We’re excited to report that we just landed in France and are about to embark on a barnstorming tour of the Loire Valley, Burgundy, and the Rhône with our friend Bill Elbring of North Berkeley Imports—one of our go-to distributors of French wines (Elbring, by the way, is Gold Watch material at North Berkeley; he’s been with the company for 18 years). Not only are we casting around for exclusive offers for our subscribers, we’re engaging in the time-honored sommelier tradition known as the boondoggle: three-a-day winery visits; tastings with winemakers; pork products at every meal; and the warm, satisfying glow of beautiful settings and cultural “full immersion.” Cliché as it may sound, nothing compares to tasting a wine in the place where it is made; we started right away, driving straight to Chinon from Charles de Gaulle for a visit with Jean-Max Manceau of Domaine de Noiré. What a great way to lead things off: Jean-Max and his wines were the perfect antidote to jet/car lag.

Headquartered along the Vienne (a Loire tributary) just outside of Chinon proper, Jean-Max is just down the road from Bernard Baudry and Philippe Alliet, with the vineyards around his home and winery supplemented by holdings elsewhere in the zone. His entire lineup is crafted and bottled according to soil type, of which Chinon has three: alluvial gravel closest to the riverbank(s); sandy clay with flintstone higher up; and the classic Loire Valley limestone—a.k.a. tuffeau—and clay at the highest elevations. Jean-Max and his wife, Odile, bought the property in 2001 and have since converted to organic viticulture (certified AB in 2014). He is a sunny guy with a warm smile under his lush grey mustache—and his wines all have the same brightness and energy.

Only about 2%-3% of all wine made in the Chinon AOC is white, but if Jean-Max’s two whites are any indication, there’s a case to be made for planting more Chenin Blanc here. Sourced from vineyards on limestone, the two bottlings differ in their production: One, called “Amphora,” is fermented in terra cotta amphorae and aged on lees for about 6 months before bottling; the other, “Noiré Blanc,” is fermented and aged in used 400-liter demi-muid barrels. We tasted the Amphora 2016 and loved its electricity and aromatic assertiveness: lots of apple and quince notes presented with racy freshness. Noiré Blanc was richer and rounder on the palate, with more flintstone minerality and overall savor. Both were real-deal dry Chenins: impeccably clean, impressive, and, like all Jean-Max’s wines, very well-priced.

On the red side, the 2017 Chinon “Soif de Tendresse” led things off; this is a wine we’ve offered in several vintages and is one of the most refreshing, fruit-driven Cabernet Francs out there. This stuff is bottled joy: dark-fruited and plush, but fresh, mineral, and lifted. It’s Noiré’s entry-level red Chinon, from gravel soils, typically macerated on its skins for just six days (but not lacking at all in robust color). It is prime “daily drinker” material—lightweight yet full flavored.

 The two step-up Chinons Jean-Max produces are “Elégance”—grown on sandy/clay and flint and showing some flint-derived smokiness—and “Caractère,” grown on limestone. We tasted the 2015 Elégance, which is fermented and aged in tank only but held back in bottle in the cellar for two years before release. It’s more textured and layered than “Soif,” with lots of smoke and earth backing the dark-berried fruit; the ripeness of 2015 is in evidence but it has great balance and length. And the 2014 “Caractère,” aged in mostly used barrels and also held back in the cellar, was the star of the show: deeply fruity, mineral, and floral, with velvety texture and just a hint of the minty/menthol pyrazine character so readily associated with Loire Cabernet Franc. The wine was just released in France and we’re scheming as we speak to get a pallet shipped directly to us (North Berkeley, for reasons I find inexplicable, doesn’t typically bring that bottling to the US). Really top-tier Chinon and not expensive. Hats off to Jean-Max, his mustache, and the delicious array of pork products he so generously served us (rillette, sauçisson, and especially the rillon—long-cooked pork belly served at room temp and gloriously laden with its congealed rendered fat).

Some photos in this post (and many more to come) were shot by our buddy Darren Loveland, who’s along for the ride for a few days to catch us in action along the way. Stay tuned for more as soon as we find the time and wifi access to post! — David Lynch

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