Smoking Out The Incredible Wines of Chinon

This was not my first (more on that later), nor my last experience with BBQ and wines of Chinon pairing­, and I always look forward to it.

On this occasion, at Northern Bell in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, super-star sommelier, Pascaline Peltier, was joined by Rodolphe Raffault, a 14th-generation Chinon winemaker, to take us on a deeper dive into the wines of Chinon—in particular, the versatile cabernet franc varietal. Although gamay, grolleau, cabernet sauvignon, pineau d’Aunis, and côt, the local name for malbec, are used to make excellent wines in the region, it’s cabernet franc that reigns supreme in the Loire Valley. We all know cabernet franc’s role in Bordeaux, but there is no other region in the world that is as closely associated with this grape than the Loire Valley. Pascaline enthusiastically calls the Loire Valley the perfect wine region and cabernet franc the perfect varietal. It is no matter that Pascaline hails from the Loire; when Pascaline speaks, we should all listen.

Wine has been made in the Loire Valley for centuries, but Mr. Raffault is quick to point out that there are big changes happening there, both in the vineyards and in the cellars. The current generation of winemakers (his generation) has elevated the wines to a new level, but it’s the sons and daughters who are joining their winemaking families or striking out on their own, that are really putting Loire Valley wines on the map. As Mr. Raffault suggests, the most important evolution is that the majority of this new guard is adopting “natural” and bio-dynamic farming, using minimal techniques, and letting the terroir of the wines speak for themselves.

Despite a semi-flurry of excitement about Loire Valley wines by importers and in-the-know wine enthusiasts, these wines are still dramatically over-looked, even undervalued. Lending to Pascaline’s point that this is the perfect wine region, here lies great opportunity to drink some really incredible wines without the price tag of some of the other regions of France.

Mr. Raffault emphasized that Chinon wines reflect a mix of terroirs, including, gravelly, alluvial soils close to the banks of the Vienne river that tend to produce lighter, very aromatic, red-fruit forward wines; limestone, chalk and clay slopes produce the most complex, structured and age-worthy wines, which over time evolve towards jammy, spiced black berries flavors; and soils dominated by clay, which can produce wines that reflect both styles.

The town of Chinon is about 45 minutes southwest of Tours, located on the banks of the river Vienne, which flows south of the Loire river and merges with the Loire just west of Chinon. Chinon is indelibly linked to two famous historical figures—the author Francois Rabelais, born in Chinon around 1490, and Joan of Arc, who came to Chinon Castle in 1429 to meet the Dauphin Charles VII and inspired him to re-conquer his kingdom.

Rabelais sung the praises of Chinon wine in his satires Gargantua and Pantagruel, and his vivid descriptions of wine-soaked feasts and revelries have made him a emblem of the “eat, drink and be merry” lifestyle. Rabelais is credited with a saying heard often in Chinon: “Buvez toujours, vous ne mourrez jamais,” roughly translated as “drink always and never die.”

As Mr. Raffault continued to elaborate on the soils and geography of Chinon, he showed one image that triggered one of my most favorite taste memories. Speaking about the wine caves (they can stretch for tens of miles) carved deep into the hillsides, he showed an image of a “BBQ pit” inside the cellar.

My taste memories derive from both Chinon and BBQ, each coming from different time periods in my life. Growing up in North Carolina, BBQ is naturally in my DNA. Fast-forward to a slightly more adult part of my personal and professional life in France, where I had the opportunity to experience Chinon wines and discover the virtues of cabernet franc “en direct”. As can often happen in France, business and pleasure sometimes overlap. One of my most cherished “business” trips was in fact to Chinon where, after performing my professional obligations, our colleague took us on detour.

We found ourselves deep inside one of the underground wine cellars of Chinon where we tasted wines from the barrels and devoured locally made saucission and other charcuterie. That was just a prelude of what was to come. After a short break and a little more “official” work, we were off to another Chinon experience. Back inside another wine cave, our hosts grilled beef, pork, and lamb from head to tail (no, offal-eating was not invented by hipsters in Brooklyn). The memory all came rushing back as if I were in the moment. That was my very first experience with BBQ and Chinon. The earthy, red fruit characteristics of cabernet franc along side the smokiness of BBQ really is a match made in heaven.

Back to reality, here we were at Northern Bell where the BBQ was excellent, but the Chinon wines were the absolute real stars of the show.


Course 1
Charred Iceberg Lettuce, Homemade Bourbon Beef Bacon, Crumbled Blue Cheese, Roasted Corn, Ranch dressing

Paired with:
Beatrice et Pascal Lambert, Domaine des Chesnaies, Rochette 2012
In 1995, Beatrice and Pascal Lambert made the decision to change their vineyard to bio-dynamic farming and the fruits of their labor have produced delicious wines. Fermented on lees this 100% Chenin Blanc biodynamic wine is rich, ripe, and dry.

The nose shows autumn fruits (apple, pear, quince) with brioche, aniseed, and honey notes. After a nice sharp attack, the mouth feel is full, rich, and complex, with nice length.

This bright wine with a nice touch of minerality brought freshness and balance to the fat and richness of the blue cheese and bacon in the salad.

Course 2
Cherrywood Pit Smoked Wings

Paired with:
Domaine JM Raffault Cabernet Franc 2014
Considered by many as one of the best rosés in the Loire Valley, this wine is made from 100% Cabernet Franc grapes planted on alluvial sand and gravel soils on the former Loire riverbed.

As Mr. Raffault explains, he uses minimal pressure, fanatically avoids any possibility of oxygenation, and ferments this wine at low, controlled temperatures using only the grapes’ native yeast until it is fully dry. The constant, cool temperature maintains the wine’s natural CO2 level, one of the keys to the wine’s vivacity. The low temperature also prevents the start of malolactic fermentation while the Chinon Rosé develops on its fine lees in tank for 5 months.

This bright, pomegranate-red colored dry rose has a spicy nose with raspberry and grapefruit, and a long, fresh, plump finish.

The savory aspects of cabernet franc paired well with the smoky flavor of the wings.

 Course 3
Homemade Biscuit, Poached Egg, Sage Port Sausage with Country Gravy

Paired with 3 wines:

Bernard Baudry Les Granges 2014
Cultivated on the sandy and gravelly soil near the Vienne River, this bright purple-colored organic wine is meant to be consumed young. Its lively texture has very approachable layers of spice and redcurrant fruits.

Philippe Alliet 2014
Philippe Alliet is a winemaker’s winemaker. He is part of a new generation dedicated to low yields, optimally ripe fruit, and fastidious vineyard management. This wine exemplifies the typicity of the region. Bursting with character, this earthy and well-structured wine shows delicious layers of lively red fruits and a crisp acidity.

With a retail value of around $20, this is a great value.

Domaine Grosbois, Cuisine de ma Mere 2012
Grown on sandy, clay soil on the right bank in the Cravant-les-Coteaux plain, this wine reveals an intense ripe red berry nose (cassis, raspberry). It has a fresh and supple texture with balanced acidity and subtle notes of spice on the finish.

Very accessible wine that pairs well with the sausage gravy!

Course 4
Memphis-style dry rubbed Ribs, Milk Stout reduction

Paired with:
Complices de Loire La Petite Timonerie 2011
Francois-Xavier Barc has partnered with wine makers who share his philosophy and passion for wine to create Complices de Loire. In the Loire Valley, Timonerie is used as a synonym for castle. The result of this collaboration is a wine with notes of dark cherry and blackberry with a dry finish. Grown on clay and gravel soil, this 100% Cabernet Franc is fruity, soft and exudes aromas of red berries. A great match with grilled and smoked meats.

Domaine de la Noblaie, Chiens 2010
This old-vine cabernet franc is from a single parcel of vines planted on dense clay soil called “Les Chiens-Chiens” at almost the highest altitude in the entire AOC with commanding views over the river and the 600 year-old Chinon castle.

Part of the new guard of winemakers in the Loire, this wine is made by the young rock-star son (Jerome) of his father’s vineyard. It shows red berry fruits and persistent tannins. Powerful and rich it has great structure and a long finish. Many experts consider this Chinon a case study in the balance between power and elegance, spice and softness, and fat and acidity.

Couly Dutheil Clos de l’Echo 2009
Couly-Dutheil is probably the most instantly recognized name in the Chinon appellation, taking its name from the echo transmitted from the northern cliff of the fortress. The legend goes that doubtful lovers would tease their maidens by shouting a pair of leading questions:

‘Les femmes de Chinon, sont-elles fidèles?’

‘Elles’ asks the echo.
‘Oui, les femmes de Chinon.’
‘Non’ says the echo.

With a deep ruby-red color, this ripe and concentrated wine is powerful and complex with notes of rich black fruits and spices. In the mouth it’s full, structured and balanced with dense tanins that bring out the fruitful aromas. There is also a spicy black pepper element that lends a dry and savory note.

 Course 5

Chocolate Bourbon Croissant Pudding and Apple Tart
Paired with:
Sauvion Les Roches Cachees 2014
Chair St Laurnet La Vigne en Veron 2013
Marc Plouzeau Rive Gauche 2013

Unfortunately I had to skip dessert, but I am positive these were excellent pairings.


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