I swear to you I was polite and professional.
But I got kicked out of the sales room of Pierre and Bertrand Couly anyway.
Driving in the central Loire Valley, my GPS told me to take the fourth exit on the roundabout, which landed me in the parking lot of the Pierre and Bertrand Couly winery showroom in Chinon. I knew I was in the wrong parking lot, but in my innocence, I entered the showroom and asked for directions to the Couly-Dutheil winery. Wow! What a mistake that was.
The woman told me I was in the wrong place and refused to give me directions to my 10:30 appointment at the rival winery, once part of the same family. After explaining that my GPS was at fault, she told me to go back on the roundabout and take the exit for the “Centre Ville.” Then she turned her back on me, walked into the office and closed the door. Welcome to the Chinon version of the Hatfields and McCoys.
In its own way, Couly-Dutheil is to Chinon what Robert Mondavi winery is to California: you know the name even if you have never had the wine. Its foundation is the joining of two families. Baptiste Dutheil married his cousin, Marie Couly, after World War I and began a wine merchant business. He expanded into winemaking with the purchase and replanting of part of a vineyard that was destroyed by phylloxera in the late 19th century. Years later, it was named Clos de l’Echo and became Chinon’s most famous vineyard.
In 1928, a relative, 18-year-old Rene Couly, arrived in Chinon to assist Baptiste with the harvest. Along with crushing the grapes, Couly developed a crush with Baptiste and Marie’s daughter Madelaine. The marriage of Rene Couly and Madelaine Dutheil created the name of the winery, and, soon thereafter, two sons, Pierre and Jacques.
After World War II, Rene purchased the remaining section of Clos de l’Echo, and Pierre and Jacques joined their father in building the business. Vineyard acquisitions and contracted grape purchases made Couly-Dutheil the largest producer in Chinon.
After graduating from enology school, Pierre’s son Bertrand—now the fourth generation–joined the winery in the mid-1980s, followed by Jacques’ son, Arnaud, in the late 1990s.
The narrow, maze-like streets in the center of Chinon tests visitors and GPSes alike (mine rendered useless), and I arrived at Couly-Dutheil 10 minutes late. But the welcome was warm.
The winery is built into a neck-bendingly high stone wall with storage caves quarried in the later Middle Ages. In 1989, Couly-Dutheil installed Chinon’s first stainless steel, temperature-controlled fermentation tanks; in 2003, it eliminated oak aging except for its Crescendo label red wine.
Today Couly-Dutheil owns 240 vineyard acres, and sources fruit from another 100 acres almost all planted with cabernet franc and under the direction of Jacques and Arnaud Couly.
My tasting began with the Couly-Dutheil 2015 Les Chanteaux, a white wine in an appellation devoted to red. Made from chenin blanc, and with a slight yellowish tint, its vigorous pineapple and citrus scent was the forerunner to explosive pineapple, lemon and green apple favors that lingered on the palate long enough to be charged with loitering. 93 points. $23.
The 2015 Rene Couly Rose’ struts its cabernet franc fruit. Unlike many wineries that make rose’ as a by-product, winemaker Arnaud Couly designates specific vineyards for its rose’ wine and macerates the skins with the juice to extract the clear cherry-strawberry hue. Strawberry and cherry aromas and flavors are the essence of this mellow wine. 88 points. $17.
La Coulee is a single-vineyard composed of sand and gravel. From it came the 2014 La Coulee Automnale delivering blackberry and black-tea scents and flavors with integrated tannins; it’s a good example of a “charming” wine. I’d serve this with roasted chicken or pizza. 88 points. $18.
Named for the daughter of the founding family, La Baronnie Madelaine is a single-vineyard wine and made only in good years. Planted in 1978 in limestone and clay soils, the grape skins are macerated for four weeks with the juice—double the time of the La Coulee Automnale. This technique yielded a wine in 2014 filled with black cherry aroma and flavor, integrated tannins and a pleasing finish. 90 points. Not yet in our market.
Clos de l’Olive is a 12-acre single vineyard (a clos is a single vineyard surrounded by stone walls) with vines up to 115 years old. It is named for its 17th-century owner, Baron Charles de L’Olive-Noire, and was acquired by Rene Couly in 1951.
My glass of the 2014 Clos de l’Olive released a complex bouquet of black fruit, black raisin and olive that formed its palate-pleasing profile. It has more structure and backbone than the Baronnie Madelaine. 93 points. Not yet in our market.
Historic room in the quarried cave at Couly-Dutheil
Once owned by Antoine Rabelais, the father of France’s immortal writer and bon vivant, Francois Rabelais, Clos de l’Echo is considered Chinon’s royal vineyard. Its wines were requested by the kings of England and France.
The vineyard is composed of limestone and clay and owned entirely by Couly-Dutheil, making it a monopole in French wine terminology. Its name reflects the echo that occurs when projecting your voice against the back of the vineyard’s stone wall.
The 2014 Clos de l’Echo has an intense, opaque, black-cherry color and a rich, black-cherry, black raisin and black olive nose. Its youthful blackberry and raisin-y flavors are surprisingly elegant and underlined with a plush texture. As with all of the other wines, Clos de l’Echo is fermented and aged in stainless-steel tanks. This wine will only get better with a few years of cellaring, but you’ll need to resist its immediate charms. 94 points. It retails for a remarkable value of less than $35.
Crescendo is a cuvee made from an 8-acre parcel of the oldest vines in the Clos de l’Echo vineyard. This winemaking concept is found throughout the New World, where it engenders controversy. In Europe, and France in particular–where vineyards are prized and rated village, premier cru and grand cru–carving out a section of the vineyard for its own bottling is more rare, but no less debated.
Couly-Dutheil furthers its separation from Clos de l’Echo with its winemaking technique. After fermentation, it divides the wine into three equal volumes and ages each third in new and once-used oak barrels, and the final third in stainless-steel tanks. Afterwards, the wines are blended and the assemblage is tasted, whereupon the decision is made to label it Crescendo.
The 2011 Clos de l’Echo Crescendo emits a smoky, blackberry aroma with a delicious black-cherry flavor. The oak is noticeable at this stage, but it is not aggressive. It imparts a bigger body and rounder mouthfeel giving it a New World accent while retaining its Old World character. While I object to the exaggerated New World style of some Italian and Spanish wines that have made separate bottlings of a vineyard, I was pleased that Couly-Dutheil did not blur the line with its 2011 Crescendo. 94 points. Expect to pay about $70.
Couly-Dutheil said there will be no 2012 and 2013 Crescendo.
After tasting the current vintages, we segued to the 1989 Clos de l’Olive. Most American wine consumers are only vaguely familiar with the red wines of Chinon, and fewer still know these wines with cellar age. Yet, cabernet franc in the limestone and clay soils of Chinon produce wines with great aging potential. And 1989 was a spectacular vintage in Chinon.
The 1989 Clos de l’Olive was decanted for about 90 minutes when I inhaled two aromas that I love to find in mature cabernet franc (and cabernet sauvignon): leather and tobacco. Sometimes it recalls a cigar box, other moments it’s pipe tobacco, and occasionally it is a clove-scented tobacco.
From my glass wafted fragrances of new leather and pipe tobacco, followed by a delicious, mature red fruit recalling vermouth and maraschino cherries found in the classic Manhattan drink. Only three years from its 30th anniversary, the 1989 Clos de l’Olive retains plenty of life. 95 points. Not commercially available.
It’s been reported that the split between the two brothers, Pierre and Jacques and their sons, Bertrand and Arnaud, respectively, began over winemaking styles following the 2000 vintage. If that is true, it is now into its second decade without a resolution. So, with no end in sight, I suggest that if you are entering Chinon, be sure you have a better GPS than the one I got from the rental car company. And be mindful of whom you ask for and where.
photos: John Foy
Leave A Comment