UNTIL a few weeks ago, I had not heard of Quarts-de-Chaume, a radar blip-size Loire Valley appellation in the Anjou region that is the epicentre of what The New York Times’ wine critic, Eric Pfanner, calls a “bitter battle over sweetness.”
The troika of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” is at stake, says winemaker Florent Baumard, who opposes the proposals and whose estate produces a superior version of the Quarts-de-Chaume appellation’s Chenin Blanc-based sweet wine. His Jacobin stance has earned him enemies among neighbouring winemakers, who see the plans as a way to guarantee that quality, terroir-based wines prevail in a region where industrial winemaking practices are widespread.
M. Baumard is trying to block the project at the Conseil d’Etat, the court responsible for the appellation system and particularly objects to a stipulation banning cryo-selection, a technique in which grapes are frozen before being pressed. M. Baumard says he uses the technique to sort out superior grapes and that the practice is widespread among prominent Sauternes producers in the Bordeaux appellation.
Quarts-de-Chaume, which is nominated for grand cru status, is on the banks of the Lanyon River, a Loire tributary, and benefits from humid conditions that favour botrytis, or noble rot, which gives concentrated, complex, sweet wines. In this respect, Quarts-de-Chaume wines are similar to Sauternes wines, the Alsace’s Sélections de Grains Nobles wines, and sweet wines from the surrounding Coteaux-du-Lanyon vineyards, parts of which are nominated for premier cru status.
Supporters of the initiative to ennoble Quarts-de-Chaume include local winemakers’ association head Claude Papin, who says Bordeaux-style grand cru status would give his appellation’s sweet wines the lettres de noblesses they deserve and reassure consumers who have deserted sweet wines over associations with cheapness and poor quality. M. Papin makes a superior version of Quarts-de-Chaume, too, though in a very different style from his adversary M. Baumard.
More to the point, though, why drink even a superior one, ennobled or not? Sweet wines make pointless aperitifs - one glass suffices to curb even the most insatiable appetite. And the idea they go well with desserts must appeal only to drinkers with a firewall against diabetes, or those who sprinkle sugar on their candyfloss. Similarly, the hoary suggestion that an unctuous Sauternes or Monbazillac goes well with fatty foie gras is advice that should be toted with a sick bag.
Marketing people say sweet wines go well with foods having savoury, spicy or sour flavours, too. Not convinced? Then mix them into a cocktail, they say. Perhaps; but why not just enjoy them for their artfulness alone? Sweet wines are simply lovely and purposeless, like a fine cartographer’s map of a territory that does not exist. A fine Sauternes, Banyuls, Maury or Muscat wine (better examples are made from Muscat à Petits Grains grapes rather than the marmalade-like Muscat d’Alexandrie) can be delicate, exotic and racy.
I might never have heard of the tiny Quarts-de-Chaume appellation had the Jacobin M. Baumard not objected to the plans from Girondin M. Papin, which shows there is nothing like a fight to attract attention. Meanwhile, their title fight supports what Chinese premier Zhou Enlai said when asked by President Nixon what he thought of the impact of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell.” And it’s not over yet.
First published in The Connexion (April, 2012)