Le Rocher des Violettes, Montlouis

Le Rocher des Violettes label

Country & RegionFrance, Loire Valley
ProducerXavier Weisskopf

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 32 acres of vines, split between AC Montlouis (22 acres) and AC Touraine (10 acres). 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).

Xavier_Weisskopf of Le Rocher des Violettes

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 AC has become a hotbed for Touraine’s leading young Turks (in part because of less expensive vineyards). Enter Xavier.

Le Rocher des Violettes vineyards

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 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.  He’s very much of a young vigneron to watch.

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 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!

The Wines

Montlouis Cuvée Touche Mitaine (sec)
Chenin From a 10-acre parcel named 'Touch of the Mitten' because it’s cold up there during pruning season. At 40+ years of age, 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 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 ranges from 500-750 cases.
Montlouis Cuvée Les Borderies (tendre)Chenin From a 2.5-acre parcel named Les Borderies, where most of the vines date from 1922 and the average age is 80. 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.
Touraine rouge Cabernet Franc
Cabernet FrancRemember, Xavier made four vintages at Saint Cosme (2000-2004) and he knows how to make red wine! This comes from 2.5 acres of vines that were planted in 1980 and is raised in older barrels for roughly 12 months. 300 cases annually.
Touraine rouge Côt Vieilles Vignes
Malbec Malbec (locally called Côt with a silent “t”): This comes from two parcels of Malbec totaling 3.5 acres. The vines are all very old, with the oldest section planted in 1891! In ripe years, this is made with up to 100% whole clusters, which helps a lot in avoiding reduction problems. In cooler years, this is de-stemmed (for example, 2014 was entirely de-stemmed; 2015 was entirely whole cluster). The élevage lasts for roughly six months and takes place in older barrels. This wine is deep, dark and dense, yet surprisingly elegant and floral. Not for the shy of heart.
Touraine Rouge Pinot NoirPinot NoirXavier 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. Vineyard surface is three-quarters of an acre. 100 cases annually.
Pétillant OriginelChenin 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.