Nonetheless, the hallmark elegance and balanced structure behind this wine shines through.
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The story of Clau de Nell is one of timing and serendipity. In 2006, Anne-Claude Leflaive – winemaker and owner of the famed Domaine Leflaive in Burgundy – had just established a marketing company to promote and communicate the benefits of biodynamic agriculture and viticulture. While touring biodynamically farmed vineyards in the Loire Valley, she discovered Domaine Clau de Nell. The owners of the estate, Claude and Nelly Pichard were young winemakers who had rapidly established themselves as the “rising stars” of the region. Unfortunately, financial circumstances prevented the couple from producing wines and in 2008, Anne-Claude and her husband Christian Jacques bought the centuries-old Domaine. The estate is located in the village of Ambillou-Chateau in Anjou, France. The estate vineyard is a long contiguous parcel – 19.77 acres to be exact – which is located on a south-facing knoll at 295 feet above sea level. From the top of the vineyard one can see the Loire River and, from a distance, the Atlantic Ocean 75 miles away. The vines are planted on sandstone grit and red flint over tuffeau (the soft limestone indigenous to the region) and range from 30-90 years old. In 2011, Anne-Claude and Christian bought a two acre parcel called “Clos des Noyers” to which they planted Chenin Blanc, and in 2012 they signed a long-term lease for additional Chenin fruit from a two acre, biodynamically farmed parcel located in Saumur. The estate vineyard is primarily planted to Cabernet Franc (12.35 acres), followed by Grolleau (4 acres) and Cabernet Sauvignon (3.42 acres). The Chenin planted in 2012 and 2013 in Clos des Noyers and the leased vineyard will come into production in 2015. In 2009, estate manager Sylvain Potin was hired. He keeps yields at the Domaine low (less than 30 h/h). Harvest is done by hand. The fruit is destemmed prior to cuvaison, which lasts for 20-30 days. The goal is not extraction but proper flavor development – the caps are gently punched down and pump overs are kept to a minimum. The wines age for 18 months in five year old Burgundy oak casks in the estate’s centuries old limestone cellar. The wines are bottled unfined, unfiltered on a fruit day, as defined by the biodynamic calendar. Domaine Clau de Nell is part of the prestigious Renaissance des Appellations association and is Demeter certified as 100% biodynamic.
(70% Cabernet Franc/30% Cabernet Sauvignon). Estate grapes were harvested from 60 year old Cabernet Sauvignon vines and 40 year old Cabernet Franc vines, fermented with native yeasts and macerated for 20 days. The percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon will vary slightly depending on the vintage. The Cabernet Sauvignon lends additional structure and tannins to the Cabernet Franc – this is a different, more powerful wine than the 100% Cabernet Franc.
The property comprises 10 continuous hectares of vines on a hillock surrounded by open countryside. The highest point of Clau de Nell offers a glimpse of the Loire in the distance. From here, an uninterrupted view unveils the sky and the river on the horizon, as well as rows of Grolleau, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chenin Blanc.
These horizontal lines gradually blend together in the blue-coloured morning mist. Under the midday sun, the systematic alignment of the vineyard’s stakes connects the sky to the earth. The land here is imposing with a relief marked by ploughed furrows. Its fresh and supple earth gives the impression of living and breathing.
The trees bordering the vineyard display a rich and delicate palette, comprising different shades of green. In this area, the natural surroundings freely express strength and sensitivity. Passers-by frequently stop here of their own accord, just to take in the ambience.
One just has to follow the path outlining Clau de Nell to arrive at the estate. The scenery is once again surprising, indeed, the location’s troglodyte caves have been converted into natural wine cellars. Their light-coloured tufa limestone surface illuminates the walls. Well-protected in both winter and summer alike, the oak barrels are always maintained at the right temperature. Sometimes on very windy days, spray from the far-away Atlantic Ocean mixes with the earth’s fragrances. This location boasts a truly unique atmosphere.
Nature is essential at Clau de Nell, where it is a philosophy of life. Here, letting nature run its course not only implies grasping the moment but also the future. Welcome to an encounter, including unpredicted events and pleasant coincidences. This is the way in which the estate’s manager Sylvain arrived here, after making close contacts and taking a stroll through the vineyard. Before accepting this position, he had already gained valuable biodynamic winegrowing experience in South America. Indeed, Sylvain knows exactly what nature has to offer. He also knows how to respect it in view of obtaining the true expression of the terroir and of each unique vintage. This simple yet demanding approach has forged the estate’s identity.
During the harvest, the kitchen becomes a special place where a closely-knit team can exchange ideas. Sylvain’s father-in-law, a former pastry chef, is in charge of making lunch. In the evening, everyone comes up with a recipe and takes part in an informal cooking competition! The group finishes every dinner with one last bottle, while discussing wine, among other topics of interest.
Later on during the springtime, a team is of course in charge of selecting the new blends for each of the estate’s four wines. This is the moment when their composition is analyzed and when propositions come from all sides. The different options are discussed and each vat is collectively assessed. As a result, the wine is matured with flavor and finesse, under the attentive eye of its creators. This is a rare situation, for within this plenitude, one feels a form of density, recalling the essence of life.
Does wine have a soul ?
You have to hear Anne-Claude Leflaive speak about it to understand her special approach to wine-growing. She cultivates the vine like Voltaire used to cultivate his garden, that is to say by combining natural techniques with farming ones. Respecting nature is part and parcel of her philosophy. The vintner has to seize the elements responsible for the riches and the specificity of a terroir to produce a great wine.
It is also the vintner who gives the final character to a terroir. For him the latter is a living partner. He understands what determines its features, which he strives to enhance. In the end, the vintner’s energy brings out the best in the wine, which will be enjoyed later on by consumers.
Far from parochial preoccupations, the estate’s offerings are supple and elegant, with plenty of matter. Their well-balanced simplicity, in harmony with the wild and tranquil landscape, translates into charm and presence. These wines are perfectly suited to convivial dishes thanks to their cheerful fruity features. But they are equally adapted to more complex occasions.
This natural expression, boasting character and making us want to share, reflects the vision of wine offered by this estate.