Savennières, A Place of Soap…and of Wine

 


Savennières is the French derivation of Latin’s “vicus saponaris”, which means place of the soap. It almost sounds like it should be the birthplace of the trendy bath suds retailer Sabon, but its roots – rather literally – have much older grounding. This tiny appellation’s name stems from the soapwort flowers that bloom around the same time the grapes do. Oddly, it might seem, the grape that flowers here is not particularly perfumed.

That grape is Chenin Blanc. This noble variety is the region’s most distinguished – and only – grape variety today. However, it didn’t arrive in the valley until 1496. So, perhaps what used to bloom in spring with the soapwort was more charasmatically aromatic. After all, there was certainly wine in the Loire well before the Middle Ages. The remains of wine clinging to clay pot shards suggest that wine production began here in the second or third century BCE. 
Today Chenin Blanc is not so loved in France. There are only 9,000 hectares (ha), of which 5,000 ha are found in the Loire. By comparison, South Africa has 18,000 ha. The grape knows about being abandoned. Part of the Messile grape family, its father is known to be Traminer, aka Savagnin. However, its mother remains unknown. 
 
Perhaps this rough road set it up to thrive well on its own. In Savennières, it gives many different expressions on a chaotic palette of varied soils where two tectonic plates, the Massif Amorican and the Bassin Parisien, meet.
 
After World War II, many of the producers set themselves up to make high volume wines. That is what the Parisien cafés were demanding: fresh, easy and cheap. However, on the poor soils, that didn’t work out so well.
 
Savennières defied the current trend, came up through the ranks and received its AOC stripes in 1952. The appellation lives according to very strict standards. Its maximum yield is especially low and its minimum alcohol is quite high. By forcing the vines to make more concentrated expressions of Chenin Blanc, these producers naturally make more age-worthy wines. True tenders of the vine, today 85% of 36 growers farm organically or biodynamically.
 
One change since the dawn of the appellation 62 years ago is that since 1996, the wines no longer have to be vinified within the AOC boundaries. This has opened the window for producers across the river in Layon to cross the river and make Savennières as well.
 
We don’t see a lot of these wines in the US, nor do many export markets. The sales from the cellar door are high. And, not only do these producers sell their famous Savennières, many sell vin de table. There has never been a négociant culture here, so winemakers even at the very top end have also made vin en vrac (fill-your-own jug wine), in order to cater to every last possible consumer. But, if you are determined to get your hands on a few bottles, here are sublime reference points worth seeing out.
 
Patrick Baudoin Bellevue 2011
 
 

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