be so analytical? Why can’t we just enjoy it? Very nice. Elegant.
Could it get so much better? Hardly. But we are wrong. Monique dives into the fridge for the next bottle. And now we fall head over heels.
Domaine aux Moines 1994. A really cold year with frost in April, which is reflected in the wine. “It was quite impossible to drink when young. Acidity was tremendous, 7 grams per liter and a residual sugar of only 1.7 grams.” Chaptalization? “For AOP Savennières it is permitted, but not for Roche aux Moines.” The wine is really very, very dry.
Golden yellow. Huge, rich nose with mineral, petrol, honey and saffron. Medium bodied, marked but rounded acidity. Flavours of dried fruit, peach and saffron. And it lasts for an eternity. A wine that goes straight into our souls and moves us to another dimension of reality.
This is how happiness tastes like!!! Can anyone stop the time?
Domaine aux Moines 1992. “A difficult year with white fungus inside the bunches. We were out in the vineyard and picked seven times.” Again, a great wine, but it has a tough match, coming right after the 1994. Golden yellow. Fine aroma with spice, dried fruit, honey, saffron and curry. Over medium-bodied, fresh rounded acidity and, for the first time, a minimal touch of sweetness. The flavour is complex with dried fruit and truffles. Great length. It is yummy and we dream of a plate with chicken, some creamy sauce and lots of mushrooms.
Honey is sweet. Our minds take a short break, we reflect and cannot help marvelling. Lovely notes of honey compliment all the wines. Yet they are all dry. So very dry. Grape? Terroir? Fascinating. And when a sweeter wine concludes the flight, then, for the first time, the word honey is not included in our notes. Odd.
Some years, but not that often, a demi-sec wine is made, a “moelleux”. We try the Domaine aux Moines Cuvée des Nonnes 2011 made of grapes harvested in October (late that year, not this one). Here we have 30 gr residual sugar and yet the alcohol is 14%. Bright yellow. Fresh, nice fragrances with youthful hints of sweet fruit, light spiciness and traces of resin. Relatively full-bodied, medium dry with fresh acidity. Fresh, spicy flavours with a long finish where dried fruit and saffron already have begun to pick up. Delicious!
Now we long for some classic wine and food matches; why not some foie gras? Or blue cheese? Monique proposes a classical French tarte aux fruits made of peach or apricot.
We could have stayed here for a long time. But the hours have passed, the wines are tasted and the order is dispatched. Maybe we could come back in a warmer season and rent the brand new gîte, built adjacent to the vineyard? Well, one thing is for sure. We will return to the wines of Domaine aux Moines.