So here I am, rolling around half-drunk in the backseat of a classic Citroen roadster which is zipping along the course of the muddy Loire, while Lisa sits in front desperately trying to make sense of the French term for 'front-wheel drive' and our host keeps chirping the English words 'built to last' ("Bee-hlt tou lahst... beehlt tou lahhsst...").
How did I get here?
[CROSSFADE: A Street in Tours]
So we're doing the usual tourist thing in Tours, pillaging the local wineshops of their old bottles of Huet and spending long afternoons eating very large lunches, when we remember that the magnanimous impresario Joe Dressner has set us up with a mid-morning meeting with Francois Pinon in Vouvray. Having no car and no real inclination to drive one, we pile into a cab and say "Take us to Pinon, my good man!" and off we go, careening along the two-lane highway beside the lazy Loire towards the Hamlet (yes, officially certified Hamlet) of Vernou-Sûr-Brenne.
Naturally, we hit the wrong Pinon. Wouldn't you know it, there are two vignerons named Pinon in the immediate vicinity, and we've ended up at Michel's place, not Francois's. A few U-turns and some begging of directions from pedestrians later, we pull up a stony street to what looks like a ranch-style house atop a low rocky hill. Fortunately we've built some being-lost time into our schedule, and we're only five minutes or so past our appointed hour of ten-thirty. Mme. Pinon emerges somewhat warily to greet us, relaxes somewhat when we can at least communicate in our rudimentary French. We introduce ourselves as "Les amis de Joe Dressner," crossing our fingers that the response to that declaration won't be slammed doors, brandished shotguns and/or outraged villagers with torches. With Dressner you never know.
But no, everyone is perfectly happy to see us. M. Pinon sees the taxi and insists we send it away--he can give us a ride back, as he has appointments in town this afternoon. We gratefully accept.
Pinon has the air of the professional about him--he's friendly and laughs often but there is a precision and a reserve to his mien that, combined with a general tweedyness, suggests a scientist or professor of literature. He launches energetically into a fast-paced striding tour of the grounds, starting with the press and the two 5,000-liter tanks in the floor for catching the juice and letting it settle and clarify (I'm sure these have a name, but my French is limited and I don't catch it). Then the two 5,000 and one 10,000-liter fermentation tanks. From there it's a quick detour over to the field to hash out some issues with the guy riding the tractor. We meander around while this discussion goes on, gaping awestruck at the coop full of turkey-sized pigeons, wondering if their punier scabrous New York cousins would make gods of such colossi or just gang up on them and devour them for lunch.
After whatever tractor-related crisis that had arisen has been resolved, we bustle back to the dark cool caves and tasting room carved out of the chalky hills--he points out the parts that date back to the 1700s and the expansions he dug himself. A brief moment to savor the easygoing troglodytic lifestyle, then we sit down to talk and taste.
We start with the fizzies, the first off being the Pinon Vouvray Petillant NV: Smells of fresh-cut apples with a trace of breadiness, bright and pippin-crisp, a friendly easygoing glass of fizz, straightforward and lightly bubbly, turning lemony on the finish. Decent, fruity, quite gulpable.
Next is the vintage stuff, this one being a Pinon Vouvray Petillant 1996: Deeper and richer than the NV, less appley fresh-fruity, toastier and more complex. There's zippy acidity here, but it's clothed in velvety baked-bread-accented pear/apple fruit. Lightly frothy, quite complex and very nice indeed. He mentions that up to 70% of his production in any year can go into the sparklers, which aren't exported very much. I tell him I've never seen one in the States. He is not shocked to hear this.
As we taste the bubblies I broach the subject of biodynamie. No, he says, he's fully organic but not biodynamic yet, although every year he moves a little more in that direction. I say that to me, an average ignoramus, it seems like there's an odd streak of mysticism involved and he nods, then thinks about it a little more and shakes his head: no, the element of mysticism is only there on paper; in the fields it is all good practical work. "You think it sounds a little crazy, but then you taste the wines. I don't know why it works," he says, "But it works. It works." He's becoming enthused by the subject; he goes out and returns with what I suppose must be the official biodynamie calendar (it seems to be panagricultural, not just about grapes), shows us the periods (marked in white) where you're not allowed to touch the soil. "Every year a little more of this..." he says, "Perhaps someday, the whole thing."
Next up are the two cuvées of the demisec Cuvée Tradition, one with a little new oak for the domestic market, one without for export. First is the Pinon Vouvray Cuvée Tradition 2000 (Domestic): There is a light charcoal-smokiness to the usual minerality underlying the white and yellow fruit. It's interesting, but it takes some of the youthful flash out of the wine, the fruit has a muted quality that gives it more fullness and dignity than its unoaked sibling. It's quite tasty, but I do prefer the Pinon Vouvray Cuvée Tradition (Demisec) 2000 (Export). More freshness here, the fruit hasn't been subdued, apples and pear and white honey drizzled over rocks. Light touch of sweetness, the usual balance and harmony that carries through from the initial surge of friendly young fruit right up to the chalky accents on the finish. Very nice, I like this more than I've liked any Tradition since the wonderful 1997.
Pinon says he too likes the export cuvée better. I ask how 2000 was in general and he says it was a fine year. 1999 and 2001, more difficult. I ask if generally the French prefer a little more wood in their chenin than foreign devils do; he considers for a moment, then says no, not really.
Pinon Vouvray Cuvée Tradition 1999: This one isn't as lively as either of the first two, a little flatter and more diffuse, seems older than it ought, the quartzy minerality muted, the lemon-apple fruit quiet and seemingly a touch oxidized. I mention that and he nods, says "You're tasting the year," as in a difficult one. Even in an off year the wine has the usual fine balance and the sense of completeness that I find in all these wines; it's just that there isn't as much substance.
Lisa has been fretting since we first arrived here about encountering her nemesis, a TCA-tainted bottle. She asks Pinon how to say 'corked' in French, which turns out to be pretty much the way you'd think. (On a side note, we didn't have one single corked bottle during our eight days in France, a small miracle for which we're very thankful).
Pinon Vouvray 1er Trie 1996: I love the bright stony nose on this wine--chalk and lemon and white peach, a trace of honeysuckle, vivid and shiny-smelling. More intensity in the piehole, razor's-edge balance, light to medium sweetness backed by happy acidity and a tight swirl of crystalline flavors that rush right up at you and don't fade an iota through the tangy rainwatery finish. Oh so tasty. A couple of years ago we turned a nongeek into a protogeek with this wine, and it's in fine form today.
Desperately searching for something trenchant to say, I mention that this wine isn't very botrytised. Yes, you need more sun for botrytis than you got in '96, he says. Then he jumps up and strides off, returning with a 500-ml bottle. "There's the botrytis from that year. Very small production, less than 1% of the total."
Pinon Vouvray Cuvée Botrytisée 1996: Wow. Takes the intensity up a notch. This is wild stuff, startlingly concentrated and coiled. In the same mold as the 1er Trie, but larger and dusted throughout with spicy-hay botrytical notes. A sip, and the flavors are nervy, tense and stony, white peach and rock dust, all hung on a spring-steel spine. Quite sweet and yes, there is botrytis here--not the overflow of the stuff that's evident in the 1997 Botrytisée, just enough to add seasoning to an already complex and balanced wine. Truly breathtaking young Vouvray that will outlive everyone reading this. "Almost no sulphur," he adds as an afterthought, "Just a tiny, tiny bit. You have a winery in California whose bottles say 'minimal process,' that is what I try to do as well."
I mention how I thought the 1997 moëlleux was one of the all-time great bargain buys and he gets misty about that vintage. "Incredible! One solid month of sunshine! Perhaps that's normal in California, but not here... the greatest year any of us had seen... more sugar, more acidity, more botrytis, more everything, more more more," he smiles a little sheepishly. "We thought it was always going to be like that, but since then..." he shrugs again.
He leaves again while we enjoy the Botrytisée and is gone for an especially long time, finally returning with a bottle with a chalk question mark drawn on it. He pulls the cork, and pours out a gold-amber wine, gives it a sniff, then pours us each a glassful and toasts "To the rest of your trip in France."
We all sit smelling the wine for awhile, taking in the aromas of mature Vouvray--leather and honey and apricots, truffles and tea. Beautiful. Smiles start breaking out, small chuckles. We catch each others' eyes and smile and shake our heads in wondrous appreciation. "What do you think of it?" he asks. "Pas mal," I say. This amuses him, which is good. I sip at it; there's a leathery-honeyed taste up front, along with light sweetness, then the midpalate turns towards a duet of truffles underneath, dried apricots, quince and lemon tea above. Truly striking mature chenin. I ask if it's moëlleux or a demisec, as tastewise it seems to fall somewhere in between. "It's Vouvray" is the answer. "On paper it's moëlleux, but they tended to just throw it all together back then."
He doesn't ask, but I'm ready to guess it's the '49. Turns out to be the Domaine des Douveliers (Claude Pinon) Vouvray Moëlleux 1953. The wine is wearing its age very well but it hasn't the uncanny freshness that the '59 had a few months ago. I ask him about the name 'Domaine des Douveliers,' and he shrugs "My father. I don't use it."
He swirls the '53 around his mouth, considers it thoughfully and mutters "Superbe" under his breath. I agree with this appraisal. So does Lisa. Nobody spits.
We've been chatting awhile now and he has appointments to keep, so he packs us off with a bottle of the '96 sparkler and the 96 Botrytisée, cheerily waves off our attempt at payment ("Sorry, cash register's broken..."), and asks that we be careful with the '96 sweetie. "Remember, only a tiny bit of sulfur, only a tiny bit..." Lisa, whose French is better than mine, is perplexed by this, unsure of what he's getting at. "Refermenting?" I ask. Perhaps he's worried that the bottle will burst on the plane or if we store it somewhere warm. "Yes, re-fermenting," he says, relieved, "It's fragile."
We follow him out to his car like baby ducks, but as he's putting the key in the door he stops and thinks a minute. "Shall we take this... or the other?"
"The other? You mean the tractor?" Lisa asks, only half joking.
"Not the tractor, the Traction!" he says, eyes lighting up.
I have no clue what this means, thinking perhaps he's correcting Lisa's French, and I have a vision of us rumbling into town perched precariously on the top of his tractor, but he walks us around the corner and towards a beautiful old roadster tucked away next to a wall. Voilá Le Traction! We pile in, her in the front me in the back, he starts up the engine with a throaty purr and we're off, me rolling around the backseat on every curve.
From here the tale of the Traction Avant begins: the first front-wheel drive car (at least the first one in France), this one is a 1950, just a few years older than the wine we lingered over. "And it's holding up just as well!" says Lisa. "Built to last," I say in English because I can't think how to say that in French, and he is puzzled until Lisa comes up with a French approximation. He seems to enjoy the sound of the English phrase and rolls it around his mouth a few times: "Oui, bee-hlt tou lahst, beehlt tou lahhhst..." and I wonder if we've got a new slogan here.
After a leisurely, dreamlike drive along the Loire from Brenne to Vouvray he drops us off, gives a last wave and disappears in a cloud of dust, leaving two grateful and slightly tipsy tourists unable to stop grinning foolishly for the rest of the day.