Le Rocher des Violettes, Montlouis
|Country & Region||France, Loire Valley|
La pureté et la précision des vins, dans les deux couleurs, n’ont aujourd’hui que peu d’équivalents dans la région. (The purity and precision of the wines, in both colors, have very little that is equal in the region.)
—Guide to the Best Wines of France, La Revue du Vin, 2019
Le Rocher des Violettes’ Xavier Weisskopf has had a remarkably precocious track record in the world of wine. He went to school in Chablis, where his passion for the vine took root and led him to the wine school in Beaune. After earning a degree in viticulture and enology, he went to work for the dynamic, hard-driving Louis Barruol at Château de Saint Cosme in Gigondas. He quickly became Louis’ chef du cave, and made four vintages there. Louis told me in no uncertain terms that Xavier was the best he’d ever had.
In January 2005, Xavier bought 22 acres of vines in the Saint Martin le Beau sector of Montlouis and an enormous, raw 15th century stone cellar—originally a quarry dug deep into the Loire’s chalk limestone bank in Amboise. Since that time he has increased his holdings of Le Rocher des Violettes to just under 40 acres of vines, with most being classified in AOP Montlouis while the rest are divided between Touraine (7.5 acres) and Vin de France (2.5 acres) appellations. The vines are scattered about in various parcels and were planted at different times, but the majority were put into the ground before WWII. There’s Chenin, followed by small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Grolleau for rosé, and Malbec (Cot).
Montlouis faces Vouvray across the broad Loire. These are Touraine’s two great white wine appellations, and both have plateaus where most of the vineyards grow high above the river. Montlouis has somewhat more sand and less clay in its soils and its wines, very generally, can consequently be fresher and straighter, requiring more time in bottle to round out. Vouvray’s advantage in clay favors botrytis, which can add any number of layers of fat to a wine.
The other thing about Montlouis is that it is roughly one-fifth the size of its illustrious neighbor, and until the AC laws created “Montlouis” in 1939 its wines were sold as Vouvray. Ever since, Montlouis has been overshadowed, but these days this underdog appellation has become a hotbed for Touraine’s leading young Turks (in part because of less expensive vineyards–which, post 2015, are no longer much less expensive than Vouvray’s vineyards). Enter Xavier.
He’s a quiet man who knows what he wants to do and how to go about it. He left the Rhône in favor of the Loire because of his love of Chenin. He converted to organic farming in 2009, and now plows his rows and doesn’t use herbicides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers–he’s hardcore about organics. He prunes his younger vines for low yields of 30-35 hectoliters per hectare (the old vines give about 25 hl/ha), and harvests by hand. He favors 500-liter demi-muid barrels over steel tanks for the exchange of oxygen the wood permits, which is particularly useful for Chenin because its wine is prone to reduction. He’s careful to preserve fruit without letting oak intrude; he likes his wines to be fresh, mineral, and long and vertical rather than fat.
In 2014 Xavier moved to new digs in Dierre, next to Saint Martin le Beau in the southwest sector of Montlouis, to be next to his vines. He put in a new, gravity-operated cellar, burrowing into the chalk hillside to do so. He also revamped the house. Upon exposing a timber, he serendipitously discovered that a carpenter had written: Constructed in 1864, a good year for bread and wine! That quote has been transcribed onto the wall of one of his three daughters’ bedroom.
|Montlouis Cuvée Touche Mitaine (sec)||Chenin Blanc||From a seven and a half acre parcel named 'Touch of the Mitten' because it’s cold up there during pruning season. Planted primarily ini 1979, this is Xavier’s youngest parcel of Chenin, growing in limestone flint soil. This is normally raised entirely in older barrels, although the very productive year of 2015 outpaced his supply of barrels so a third was raised in steel. The élevage goes for six months with regular lees stirring, after which the wine is bottled to preserve fruit and elegance. Production averages 1,875 cases.|
|Montlouis Cuvée Negrette (sec)||Chenin Blanc||This is the pre-WWII old-vine cuvée, brought up in demi-muid barrels for 18 to 20 months with regular bâtonnage. About 30% of those barrels are new. The grapes come from two adjacent parcels, one of which is named Négrette (nothing to do with the grape in the Southwest), that total 3.7 acres. The topsoil is a mix of sand, clay and limestone, and runs about eighteen inches deep to rest on more than six feet of dense clay, which in turn rests on the tuffeau. The wine needs aeration in its youth to show its stuff and is best decanted. It is dry, richly layered and textured, and terrifically mineral. Production averages 450 cases.|
|Montlouis Cuvée Les Borderies (tendre)||Chenin Blanc||This is a common vineyard name, referring to--you guessed it--borders. In this case, the parcel is up against the Forest of Amboise, along the northern edge of this sector of the Montlouis appellation. Xavier has three contiguous parcels of Chenin here, one planted in 1992, another in 1965, and the third pre-World War II. The wine is raised for six months in older demi-muid barrels. The range for residual sugar for demi-sec is 8-30 g/l; Les Borderies stays around 10 g/l, hence the tendre designation, which is the informal class between sec and demi-sec. 1,000 cases annually.|
|Montlouis Le Grand Poirier Moelleux||Chenin Blanc||Xavier makes this late harvest wine only in good years. Grand Poirier is the name of a parcel located on sandy top soils sitting on top of clay. He has four plantations here, and the vines are between 40 and 70 years old. The wine is raised in 500 and 600 liter barrels. In 2015 the residual sugar level was 62 g/l but SO2 additions were relatively low, thanks in part to a relatively early bottling (May 2017). This wine was not made in 2016 or in 2017.|
|Touraine Rosé||Pinot Noir with 25% Cot and 25% Grolleaux||These grapes all come from Xavier's own vines. He raises the wine in steel tanks and makes around 200 cases each year.|
|Vin de France Cabernet Franc||Cabernet Franc||After vintage 2016, any 100% Cabernet Franc wine made outside of the appellations of Bourgueil, St-Nicolas de Bourgueil, Chinon, and Saumur must be classified vin de france rather than AOP Touraine. Cabernet under the appellation of Touraine has to now be blended with Cot and/or Gamay, and Xavier wants a pure cab franc. He has always made a 100% cab franc from a 2.5 acre parcel planted in 1980, and beginning with vintage 2017 he is blending this with 2.5 acres' worth of old vine cab franc that he buys in Chinon from a walled parcel in the commune of Ligré. This is raised in older barrels and production averages 650 cases.|
|Touraine rouge Côt Vieilles Vignes||Malbec||Cot, with a silent "t," is the local name for Malbec. How it came to be grown in Touraine is a mystery, but it's been there for some time. François 1er, France's first king during the first half of the 1500's, is said to have favored Cot above all other wine. Xavier's wine comes from five acres divided into seven parcels, the youngest of which is more than 70 years old and the oldest of which was planted in 1891. He makes the wine with whole clusters, and raises it for roughly six months in older barrels. It is deep, dark, and dense, yet surprisingly elegant and floral. Production averages 450 cases.|
|Touraine Rouge Pinot Noir||Pinot Noir||Xavier planted these vines in 2011 from sélection massale cuttings taken from Comte Armand’s Clos Epenots. Beginning in 2017, Xavier began to work with up to a third of whole clusters during the fermentation of this wine to gain body and texture. He ages it in older barrels for around 13 months. Vineyard surface is three-quarters of an acre.|
|Pétillant Originel||Chenin Blanc||Some would call this pétillant naturel or méthode ancestrale, which is loosely the same thing: a sparkling wine made with fermenting must that is put in bottle with its native yeast and without any sugar additions (no chapitalization at initial fermentation, no sweet yeast liquor added for secondary in bottle, and no sweet dosage at disgorgement—the bottles are simply topped off with the same wine and corked). Indeed, Originel is made without any additions or modern interventions of any kind, a requirement enshrined by its makers and, as of 2007, by law—for Pétillant Originel is now a legal class of wine in France (pétillant naturel and méthode ancestrale are not codified). Xavier joined three other Montlouis growers and took the legal dictates one step further by drawing up a quality charter mandating low yields, greater ripeness than normally attained for sparkling wine, and a minimum of nine months on the lees before disgorgement. Subsequently, one other grower joined their group, and currently they are the only five producers in Montlouis making Originel. Xavier’s is made from old-vine Chenin growing in AC Touraine, and it rests on its lees for 24 months before the first disgorgement. Thereafter a portion of the stock is disgorged every two months until 36 months, thus a given vintage sees six disgorgements.
Xavier made no Pétillant in 2011 because the vintage offered inadequate acidity, and none was made in 2012 because the total volume of wine produced at the domain was too low. He did make it in 2013, but the degree of alcohol was below the minimum decreed in the group charter, so he labeled it simply as Pétillant rather than as Pétillant Originel.
|Vin de France Chenin Blanc||Chenin Blanc||One hand giveth, another taketh away. In 2016 frost decimated the crop in Montlouis, so much so that the INAO granted special dispensation to the appellation's growers that allowed them to buy grapes or must that year without the normal négociant license. These farmers needed something to sell, after all, in order to eat. To his relief, Xavier managed to buy must from a grower in Vouvray. To his disbelief, he then learned that he couldn't label it as such because the syndicate in Vouvray had passed an ordinance forbidding any use of the appellation name for a wine that is not made...within the appellation. Vouvray decided recently to jealously guard its turf, and to hell with the fact that wine made across the river in Montlouis used to be called Vouvray before the appellations came into being. Thus here we have a lowly Vin de France wine, a one-off, made in a year of frost from grapes grown organically in a patch of ground in Vouvray. But tell no one.|