Hailing from a valley overflowing with Renaissance châteaux, the sixth generation of one of Touraine’s leading négociants must have wondered if a career in wine was a good decision in 2009. “I worked in Nicolas on Kensington High Street for the summer and sold wine to French people. I spent three months in a hostel – the bedbugs were terrible. I slept with the lights on, sleeping in my clothes.” Nevertheless, sales of Famille Bougrier enjoyed a boost in-store that summer. Now in his late 20s, Nicolas Bougrier, the sales director of Famille Bougrier, is one of the next generation charged with managing the Touraine appellation’s future.
It appears to be in rude health, with prices for both reds and whites rising steadily over the past decade and awareness growing of AOP Touraine’s ability to make well-priced Sauvignon Blanc. The price of white wine, which represents 90% of exported volumes, rose 32% per litre between 2008 and 2017, fuelled by both market demand and small harvests in 2016 and 2017. For similar reasons, bulk prices for whites have risen more than 50% in the same period.
Sauvignon Blanc is now AOP Touraine’s calling card, accounting for 43% of its vineyard area. This hasn’t, however, always been the case. Ludivine Marteau in 2010 became the fourth generation of her family to run Domaine Jacky Marteau, along with her brother Rodolphe (and Indie the Labrador). “Fifteen years ago my father started ripping out Gamay and other reds to plant more Sauvignon Blanc,” she says. “It’s what the market wants. We now have 27ha of vines of which 19ha are Sauvignon Blanc and 3.5ha Gamay; there’s a little Pineau d’Aunis, Cot, Cabernet Franc and a tiny bit of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc.” It’s a story repeated across the region, with Sauvignon Blanc now taking its place as the region’s leading variety.
The success of Touraine Sauvignon Blanc not only reflects the variety’s popularity but the success and rising prices of the Loire Valley’s most famous Sauvignon Blanc appellations: Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. The head of the Centre Loire association, Benoît Roumet, estimates that over the past six years, prices of bottled Sancerre have increased by 20%. Chris Hardy, director of Loire Valley wine broker Charles Sydney, says: “Ten years ago you could pick up Sancerre in the UK at £7.99 ($10.44) or £8.99 on promotion. Today it is £15.99 or £16.99 for a generic Sancerre in a supermarket and you can get two bottles of really good Touraine for an average bottle of Sancerre. There’s a price ceiling that people are not prepared to go past.” He adds: “The perception is that Touraine is a great value alternative to Sancerre.”
It’s not only consumers but young vignerons who see Touraine as a well-priced alternative. The cost of entry in Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé is €160,000 ($180,887) and €155,000 per hectare respectively, according to 2017 figures from the French land agency SAFER. In Touraine, prices have risen from €7,000 to €11,000 per ha since 2014 but that still seems a bargain compared with prices in Sancerre and even its satellites, Menetou-Salon (€75,000/ha) or Reuilly (€60,000/ha). Vincent Leclair of Domaine de la Rochette explains: “It’s cheap to buy land here, making it much more accessible than Sancerre price-wise for lots of young people.”
Touraine Sauvignon Blanc offers value for both producers and consumers, but in search of greater prestige and profitabilty, several small denominations have emerged from within the AOP. Both Touraine-Chenonceaux and Touraine-Oisly seek to produce higher-quality Sauvignon Blanc with greater concentration and texture, with conditions including lower maximum yields, at least six months on lees and a tasting panel. “The idea was to create a premium Touraine Sauvignon Blanc,” says Bougrier. Producers have appended the name of the 16th century castle, Château de Chenonceau, to raise its prestige and profile further.
Sense of Place
The Loire and the Cher rivers flow past the region’s biggest city, Tours, about 250km away from their final destination: the Atlantic Ocean. The 6,300ha of vineyards of AOP Touraine stretch mostly eastward of Tours, with the ocean’s influence diminishing towards the city of Blois.
Geologically it sits in the Paris Basin, a low-lying area covering a large swathe of northern France that was once underwater. The strata of soils include tuffeau – chalky limestone – sand, clay and flint, while alluvial terraces also contain gravel.
When it comes to what’s in the ground, it’s not all Sauvignon Blanc. There’s a little Chenin Blanc (7% of plantings) and a splash of Chardonnay (3%). White wines dominate exports, but red varieties cover about 45% of Touraine’s vineyard land with Gamay leading the way (21%) followed by Cabernet Franc (10%) and Cot aka Malbec (8%). Reds have benefitted from climate change: in the period 1960 to 2010, average growing season temperatures in the region increased between 1.3˚C and 1.8˚C, leading to greater phenolic ripeness while retaining the Loire’s natural cool climate freshness.
However, the elements have been less than kind to the Touraine and wider Loire Valley. Frost hit the area hard in late April in both 2016 and 2017. Consequently yields in the Touraine appellation fell to 42hl/ha and 38hl/ha compared with a 10-year average of 48hl/ha. This has proved commercially challenging and led to the appearance of frost fans in the area. “Growers struggled to maintain volumes after the 2016 and 2017 frost,” says Hardy. “For the appellation we can bottle from 1 December and because our customers were out of stock of the 2016 vintage, we had to go early with the 2017s and again with the 2018s. Ideally you wouldn’t do that as it’s better to have some time on fine lees for mouthfeel.”
Nature has other challenges for growers. Most admit powdery mildew is becoming a greater issue due to warm, humid weather, making organic production challenging. Trunk disease is also a worry. “Esca is a big problem for Sauvignon Blanc here and I have had to rip out vines and replant,” says Leclair. While they look cute, roe deer living in nearby forests also give vineyard owners headaches. Marteau explains, “In spring, the chevreuil eat buds and shoots so we have to put up electric fences.”
However, it will take more than a few deer to stop Touraine’s current success. There was concern following the small 2016 and 2017 vintages, with stocks at a 10-year low, but the 2018 season brought some relief with cropping levels back to normal.
Further information on Touraine Sauvignon Blanc:
Thiols are an important contributor to the Sauvignon Blanc aromas. Largely derived from precursors in grapes, they are released by yeast activity during alcoholic fermentation. Compounds 3MH, 3MHA and 4MMP, which are responsible for the variety’s characteristic passionfruit, boxwood and grapefruit aromas, are mostly derived from the grape’s skin.
In the Loire Valley – and elsewhere – some producers will machine harvest Sauvignon Blanc grapes while others pick manually. A University of Auckland study discovered that mechanical harvesting increased the level of thiols in Sauvignon Blanc by as much as five to ten times compared with hand-picked, whole bunch-pressed fruit, likely due to increased maceration time.
In Touraine, some producers will conduct macération pelliculaire: pre-fermentation skin contact to increase thiol levels and improve mouthfeel. In a 2011 paper, Rolland et al reported that the release in thiol in wines increased significantly after cold pre-fermentation skin contact of from one to seven days.
At Domaine de la Rochette, Vincent Leclair will often allow a pre-fermentation in the press between six and 10 hours for his Touraine Chenonceaux but is careful to avoid oxidation, as wines made from oxidised juice have much lower thiol levels. Similarly, Patrick Vauvy of Domaine Bellevue will allow up to 35% of his Sauvignon to undergo skin contact but notes “in riper years I don’t do it because it makes the acid levels fall”. Conversely, Lionel Gosseaume avoids skin contact. “My colleagues who are using the technique are looking to increase the aromatic intensity and palate weight. For my part, I don’t add SO2 between the vineyard and the press, as it reinforces the vegetal character and brings a hardness to the finished wine.” He says he also practises cold settling (at 2˚C) for three to five weeks, which reduces the acidity and reinforces the feeling of roundness in the mouth and leads to important aromatic development.