Marking Milestones with Moulin Touchais
BY REBECCA GIBB MW | APRIL 27, 2021
In search of something to drink to mark a milestone birthday, those of us with a less-than-legendary birth year are resigned to the fact that our first breath did not coincide with the perfect growing season in Bordeaux. Revealing your date of birth to châteaux owners keen to open a special bottle often leads to a pitying shrug of the shoulders and a gallic ‘Bof’ when you disclose your parents poorly timed your entry to the world. But there’s hope for us yet: an underground cellar in a small Loire Valley town could be the answer to that elusive anniversary bottle that doesn’t require you to remortgage your house simply to mark a special date in the diary.
Moulin Touchais owns 150 hectares of vineyard but just 35 are located on gentle slopes in the Coteaux du Layon.
I have to thank Richard Kelley MW, for introducing me to Moulin Touchais. Kelley recalls that he first encountered the wines at a store attached to the town’s gas station, revisiting to fill up his car and buy up a few older bottles!
The reason that the back-vintage offering is so impressive requires us to wind-back the clock: a few million years ago, the town of Doué-la-Fontaine, was submerged under the Faluns Sea and, as the water receded, it left behind a bed of limestone that is now home to a network of tunnels, quarries and houses dug into the local limestone, many of which have been turned into accommodation and tourist attractions. There’s even a troglodyte zoo, the hewn-out rock providing natural enclosures for everything from giraffes and lions to penguins and parrots. Below street level, Doué is not dissimilar to a Swiss cheese, and it is in this easy-to-excavate rock that you’ll find an enviable library of sweet Chenin Blanc. It could have been very different. The town was under German occupation during World War II, but troops failed to unearth its treasures: owner Joseph Touchais walled up the cellar to protect his most valuable wines – the sweet whites of Côteaux du Layon – but in the post-war years, the economy was in disarray with few having the means to buy his wines. Awaiting the return of better times, Touchais discovered the wines lying in his cellar were improving; to this day, the company releases its wines at least 10 years after the harvest.
The old cellar where bottles are stored for at least 10 years before being released.
As well as being home to Moulin Touchais and the world’s only troglodyte zoo, Doué is today a mecca for rose lovers. Luring, green-fingered tourists visit to literally smell the roses. However, this part of the Loire Valley had fewer attractions in the late 1960s. Alex Wilbrennen, who worked for General Electric, was relocated from Paris to Angers in 1968 as part of De Gaulle’s decentralization policy. At a local social gathering, he met Joseph Touchais’s wife, Odette. The story goes that she asked Wilbrennen if he was enjoying life in the region. He admitted he wasn’t particularly impressed by the culture and the lack of mature wines available, so she invited him to dinner to prove him wrong. He was introduced to their stash of old wines as well as the odd Picasso and Modigliani. He soon quit General Electric and became their export director, a role he held for 40 years before his son, Frederik, took over the reins. The pair have always been generous to visitors. Wilbrennen used to open bottles dating back to 1900.
Selling older, sweet wines was hardly a route to getting rich quick, and the Touchais family’s ability to hold back stock for a decade before release was bankrolled by a medium-sweet Anjou rosé that took France by storm in the 1950s. Cuisse de Bergère or the thigh of the shepherd, featured a sexy Little Bo Peep character who was showing more than a little leg on the label, which no doubt helped boost sales. Today, the company’s vineyards stretch to an impressive 150 hectares but only 35 of those sit in the Coteaux du Layon appellation and only the best fruit will make it into the Moulin Touchais cuvée – if it doesn’t make the grade, it will be sold off. Lying on gentle slopes rather than the steep inclines of sweet wine central, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, the mists that encourage botrytized Chenin grapes don’t linger and noble rot may not develop – in some years the wine may not contain any botrytized fruit but in 1997, it affected around 60% of the crop and it was even higher in 2009. That said, the onset of global warming is leading not only to a lower incidence of botrytis and an increasing amount of passerillé berries, but a harvest that is 10-14 days earlier compared with the 1960s. However, late-picked fruit is not a cut and dry issue, as Frederik Wilbrennen explains: “We only harvest whole bunches, and you’ll find that in that bunch there will be some whole berries, others that are passerillé, others botrytized – you only get perfect, uniform bunches in the supermarket!”
The bunches destined for Moulin Touchais are picked whole with varying levels of shrivel or botrytis.
The decision to stick to their guns and only harvest bunches rather than adopt the in-vogue berry-by-berry selection saw them fall out of favour with some sections of the French wine press in the 1990s. “People were trying to get their wines sweeter and sweeter, but we never did that. We used to send our wines to the Guide Hachette and – depending on the vintage – we’d get a good note but with this trend for berry selection, we were no longer fashionable.” With a release policy that makes Brunello di Montalcino look like it is early to market, Moulin Touchais is certainly not designed to respond quickly to consumer trends, but what’s old is new again: wild fermentation in concrete tanks is now seen as edgy, although you wouldn’t have said that 30 years ago. The fermentation is usually stopped by chilling the wine, and using sulfur leading to a finished wine that contains, on average, 80-90 grams per Liter of residual sugar; but it’s not an exact science. It’s bottled in April following the harvest and then spends at least a decade maturing in the cellars underneath Doué’s streets before seeing the light of day. In a world of fine wine doused with suspicion over the authenticity of bottles, a 40-year old wine with like-new labels, corks and ullage levels might create a question mark over its age, but it has a recorking programme; bottles are topped up, as required, and the wines are often labeled to order.
While the back catalogue is comprehensive and the team aim to make a Moulin Touchais wine every year, if you have children or grandchildren born in 2008 and 2013, you’re out of luck. That said, the rest of us can indulge in our own nostalgic wine trip. While the cellar is notoriously difficult to find, there is a plan for a cellar door, so visitors to Doué will soon be able to taste what lies beneath, as well as seeing the lions and smelling the roses.
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