Savennières

In the vineyard


Towards Epire

Situation

The Savennières appellation begins at what is now the western limit of the Angers commuter belt; the towers of the cathedral being clearly visible from the vineyards above Epiré. The vines spread west for approximately eight kilometres along the right bank of the Loire encompassing the three communes of Epiré, Savennières and La Possonnière along a series of four plateaux and on the sides of three ravines, or Coulées. This word is best translated as meaning to flow; as in something liquid or molten. These ravines are essentially small valleys running perpendicular down to the river and whose steep slopes offer a perfect south-west facing orientation. The plateaux of Epiré, Savennières and La Possonnière are set up to two kilometres back from the river and are more open and exposed with vines at the Moulin de Beaupréau, the appellation’s highest point, being at an altitude of around 75 metres.

Grapes

The only permitted variety within the Savennières appellation is Chenin, however with plantings in the appellation increasing three fold since 1990 it means that most of the vineyard material here is less than fifteen years old. Historically, the vines were propagated through massal selection rather than using specific clones. The variability of sélection massale dictates that flowering is not homogenous and therefore neither is ripening; this ensures that in almost every vintage it is necessary for the wines to be picked in two or three passages, although in some vintages and, depending on the philosophies of individual growers, it may be more. Generally, the warmer vintages are often the easiest requiring the least number of tries. Certainly 2005 saw several growers picking in a single passage.

The choice of rootstock will also influence the ripening process and potentially the style of wine produced. During the 1960s and 1970s, SO4 was presented as the ideal choice on the basis that it was disease resistant, vigorous and self supporting even in poor soils, but perhaps more importantly, it gave a productive crop. The downside is that the vigour also leads to greater vegetative growth, more humidity and ultimately rots if not properly managed. Much older vine Chenin within the appellation is grafted to SO4. More recent plantings have selected Riperia (especially for its affiliation to the clone 220), Rupestris or Paulsen. Riperia is favoured for its ability to root deep, but it does not allow for a vigorous graft and its growing is arrested in drought conditions. Paulsen, however, is resistant to water stress, and allows for deep rooting even on the hard schist soils of the coteaux.

In addition to Chenin, one other white variety plays an unofficial part in the appellation: Verdelho de Madère. There are various theories as to its existence here; one is that it was brought into the region post-phylloxera by Count Odard who married into the Brincard family. It is said that it was planted on an experimental basis initially, but appears to have been propagated more widely through massal selection over the years. Guy Rocher grubbed up a parcel of Verdelho in the Clos de Maurières after Château de Plaisance bought vines here in 1982. His own theory is that the variety is a mutation of Chenin, although this is unlikely. Domaine du Closel admits to having a few rows still in production, and Monsieur Focquereau, a member of the La Société Agricole et Industrielle de l’Anjou wrote in one society bulletin on the positive attributes of Verdelho stating that it was ‘un cépage à vin fin, trés précieux pour notre contrée’. However, he does concede that the reputation of Verdelho was somewhat exaggerated simply by being planted in the Coulée de Serrant, despite the fact that only a small proportion of the vineyard was planted to the variety. In the late 1960s, Jean Baumard discovered he had purchased a whole hectare of old vine Verdelho within the Clos St Yves. It was used in this specific cuvée here up until the 1986 vintage, although today Baumard uses it to produce a dedicated Vin de Table.

The characteristic of Verdelho are its prolific thick skinned, oval shaped berries which ripen early, a full ten to fifteen days in advance of Chenin - a distinct benefit in a past age when the guarantee of a crop was more important than provenance or cépage. It matures quickly, almost like Sauvignon, passing its optimum picking time within a day or two. Apparently, the most obvious sign of Verdelho in the vineyard can be seen in late summer with the premature yellowing of its leaves. Its presence in a blend is considered by some growers to help add weight and complexity, but in isolation, according to Evelyne de Pontbriand of Domaine du Closel at least, it ‘tastes like cheap perfume’. Some five hectares are still thought to exist throughout the whole appellation, although understandably, some growers are reluctant to discuss its presence.

There is also evidence of Sauvignon being planted prior to the introduction of the AC laws of 1952. Madame Laroche at Domaine aux Moines inherited a parcel when she bought Domaine aux Moines in 1981. This was subsequently grubbed up three years later, and Jean Baumard reintroduced an ‘experimental’ parcel in the 1960s, although this has since been removed. At the same time Baumard also planted 0.8 ha of Chardonnay within the Clos du Papillon. These vines are still in production and whilst it has never been denied that these grapes have made their way into the odd Savennières cuvée in the past, they are now used for the production of Crémant de Loire. There were also plantings of Groslot and Gamay at Château d’Epiré, grown primarily for vinifying into Rosé until the mid 1980s.

Within the boundaries of the appellation one can also find Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon planted, often in sites better suited to Chenin. For example, there is an 80 year old parcel of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon planted by the father of the late Eustache Poilasne immediately in front of the house at Domaine aux Moines in what happens to be prime Roche-aux-Moines terroir. Approximately 15% of the entire vineyards planted are given over to these two varieties, where the designated appellation is for Anjou Rouge and (since 1991) Anjou Villages. Most of the more established producers have a hectare or two in production to satisfy the demand for red wine. The origin of Cabernet Franc within the appellation dates back four generations, with the great-grandfather of François Roussier bringing back cuttings of Breton from Bourgueil and planting them in the sandy soils of Coulaine, where the vine seems to better suited than on the harder schists.

Orientation, Planting Density and Maladies


Le Clos St Yves

The best orientation is from north to south, although this is not always practical, especially on the steeper slopes of the coulées. The poor soil conditions, especially on the schist of the premièrs coteaux and in each of the coulées means only low planting density is viable, with between 3,300 (the appellation minimum for trellised vines) and 4,000 vines per hectare. In terms of maladies, the biggest single issue affecting the health of the vineyards at this moment in time is the rise of esca, a fungal disease which results in the vine losing the ability to maintain a canopy on one or both of its arms. Esca, is not unique to the region, or indeed France , but is making a significant impact on the vineyards here. In 2007 Château des Vaults grubbed up 4,000 vines, equivalent to one hectare, in an attempt to combat the disease.  

Soil


The 'Monks Rock', Le Roche aux Moines

The soils of the appellation are potentially more complex than any other French viticultural region. A short walk through any one parcel of vines illustrates how varied the soil type and its mechanical make up can be.

Savennières sits at the eastern most edge of the Massif Armoricain where it meets the Paris Basin . These are two of the tectonic plates which make up the basic architecture of the earth’s crust; both being created in different eras. The Bassin Parisen, known within the region as the ‘white Anjou’ dates from the Cretaceous period of around 67 million years ago and was created from the deposits of marl, chalk, limestone and shell beds that accumulated after the shallow sea that once covered this region receded. However, the Massif Armoricain, the ‘black Anjou ’ dates back over 500 million years and as such is one of the oldest rock formations on the planet. Here, rocks were formed through thick shale being compacted and metamorphosed by volcanic heat into granite, slate and schist. Sandstone was converted to quartzites, with limestone being compacted or marbelised. The subsequent weathering left only the hardest rocks and it is from these that the Massif Armoricain is formed. All this is significant as it helps to explain the flow of the Loire as it traverses one tectonic plate to the other.

Prior to arriving at Angers the river meanders in a straight east-west direction, where since the Great Ice Age it has carved a route through the softer, more porous soils of the Paris Basin . However, as soon as it encounters the harder, impermeable rock of the Massif Armoricain the river is deflected south-west until it finds an outlet through the mother rock which allows it once again to take an east-west course towards the Atlantic . The vineyards of Savennières are located at the point where the river is forced south for these few kilometres, allowing the slopes of the coulées to benefit from a more southerly exposure, rather than simply due west.

Therefore the subsoil of the appellation is based on hard rocks; different schists made up of blue granite, quartz, gréseux (sandstone) and volcanic debris such as the red/yellow rhyolite, black phtanite and spilite; red/brown in colour, and created through the reaction of lava being cooled quickly by sea water. These rocks are most readily found on the surface along the premièrs coteaux of the appellation, the front south facing edge of vineyards that overlook the Loire and in the coulées where weathering and erosion has left them exposed. Behind the front slopes and valleys one enters the plateaux to the north and rear of the appellation. Here the surface begins to change from the complex mix of pure shale to one of sand. The subsoil remains the same impermeable schist, which can occasionally be seen rising to the surface, but for the most part there is a covering of sable eolien, sand deposited by the action of wind driven up from the river below. This is generally poor quality and collects in cuvettes, natural indentations in the schist to a depth of just a few centimetres in some places, or down to a metre at their deepest points. This sand offers little in terms of nutrition for the vine and acts only as a mechanical support. These vineyards are often inaccessible as they become waterlogged in winter or after heavy rain as the water doesn’t readily drain away due to the impervious makeup of the rock below, whilst in summer or periods of drought the soil becomes baked making it difficult to work. The success of the vines here comes from their ability to locate fissures in the schist below, and find the necessary nutrition and minerals. Generally, grapes grown on these sandier soils offer the most forward drinking styles of wines.

Climate

Being just 120 kilometres inland from the Atlantic coast ensures that Savennières enjoys all the benefits that the Gulf Stream brings. This is immortalised in what is known locally as la doucer angevine, a term used as much to personify the gentle disposition of the local population as the mild weather conditions of Anjou . In terms of temperature, the mean average is between 11.5° and 12.0° centigrade, with winter temperatures (between December and February) being a respectable 5.5°c. This, combined with average July/August of around 19.5°c, and Anjou’s frequent Indian summer conditions, ensures that autumn here is often extended well into October; ideal for late ripening Chenin.

The annual average rainfall is around 650mm per year (about half that of Bordeaux ) although individual seasons can fluctuate greatly, with the two extremes being 1990 (400mm) and 1966 (850mm). The fact that the vineyards lie on the north bank of the Loire means that they are at a higher altitude than those across the river in the Layon. This results in better exposure to summer breezes with the vineyards being generally cooler and suffering from less humidity than those across the river. In addition, the fact that the soils here are much less fertile means that whilst botrytis remains a possibility, the incidence of noble rot for the production of sweet wines is much less likely.

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