A Whiff of Paradise: Clos de la Coulée de Serrant 1983
In 2016 the brilliant wine writer Matt Kramer posted in his on-line Wine Spectator “Drinking Out Loud” column a piece entitled “Is Chenin Blanc the Great Forgotten Grape?” Based upon his tasting of Chenin Blanc wines from New Zealand and South Africa — some of which he found “nothing short of astonishing” — he concluded: “Chenin Blanc is the 21st-century’s great forgotten grape.”
The first wine I ever drank with Matt Kramer was a Chenin Blanc. The publishing house at which I worked was just then publishing Matt’s first book, Making Sense of Wine (1989), and I took him and his editor to dinner at the Grove Street Café in Manhattan’s West Village, which at the time had no liquor license and was BYOB. (Anyone who knew me knew that I and my expense account went there as often as possible. I loved it so much I even took my wife and paid my own money, which is not something people with expense accounts are very comfortable doing.)
I had brought along several wines, but I remember only one, and I had chosen it because I thought it was wonderful and that it was so esoteric that Matt Kramer had probably never heard of it and would be forever grateful to me for having introduced him to it.
It was the first wine we opened and tasted. I waited for Matt’s opinion. It was immediately rendered: “Infanticide!”
I’d never heard that term used for a wine (one drunk too young, obviously) and was both shocked and shocked (first at that word and second that my almost 10-year-old white wine had been by so great an expert pronounced too young to drink).
Matt knew the wine (though not in that vintage, for obvious reasons) very well (as, I have discovered, not all that many wine “experts” do to this day): a 1981 Coulée de Serrant.
I had no valid excuse for having brought along a wine we killed in its youth merely by drinking it. However, my excuse for having imagined, mistakenly, that Matt Kramer might not know the wine at all was the fact that the wine had been dumped on the market and I had bought it at a great discount on Long Island. (I paid perhaps $6 a bottle; I had done some research on the wine and bought 2 cases of the 1981 and 1 case of the 1983 — I still own a few bottles of each vintage.) I figured so great a wine writer as Matt Kramer would know nothing about a wine so unceremoniously scuttled into the great sea of wine buoying up the island of Manhattan.
In Kramer’s aforementioned article on Chenin Blanc, he writes, “The motherhouse of Chenin Blanc is France’s Loire Valley, where Chenin Blanc rules absolutely in such districts as Savennières.”
Coulée de Serrant is considered the greatest wine of Savennières and, indeed, one of the finest dry white wines in the world. It’s the best I’ve ever drunk, but I still have a lot to go. It’s held to be rivaled in quality only by Chateau d’Yquem and Montrachet. You can buy a bottle of the former for an average price of $480. A Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet will set you back about $4600. Coulée de Serrant averages about $80 per bottle; this old 1983 can be bought (in Europe) for around $130.
The Coulée de Serrant vineyard is owned by the Joly family. It consists of only 7 hectares (17 acres) and was first planted in 1130 by Cistercian monks, whose monastery is still on the property. Its vines are between 35 and 80 years old. They have since 1984 been cultivated biodynamically, which has led to some controversy, for there are some tasters who feel the wines are as a result (like many recent white Burgundies) becoming prematurely oxidized.
Nonetheless, as Jacqueline Friedrich reports in her informed and useful Wines of France: The Essential Guide for Savvy Shoppers (2006), the director of the Coulée de Serrant domaine suggests decanting the wine for two days (!) before it is served. Friedrich herself suggests several hours — unusual enough in a white wine and indicative of its withheld power.
Not so, in terms of oxidation, our example here, which I will admit to having enjoyed (infanticide be damned!) when it was only 8 years old and certainly did this very week, when it was only 32 years old. As Matt Kramer says, these wines “can age for decades; I’ve had 50-year-old Loire Chenin Blancs the freshness of which is nothing short of astounding.” The fine blogger Peter Liem wrote in 2008 of “a spectacular bottle of 1961 [Coulée de Serrant], its complex layers of flavor ranging from dried apricot to blanched almond to chestnut honey, all infused by a hauntingly fragrant minerality. Very few wines in the world can finish with such incredible length and detail as this one did.”
Our 1983, poured into a medium-sized white Burgundy glass, was thickly gold in color, which was not a surprise to me but might be for someone who’s not had a 30+-year-old Chenin Blanc. It looks a bit murky with age and oxygen.
The nose, as they say, actually leapt out of the glass. This was also not unexpected. This wine has always greeted its lucky imbiber (me, at any rate) with a whiff of paradise, if paradise smells like honey and some kind of unidentifiable citrus, as well as stones (minerals) and petrichor, which is that almost indescribable smell of earth and mist that seems to rise from the soil and descend from the clouds when rain begins to fall on a warm summer day.
When I tasted the wine, which I had not done in several years, I thought, on first sip and mouth-rinse and swallow, that it had lost utterly its vaunted acidity. But, no, soon the honey-sense had passed from nose to mouth, and the wine proved, as it always had, to be both tart and sweet, if tartness is dryness and sweetness is the bursting into the throat and brain not of sugar but of fruit. (Wine is, after all, liquid fruit, fermented.)
It was drunk with haddock baked with shallots and with Campari tomatoes (which are not acidic like many tomatoes but could have been and not disturbed the wine at all). Accompanying it was broccolini, which is not to be confused with broccoli and is earthy where broccoli can be bitter; and we know by now that this wine is earthy and so it welcomed the broccolini and vice versa.
It was a wonderful meal accompanied by an extraordinary wine, which has become at least somewhat more widely known than when I bought this bottle so many years ago.
Matt Kramer writes in the final paragraph of his piece, “Chenin Blanc can be great and yet is largely forgotten by the world’s fine-wine lovers. Who cellars it? Do you?”
I do. Maybe now you will. And 30 (heck, 50) years from now you will have your own odd bottle.
First published December 2016