A sign of success when the rot sets in: Kathryn McWhirter toasts the very best of sweet wines from the Loire

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The Independent Culture
IF YOUR eyes have already strayed to the bottom of this page, I have to admit that my star rating system has shot wildly beyond its usual maximum of five. I've rarely come across such superlative wines as the best of the 1989 and 1990 sweet wines from the Loire. Vintages like these, the locals assure me, happen once every two generations - or if they're lucky, once in a generation. The last comparable ones were 1947, 1921 and 1893, and no one had ever dreamed of making two stunning sweet vintages two years running.

Bernard Fouquet, ginger-bearded, unassuming and softly spoken, is clearly proud as his potential customers swoon over a glass of his 1990 Vouvray Cuvee Alexandre. Barrels line one side, bottles the other side of the dark tunnel hewn into soft limestone rock at Domaine des Aubuisieres, where Bernard has recently taken over from his father. 'Luscious sweetness deliciously offset by a streak of acidity and a pungent, bitter almond tang, peaches, quinces, honey,' I scribble in my notebook. And I don't spit it out.

Only the very best Sauternes taste as exciting as this, or the best, sweetest German wines from the finest vintages. And they cost considerably more. Like Sauternes, Vouvray (barely up-river from Tours) and the Coteaux du Layon (near Angers, further down the Loire) make their sweet wines when the weather permits, from grapes that have become super-sweet in two quite different ways, and often from a combination of the two. Sometimes the grapes are simply super-ripened then semi-dried and concentrated by the hot autumn sun. Some years they are helped along by a fungus, botrytis cinerea. In its common, unwelcome form, this is simply the grey mould that attacks our strawberries, raspberries and tomatoes. But given the right conditions - ripe grapes of certain susceptible varieties, such as the Chenin Blanc of the Loire, and autumn mist, dew or showers followed by hot sunshine - botrytis or 'noble rot' sinks its talons into the grapes, sucks out water, concentrating sugar, acidity and flavours, and also adds an extra flavour of its own, pungent and reminiscent of bitter almonds.

In the Loire, botrytis is much more common in the Coteaux du Layon than in Vouvray. Most years, Bernard Fouquet makes immeasurably more sec or sec tendre (off-dry) white than sweet wine. Often there is simply not the raw material to make any sweet wine at all; and his least ripe grapes go to make the local sharp fizzy wine. Bernard Fouquet made a little sweet wine in 1988, 1985 and 1983, but nothing like the 30,000 bottles of super-sweet nectar he produced in both the 1989 and the 1990 vintages. (He also made an equal amount of dry or drier wines from the earliest-picked grapes to satisfy his regular clientele.)

Both of these extraordinary summers, he says, were tremendously hot and dry. In 1989 they started picking for dry wines in early October with only a little botrytis provoked by September storms. 'But we always get morning dew in my vineyards when the weather is good - you can almost always see the Loire from my vines, five or six hundred metres away, and in 1989 there was still enough water left in the sub-soil.' Result: there was soon lots of botrytis in 1989. Pickers had to be taught to clip off only the rotten portions of the bunches, the grey-brown part, shrivelled and covered with mould, thus leaving the newborns.

These wines will easily outlast clarets, Burgundies and champagnes. Even lesser vintages of sweet Loires last well. At home, Bernard Fouquet and his wife open an occasional bottle of sweet 1989 or 1990. More typically at the moment they drink - usually as an aperitif - 1986 or 1987, at the slightest hint of celebration a 1983, 1970 or 1971, and the very good though not quite superlative 1976, 1959 or 1964 for family celebrations. The 1947 is still on form, though in short supply in M Fouquet senior's cellar. 'The majority of our customers unfortunately drink them too young,' Bernard says. 'They're missing a lot - these wines become so much more subtle and complex-flavoured with age. Few people nowadays have the patience.'

PICK OF THE 1989 AND 1990 SWEET LOIRES

I recently tasted most of these wines at a huge sweet Loire tasting organised by Wine magazine. The results appear in the magazine's September issue. All these wines will develop further complexity, and are best left unopened for at least 10 years. All the following merchants offer a mail order service.

********1989 Vouvray Cuvee Constance, Huet ( pounds 35 Raeburn Fine Wines of Edinburgh, pounds 38.99 Bibendum of London NW1, pounds 39.10 Justerini & Brooks of London SW1 and Edinburgh, pounds 45 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk). Superb, unctuous and sweet, with rich, complex, fruity and botrytis flavours and high acidity.

*******1989 Vouvray Clos Naudin Reserve, Foreau ( pounds 22.75 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk). Tremendously concentrated and honey-sweet, with high acidity and complex flavours of almonds, quinces and exotic fruits.

*******1990 Vouvray Cuvee Alexandre, Domaine des Aubuisieres, Bernard Fouquet ( pounds 11.99 Oddbins, pounds 13.50 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk, pounds 14.50 Fortnum & Mason, pounds 15.25 Harrods). This is a real bargain. It is an immensely concentrated wine, with a lovely balance between magnificent, honeyed fruit with a flavour of quince and an agreeably bitter tang.

*******1989 Vouvray Le Marigny, Domaine Les Aubuisieres, Bernard Fouquet ( pounds 9 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk - very limited stocks). Extremely concentrated, rich, toasty, honeyed, with a flavour something like pineapples. Lovely, tangy acidity and botrytis pungency.

******1990 Vouvray Champalou Cuvee Speciale Reserve ( pounds 18.20 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk). Very characterful, with exotic and citrus fruit flavours, hints of caramel and coconut.

******1989 Vouvray Clos du Bourg Moelleux, Huet ( pounds 17.69 Bibendum of London NW1, pounds 18.85 Raeburn Fine Wines of Edinburgh, pounds 19.35 Lay & Wheeler of Colchester, pounds 20.70 Justerini & Brooks of London SW1 and Edinburgh, pounds 22.50 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk). Huge, tremendously concentrated wine with strong apple-like acidity and flavours of apples, quince and honey - and the pungent taste of botrytis.

*****1990 Vouvray Le Marigny, Domaine Les Aubuisieres, Bernard Fouquet ( pounds 10.99 Oddbins, pounds 12.50 Adnams of Southwold, Suffolk, pounds 12.95 Fortnum & Mason, pounds 13.75 Harrods). Lovely, rich, concentrated wine with flavours of honey, pineapple and apricot and zingy acidity.

*****1990 Vouvray Domaine de la Galiniere, Cuvee Celine, Pascal Delaleu ( pounds 16.10 Peter Watts Wines of Coggeshall, Essex, by the case only). Wonderfully exotic, with a mango-like perfume and honeyed quince and almond flavours.

*****1990 Coteaux du Layon, St Lambert, Domaine Sauveroy, Premiere Trie ( pounds 11.99 Oddbins). Powerful, unctuous, coconut-y wine with unusual (for this area) flavours of new oak, as well as the more typical bitter almond tang and quincey flavour.

*****1989 Domaine des Baumard, Quarts de Chaume ( pounds 15.80 Eldridge Pope of Dorchester). Luscious, quincey, honeyed, peachy, pineappley wine of great concentration and complexity with the pungent tang of botrytis, from a small super-appellation within the Coteaux du Layon.

****1990 Coteaux de l'Aubance, Domaine de Mongilet, Cuvee Prestige ( pounds 12.50 by the case only, Loire Wine Imports of Blandford Forum). The River Aubance, another tributary joining the Loire just down-river from the Layon, usually makes less spectacular wines. This one beats many Layons and Vouvrays - rich and pineappley with a hint of quince. Not as long a keeper as the others, but still set to see the new century in.

****1990 Domaine des Baumard, Quarts de Chaume ( pounds 15.80 Eldridge Pope of Dorchester). Deliciously rich, sweet and full with appley flavours and a bitter almond tang.

****1990 Vouvray Clos du Gaimont Premieres Tries de Grains Nobles ( pounds 12.50 Lorne House Vintners of Cranleigh, Surrey, by the case only, pounds 15 The Wine House of Wallington, Surrey). This is a lovely, nutty, quincey and oaky wine with high acidity and concentrated flavours of honey and ripe pears.-

(Photograph omitted)

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