Loire departement logo

Contrary to expectation, the département of the Loire in France is close to its source in the Massif Central in the Rhône-Alpes Region, rather than in the wide, gentle valley full of chateaux which we tend to think of. And rather strangely the wines of this area are classified as Loire Valley wines, when they really are quite distinctively different to the rest of the Loire Valley vineyards.
The main appellation is Côte Roannaise near the town of Roanne (42 Loire, ARA) to the west of the Loire river around the larger villages of Ambierle and Villemontais.
It is here that Englishman Simon Hawkins and his wife Isabelle purchased and developed his vineyard at the Domaine de Fontenay some 20+ years ago.
The wines are all based on the Gamay grape, which tends to produce fruity but light reds and rosés. I visited the domaine over some years ago with a group of wine enthusiasts who were otherwise learning something of the French hospital system. It was really useful to meet up with a English winemaker, who could explain his (evolving) approach to wine-making and share some of the frustrations and successes of his new career. Simon was genuine and open to even the most naive of questions.
However, the wines we tasted then were OK, but a bit light in body and structure – and I had rather dismissed them as a pleasant if unexciting alternative to Beaujolais – albeit with the added value of knowing where the wines came from.
It was more recently that I came across the wines of Domaine de Fontenay again – and what a transformation awaited me. In the meantime both the vines had matured, and so had Simon’s approach to wine-making. Out went many of the modern wine-making techniques with a return to a more traditional approach – so now he makes wines with no added selective yeasts, no sugar, no filtering and no additives; using a traditional press on low yields.”We feel that there is a certain irony in that it is the Englishman who is using the methods that local growers’ grandfathers used and which they now consider to be outdated.”

wine label

The best expression of this approach is the “l’Authentique” which is 100% Gamay “The grapes for this wine are always picked later than the rest of the crop as we are aiming to optimize phenological maturity, so as to be able to extract to our hearts content without the risk of herbaceous flavours creeping in. The wine is built around a structure of ripe tannins using a 20 day or so fermentation with a high temperature peak. This wine is matured until ready to bottle in the early summer . Particular attention is paid to airing the wine at strategic moments to maximise fruit flavour. We aim to produce a serious gamay with a long finish and direct fruit. Some earthy notes will emerge with bottle age.”
I was genuinely suprised and impressed with this wine. It had depth and complexity of flavour, smooth in the mouth – a classy wine which far surpasses any Gamay I have tasted before – bearing little resemblance to the light, jammy Gamays I usually get to taste.
Full marks to Simon Hawkins – another example of someone passionate about his/her wine who aims to produce something distinctive and traditional, rather than just following the crowd and producing easily marketable, bland mass-market wines.

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