Sixteen years after Jacqueline Friedrich named him (or rather, him and his father, with whom he shared co-billing on the label) as an already excellent source for Montlouis in her seminal work A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire, and a dozen years following his first entry in La Review du Vin de France's Le Guide des Meilleurs Vins de France (2000), François Chidaine is still not quite a household name. Unless you're a serious Loire Valley and/or chenin blanc geek, in which case you know that he is without peer among Montlouis producers, and really, at this point, should be considered the equal of the leading lights across the river in Vouvray, Domaine du Clos Naudin (Philippe Foreau) and Domaine Huët.
From the outset, he has been characterized in the French press as an "idealist" using the most natural methods possible in the vineyard; indeed, he was working organically as far back as the mid- to late-nineties, began the conversion to biodynamics in 1999, and became certified biodynamic nearly a decade ago in 2003. I've only met him once, at a trade tasting in Los Angeles a few years ago organized by his California importer, Chez Panisse alum Michael Sullivan who for the past 20 years has run his company Beaune Imports from right here in Berkeley. Chidaine struck me as somewhat diffident--perhaps his English wasn't all that great--and not terribly charismatic or dynamic. I couldn't have been more wrong: he's nothing if not dynamic, having ambitiously and cleverly more than tripled the size of his domaine over the years from nine hectares when he first landed on my radar to 37 now.
His most brilliant stroke of vineyard expansion is undoubtedly his acquisition of the Clos Baudoin, an iconic terroir in Vouvray that had originally belonged to Philippe Poniatowski, a real Polish prince (and direct descendant of Poland's last king) whose family had moved to France in 1855. The site is truly one of the jewels of the Loire vignoble, rivaling, according to many in the know, Huët's Clos du Bourg for designation as a grand cru, should Vouvray's vineyards ever be so categorized. As the prince aged, he became increasingly unable to care properly for the vines in the clos, and without any heirs, he began looking for someone to buy the vineyard. Initially, a local bottling company expressed interest, but Chidaine heard about the possible impending sale and swiftly elbowed his way into the negotiations. He convinced the prince to let him take over farming and vinification for five years while Poniatowski retained ownership. At the end of that period, Chidaine exercised an option to buy and became the sole owner of the Clos Baudoin. At the same time, his cousin Nicolas-Martin, who is now intimately involved in all aspects of the Chidaine enterprise, moved into a small house situated within the clos. The health of this vineyard, despite an average vine age in excess of 70 years, is now better than it's ever been for at least a generation, and the wines issuing from it are, with all due respect to the prince, an order of magnitude more impressive than they ever were under Poniatowski's stewardship.
Chidaine has since acquired other parcels in Vouvray as well, one from the Le Bouchet parcel of 80-year-old vines which is always sweet to at least some degree, and another that ends up as Les Argiles and is always vinified dry (as is the Clos Baudoin, by the way) or close to it.
But it's his Montlouis cuvées through which Chidaine has achieved a certain level of renown. Les Choisilles is not from a specific vineyard plot, but is, rather, an estate blend of bunches left to hang longer on the vine to attain higher levels of ripeness; that said, it's nonetheless always made dry. Clos du Breuil is from a single parcel on one of the highest points in the appellation where the soils are largely flint, with a bit of clay strewn over a bedrock of limestone, and it, too, is always rendered dry. The relatively rare Les Bournais bottling is the last of Chidaine's Montlouis dry cuvées, and he believes that in time this vineyard could emerge as his greatest terroir. It is certainly one of the most mineral-inflected wines in a portfolio known for minerality. In some years, he harvests separately the fruit from a small planting within Les Bournais, called Franc de Pied, which consists of old, ungrafted vines on their own rootstock. The result is a dry wine both massive and mineral, and in need of several decades' ageing to really strut its stuff.
Chidaine also vinifies a number of Montlouis in an off-dry to slightly sweet style. Clos Habert comes from a parcel located at the top of the appellation, just on the line where the silex (flint) gives way to broken chalk and clay. The 60- to 90-year-old vines have roots that plunge deep into the limestone bedrock bringing up nutrients that are unique to this site. Always vinified in a demi-sec style, Clos Habert is among Chidaine's most prestigious sites. The wine shows notes of honey, lichee and citrus in the nose which lead into a wine which, although possesses residual sugar, comes across the palate with delicate, but unctuous precision leaving a trail of crystalline minerality. Les Tuffeaux is, like the Les Choisilles, a cuvee, not a named vineyard site. And like the Les Choisilles is made from fairly late-picked bunches which are then made into a demi-sec.
In truly great years where botrytis has ensured a good supply of nobly rotten fruit, Chidaine makes a stunning Moëlleux which he has christened Les Lys, which is very expensive and worth it. Chidaine makes a couple of simple Touraines, a red (a third each cabernet franc, côt, and pinot d'aunis) and a white (all sauvignon blanc). Finally, he makes three different sparkling wines: a tiny amount of a Touraine pétillant rosé from gamay; a Vouvray pétillant; and Montlouis Brut Méthode Traditionelle that he finishes off in an ultra-brut style, i.e., with no dosage.
Not all Chidaine wines are available at any given point in time, but we try to keep as many cuvées as is practical on hand at all times. Like German riesling, these are simply some of the finest white wines you can lay your hands on from any region, anywhere in the world, and because the vast majority of wine drinkers has yet to catch, they remain some of the most staggering values you can imagine.
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