CHATEAU YVONNE — SPIRITUALLY, CRIMINALLY GREAT
BY MATTHEW BROWMAN
A wandering priest, a criminal, and a nun walk into a vineyard…
In the Middle Ages, around the time and place that Graham Chapman’s King Arthur (from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was galloping the countryside with coconuts, receiving visceral taunts from a thick-accented Frenchman, and being attacked by a carnivorous rabbit, monks were planting vineyards in France’s Loire Valley. It’s here you’ll find Chateau Yvonne–spiritually, criminally great.
It was around 1100 when a wandering ascetic preacher founded the Abbey of Fontervaud in France’s Loire Valley. It became a unique spiritual community in that for awhile, nuns and monks lived together in spiritual marriages as “brother and sister”. As we can imagine, the church quickly frowned upon the practice…
Eight kilometers away and about 400 years later, the current Chateau where Yvonne works its magic today was built. However, it wasn’t until 1813 that a winegrower moved in and started producing wine.
Much like the vineyard parcels themselves, the two sexes in the monastic community were eventually separated. Yet, the abbey continued as a place of the simplest spiritual practice: silence, good works, and simple food and clothing.
Reincarnated to incarcerate
During the French Revolution, the state took all lands the church owned. Fontrevaud became, of all places, a prison known for its severe, ungodly treatment of political prisoners.
And the grapes yet grew. Throughout this turmoil, the two marquee grapes of the Loire Valley—Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc (spiritual siblings, to be sure) did their parts to produce some of France’s most distinct, complex, and long-lived wines.
Now, this Yvonne must be quite a woman, because in 1997 she and her husband bought the estate and set about reviving the old, forgotten vineyards. These included plantings of 80+-year-old vines, which Yvonne had certified as organic since they took them over.
In 2007, Mathieu Vallée bought the Chateau from the Lamunières, assumed the seat of vigneron, and kept the name in homage to Yvonne’s great vision and work. By 2012, he had the entire vignoble biodynamic. Now, I don’t care where you sit on the spiritual side of biodynamic practice, but it’s undeniable that some of the world’s greatest wines—the ones that make you believe in a greater power—are grown and made biodynamically.
Mathieu has taken the wines to the next level, making them with as little intervention as possible. This keeps the integrity of Yvonne’s early work and mirrors the simplicity of the original occupiers. He uses natural yeast through wild ferments, a slow and gradual malolactic fermentation, older oak, minimal racking, no fining or filtering, minimal S02 as the only additive, and 100% manual labour.
Today, they only make around 36 barrels of wine from a total of eight hectares, and are recognized as among the top few growers in the valley.
The grapes and vineyards
Chenin Blanc (the sister) is known in the greater wine world for two opposing things:
- gallons of simple, fruity, off-dry box wine from expanses of irrigated flatlands in South Africa
- tiny amounts of layered, searing, luscious, concentrated, and long-lived wine from the Loire Valley
Sure, a whole lot from “quite good” to “unremarkable” falls in between, but few of today’s drinkers have a reference point for those.
Yvonne is part of the second lot: their Chenin Blanc holdings include three hectares for the Saumur Blanc, as well as a tiny parcel along the river from which they only make three barrels of wine. The soils are limestone and tuffeau with sandy clay.
Chateau Yvonne Saumur Blanc 2018 — this wine is like drinking lemon curd. It’s racy, lean, citrusy, stony, mouth-coating, grippy, and long-lasting.
Cabernet Franc (the brother) is not famous but is well-known. Few realize that it (thankfully) broke its vows with the wily Sauvignon Blanc and conceived their much more famous offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon. The drinking curious seek to explore Cabernet Franc because, while its character is less generous and prolific than Cab Sauv, its austerity and particularity can give it more intrigue, diversity, and authenticity with less adornment.
Yvonne’s Franc vineyards are in Saumur-Champigny, a red-wine-only appellation along the banks of the Loire River. The parcels are spread over five hectares, with soils that include the same as the whites, but with some gravel. These wines all show subtle spice and earthiness, good grip, and bright acidity. The nuances are yours to discover and range from more or less red or dark berry fruit, different spice expression, and varying degrees of tannin and acidity.
L’ile Quatre Sous 2018
La Folie 2017
Chateau Yvonne Saumur-Champigny 2015
What to do with them
Great wine is all fine and well. But how you have it is as important as what you have. Here are some practices you can follow to elevate your soul.
- Come to the moment
Take some deep breaths and bring yourself to the moment. Let all your concerns drift away. In other words, be in a good mood.
- Be present with others
Share it with another or others whom first, you enjoy and second, may enjoy the wine as much as you (this point is not mandatory).
- Prepare your implements
- For the whites, refrigerate completely, then take them out of the fridge and decant for 10 to 15 minutes. Use a medium-sized glass that closes near the top. Just sip it, or have any of the following handy: aged chevre cheese, scallops seared in butter, calamari, poulet rôti au vin blanc, margherita pizza.
- For the reds, if it’s not in a temperature controlled cellar, put it in the fridge for 10 to 15 minutes. If it’s in a cellar, take it out and decant it for about 30 minutes. Use a medium to large glass that has a wider bowl and closes a little bit near the top. Have it with any of the following: roast duck or other fowl, beef tenderloin with mushrooms, oxtail stew, Comté cheese.
Choose adventure… your own
It wasn’t just an imaginary King Arthur that roamed the area. Legend has it that Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Richard the Lionheart were buried at the Abbey. And while the Blanc and Franc grapes don’t have the current lustre of Chardonnay, Cab Sauv, Pinot Noir and the like, that’s what makes them worth adding to your list of life experiences. You don’t want to get to the gates with any regret. In the meantime, you get to drink along with those naughty monks, nuns, and in all likelihood, righteous criminals.