Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves: taking his wines to new heights

It was pouring the day we visited Thierry Germain of Domaine des Roches Neuves in the Loire the week before last. Absolutely tipping down. And it was a leaf day so the fact his wines tasted so great was an enormous tribute to his skill. I’ve tasted them many times before and always been rather more impressed with their vigour than their finesse but this time they were quite magical.

2011 was a great vintage, admittedly ‘with zero botrytis in both the whites and the reds’ according to Germain. “The grapes were mature before the heat of September. We finished our harvest by the 15th. Many producers didn’t start till the 18th.”

The estate, which Germain took over in 1991, has been run biodynamically since 2000 and the effects are only now beginning to kick in, he says.’It takes 10 years for the full effect to show. We began to see big changes in 2008/9.’

Germain, whose family have been winemakers for several generations according to this excellent post by 'wine doctor' Chris Kissack, has also changed his style. “I don’t want over-ripeness. I make my wine how I eat my fruit - I want to be able to crunch into the grapes  The stuff about the maturity of the pips, that they should be brown is rubbish. Over-ripeness is black and dead."

He admits that at one stage he was over-extracting. “There was always one remontage or pigeage too many. Now I macerate for 10 days when previously I would have done it  for 30. Before I was all theory - now it’s about practice."

He gets the structure he’s looking for from using more whole bunches which also have the effect of giving the reds a beguilingly stalky freshness.

He’s also looking to bring down the levels of alcohol in his wines. “The 2011 vintage of Marginale, for example - still in barrel - is 12.7%. Previously it was 14.2%. Franc de Pied [the wine he makes on ungrafted rootstocks] is ripe at 11.8%. My grandfather said a great cabernet [franc] is ripe at 11.5%.”

Otherwise he subscribes to all the cherished tenets of the natural wine movement - tisanes and biodynamic treatments, low yields, horses in the vineyard (increasingly all his new plantings are worked with horses), natural yeasts and ungrafted rootstocks. He feels particularly strongly about the last two. “I am against vignerons who cultivate their own yeasts. Each year brings a different selection and that marks the vintage.” And rootstocks? “If you graft you are putting a filter between the roots and the vine.”

He’s not religious about sulphur but uses very little. “Hardly ever more than 2g and never before malo. “To say you use no sulphur is a con. I don’t go to zero but the more sulphur you put in the more you lose the life of a wine. If you get it right in the vineyard you don’t need sulphur. A living wine doesn’t oxidise - that wine (the 2011 Terres Chaudes we tasted below) has been open for 8 days.”

Not that he’s averse to innovation when it can help preserve the purity of his wines. His bottling line he says is a sterile, germ free area to avoid last minute contamination. All bottles filled sous vide (under a vacuum).

The project that excites him most at the moment, however, is creating a ‘conservatoire de Cabernet’, a collection of 220 vines from old vineyards out of which he’ll aim to pick about 60 through  selection massale (producing cuttings from selected vines rather than clonal material from a nursery). Again harking back to an earlier period when a typical vineyard would contain 45/50 different clones. “It’s essential if you’re working on own rootstocks” he says, simply. “It’s important to preserve variety because one clone can get diseased.” A bequest to leave for future generations.

We tasted the latest vintages and wines from barrel. All the reds are classified as Saumur-Champigny

Terres Chaudes 2011
A good place to start with Germain’s wines. A great expression of Cabernet Franc (40% whole bunches this year), appealingly mineral, earthy with wonderfully pure, singing fruit. “as seductive as the swish of a silken kimono” according to the inimitable Doug Wregg of importers Les Caves de Pyrène. (Not yet available in the UK. Caves de Pyrène has the 2010 for £16.80* )

La Marginale 2009
A famously hot vintage so he picked early (16-20 September). Quite funky on the nose but opened up beautifully in the glass (could, I imagine, benefit from decanting) Structured and spicy. Very low yielding vines - 25hl per ha. 40% whole bunches. Far more structured than the Terres Chaudes showing Germain’s Bordeaux roots. Perhaps the only one of his wines that borders on amber under my scoring system (right)  (£26 CdeP)

Marginale 2010 (from barrel)
90% whole bunches. 1g of sulphur. More substantial and structured with dark wild berry/loganberry fruit. Aged 50% in large oak casks, 50% in 2 or 3  y.o. barrels. Needs time, obviously. He is drinking the 2006s now - his view is that the 2008s are still closed

Franc de Pied 2010
Hard to decide whether it’s because we were aware it was made from ungrafted vines but it does seem to have an extra dimension. A profound, complex, savoury wine - Germain thinks the extra bunches he added in this vintage (he uses 100% in this cuvée) add tannin and structure. One to age as you can see from the notes on the 2008 (below) (Caves de Pyrène has the 2009 which we didn't taste at £28.50)

Franc de Pied 2008
Only 500 bottles were made of this so we were very lucky to get a taste. Very ripe, opulent with an extraordinay aroma of red roses and peonies. But savoury too, not jammy at all. Good, he says, with veal or pork chops or other fatty meats - but not with sauce. Shows the value of hanging on to this cuvée - if you’re fortunate enough to get your hands on some. (Also picked out by my husband, Trevor, as one of his star wines at the Real Wine Fair)

Franc de Pied 2011 (barrel)
Like the other 2011s the fruit is sumptous, and - despite the fact that the tannins are still unintegrated - just the most incredibly exciting Saumur-Champigny I’ve tasted. Alain Passard pairs Franc de Pied with beetroot baked in Fleur de Sel and raw radishes, appreciating the finesse behind the power

Les Ecotards Saumur Blanc 2010
Not one of Germain’s own wines but one of his protegés Michel Chevré - he encourages the people who work with him to buy their own vines (how often do you find a winemaker showing a journalist the wines of a potential rival?) A bright crisp white with lovely pure apple and pear fruit and a touch of greengage. Ideal, he says with sushi or seared scallops with yuzu

L’Insolite Saumur Blanc 2011
Superb, light yet lush, peachy Chenin from a sélection massale vineyard of 90 y.o. vines. Aged in large foudres. Brilliant natural acidity - obviously the best is yet to come. Try, says one supplier, Joseph Barnes, with with asparagus with tarragon butter, grilled perch with fennel or sauteed sea bass fillets served with a light wasabi cream sauce. Right then! (£16.80 CdeP)

Clos Romans Saumur Blanc 2011
Another very limited bottling (533 bottles in total) from a ‘magic’ place according to Germain. Heady scented nose of mandarin and peach. So exquisite it should be sipped on its own - even France’s 3 star chefs are on strict allocation. My OH’s remark that it was like a great German riesling went down well. “I have looked for this balance for a long time” beamed Germain.

Vintages Germain thinks best for the Loire - 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2011. Less typical 2003, 2005, 2009

Thierry Germain’s wines are imported by Les Caves de Pyrène and available from their Guildford shop and by mail order. As importers they obviously have the widest selection at the best prices. Other retailers tend to charge a pound or two more and may be on older vintages - on the other hand it may suit you to buy a single bottle. If you think Germain's wines are on the expensive side - they are - it reflects the care he takes in the vineyard and throughout the whole winemaking process and may make the difference between a drinkable vintage in this intensely difficult year of 2012 or a dud one. According to one (rather envious) winemaker I spoke to he's spent a huge amount sending people out into the vineyards to cut back excessive growth among the vines as a result of the unseasonally wet weather.

By the way Germain has a charmingly illustrated booklet about his domaine and winemaking philosophy which I guess he'd probably send you if you emailed him.


  1. A very nice way to report on Mr. Germain and his wines, Fiona. You quote him a lot.
    I think journalists should do that more: you bring the information to us, without over-interpreting. Then, whether your speaking-partner is right or wrong in his views, that’s up to us to decide. I would tend to disagree a lot with what he says – as you probably guess – but if his wines are as good as you describe, this is a very strong point in his favour. Anyway, he seems convinced and you sound enchanted with his production.

  2. well, I freely admit that I was always having been slightly underwhelmed before, apart from L'Insolite. I felt his reds lacked finesse. Now they have it. He's a winemaker who really thinks - always questioning what he's done before. Impressive!