Certain types of wine seem incapable of winning popular acceptance.
Riesling is one, particularly in its moderately sweet form. No matter how its devotees rhapsodize about its virtues, depth, versatility and complexity, most people seem to be immune to its charms.
The same might be said for the cabernet francs of the Loire Valley, like the Saumur Champignys we have been drinking over the last month. Regardless of how tightly acolytes embrace the wines and the best producers, cabernet franc has not achieved widespread popularity beyond a small club of the committed.
At Wine School, we find it fascinating and illuminating to ponder the nature of wine’s appeal. What makes some styles wildly popular and others difficult to sell?
It’s tempting to think about status and image, and how these concerns of marketing influence consumer behavior. The rise in popularity of pinot noir at the expense of merlot may be partly because of the merits and potential of the wines, but not entirely so.
Yet, just as was the case with spätlese rieslings from Germany we tasted in Wine School last year, the somewhat indifferent reaction from readers to the three reds from Saumur Champigny seems due more to apathy than to conditioned responses.
Let me quickly say, this is good. The purpose of Wine School is for participants to discover which wines they like, which they do not and why. People must always be as true to their opinions as possible, regardless of how I feel about the wines. I am happy to say that my own love for Saumur Champigny and spätlese rieslings has apparently had little influence.
It may be that certain wines will never have more than a niche appeal. Is that a bad thing? Not at all, unless you are the type of riesling lover who takes it personally that many more people are satisfied with mediocre pinot grigio.
Many wine consumers, I find, have a tendency to overidentify with bottles that they find appealing. They feel insulted if that affection is not validated by others. In the view of this armchair psychologist, the inability of many people to drink and let drink betrays an insecurity that is often at the heart of wine selection.
So what was it about the three wines I chose? They were: Château Yvonne Saumur Champigny L’Île Quatre Sous 2016, Thierry Germain Domaine des Roches Neuves Saumur Champigny Terres Chaudes 2016 and Antoine Sanzay Saumur Champigny 2016.
Each of these wines is the entry-level bottle from one of a small group of producers who have energized this appellation with their devotion to meticulous farming and conscientious winemaking. As an introduction to the best of a region, it does not get any better than this group.
The aroma of the Yvonne was minty-fresh and full of herbs. On the palate, the wine was lightly tannic yet finely textured, a mouthful of red fruit and herbs at first. The flavors evolved to include flowers and minerals, laced through with herbal notes.
This herbal quality is very much a part of the cabernet franc identity. If the grapes are not sufficiently ripe, the impression is more of bell peppers than of herbs. Either way, producers of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc around the world, and particularly in California, dread any herbal hints — which they demean as “green” — in their wines.
I feel that a touch of herbaceousness is natural in both cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Herbal suggestions should be embraced rather than loathed. Trying to banish them entirely can result in monolithically fruity flavors that ultimately bore.
Herbal flavors were also apparent in the Thierry Germain wine, though not as pronounced as in the Yvonne. This wine was perhaps a bit more polished, lighter in texture, with flavors of red fruit, graphite and pepper — the spice, not the bell variety. Like the Yvonne, it was lively and lip-smacking, with great energy.
The Sanzay was slightly different from the others, richer and fruitier yet delightfully fresh, brisk and lively. It had aromas of ripe red fruits and flowers, with just an edge of those herbal flavors.
I thought each of these wines was terrific, pure and alive. They were from similar sorts of plots, the grapes grown on clay and sand over limestone bedrock. The Yvonne and Sanzay were both fermented and aged in cement vats, while the Germain was fermented in cement and aged in big, old oak barrels.
The subtle differences, I felt, were due more to the nuances of their individual production methods than in essential differences in terroir, but I could be wrong about that.
So what was not to like? “Pleasant enough, but no excitement,” Dan Barron of New York wrote of the Terres Chaudes, though he did appreciate some of its virtues: “Versatile. Doesn’t need a decant. Doesn’t outshine the food. A bistro favorite? Wonder why.”
VSB of San Francisco, who drank a 2016 Saumur Champigny Le Grand Clos from Château de Villaneuve for $38, found that a pot-roast dinner and Van Morrison background music improved the wine more than the other way around. “At these prices, not willing to try my luck with a second bottle,” he concluded.
It was not all disappointment. Some readers overcame negative expectations of cabernet franc and found something in the wines to embrace.
“Not cabernet franc-ish at all,” said Martin Schappeit of Forest, Va. “No harsh charcoal and vegetable aroma.” Instead, he found the Terres Chaudes went beautifully with a roast chicken. “This is what bistro means for me: simple but excellent.”
Martina Mirandola Mullen of New York said she had a love-hate relationship with cabernet franc. “I don’t like the smell of graphite and avoid green peppers,” she said. At first sip of the Yvonne, she found those flavors, and she described the wine as angular.
“It reminded me of a pencil sketch, when the pencil has just been sharpened,” she wrote. “But within minutes the lines softened and there were colors of red and purple as other flavors emerged.” In the end, she said, she loved it.
It’s always difficult to compare different experiences with the same wine. Contexts vary. The same wine can seem to change depending on the food, the mood and the company, to say nothing of the weather and time of day.
Yet the reactions to Saumur Champigny go beyond context, I think. They speak to something about cabernet franc that, if not exactly polarizing, does not universally please no matter how beautifully executed the wines may be.
At least, I believe this is the case. But if one lesson of Wine School is not to argue taste, another is not to treat individual experiences as permanent stances.
To those who found these wines lacking, I say: Don’t let that view translate into avoidance ever after. Let some time pass, and try them again, maybe with different food or in a different season. Not because I would force these wines on you or anybody, but because a significant number of people remain so convinced of their beauty that it may be worth another try in an effort to decipher the appeal.
Your opinion may remain the same. But then it will be based on additional evidence.
All this is perhaps easier said than done. I also tend to avoid certain wines that maybe I ought to try again. What do you say, do we have a deal?