This week, a wine that redefines dryness: Triple Zéro from Domaine de la Taille aux Loups.
RAISING THE BAR
With my blueberry wine, I panicked. My yeasts were slowing and alcohol was low. I didn’t want blueberry beer. So I tried upping the alcohol by dumping raw sugar in…
Sure, it worked, but I felt cheap. My wine will never taste of only the fruit I picked. Its artificially heightened alcohol mirrors my assumptions about what wine should be.
Yet this method happens all the time. It’s called chaptalization, after the French chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal. He didn’t invent it, the Romans did. But Chaptal lucked out under Napoleon, gaining prestige enough to promote it, to make French wine stronger and thus more shelf stable.
Winemakers in cold climates with low ripeness loved it. Germans titled the process vebesserung, improvement, because crap seasons in the 1840s would have otherwise rendered their rieslings little more than water. But chaptalizing also meant that volume could be stretched by adding more water and sugar.
It took 900,000 protesters, the French army, six deaths and the burning of two prefectures in 1907, for the French to finally tax sugar and regulate chaptalization by region. Today, the EU limits chaptalizing according to Europe’s three main growing zones (the coldest get to tweak alcohol up 3% by volume, warm: 2%, warmer: 1.5%, warmest: zip%; with 0.5% ABV wiggle room for poor seasons).
But Jacky Blot doesn’t care.
In the Loire Valley, he could raise his wine two percent alcohol by volume. Yet he chooses not to. Instead, he waits. Late into the season, small teams hand-pick only ripe berries and toss rotten ones from each bunch, letting the rest ripen further. These first fruits are then sorted for Blot’s bubbly, Triple Zéro.
The ripe grapes have enough sugar so there’s no need to chaptalize, hence the first Zéro. Actually, at no point is there anything more than grapes and wild yeasts in Domaine de la Taille aux Loups’ old barrels or bottles.
Once alcoholic, a bubbly still isn’t bubbly. It is only a still wine or vin clair. The sparkly usually comes from the addition of yeast, sugary syrup (liquer de tirage) and no gap for CO2 to escape.
Triple gets its second Zéro from not sugaring to feed the yeast. Following the méthode ancestrale, Triple Zéro is bottled near the end of fermentation, with fourteen grams of sugar left. Blot waits fifteen months for that sugar to convert into CO2 in each bottle. The fizz isn’t hyper-vigorous, but more relaxed and constant, petillant, manifesting a mere 2.5 units of atmospheric pressure (half of most champagne).
Before most bubbly is bottled, winemakers often disgorge the yeast. In time, the yeast settles into the bottle’s neck. The neck is frozen. The cap is removed. Out flies a yeast popsicle. Then, sugary juice (liqueur d’expédition: a blend of wine, sugar, juice, sulphur even cognac) tops off the wine before recorking. Why? Bubbly is usually highly acidic. This minor sugaring can balance it or hide faults. But Blot flips le bras d’honneur to such dosage and just adds more wine and corks the thing after disgorging the yeast.
So if adding sugar is the antichrist, what actually goes into Triple Zéro?
The grapes are entirely chenin blanc. They flank the town of Tours in the Montlouis sector along the Loire Valley: chenin blanc’s homeland.
In 1988, thirty-year-old vineyards were bought and revitalized by Christian Prudhomme: viticulturist and oenologist for no-name wines like Mouton-Rothschild and Opus One. But his business failed in a few years. Jacky Blot took over and gave the vines endless attention. Pruning, low crop yields, and ploughing, forced roots into substrata of limestone, drawing minerality into the wine.
VINTAGE -VS- VINTAGE
Because fermenting without added sugar or lab yeasts takes longer, Triple Zéro hits the market two years after vintage. Even though Zéro has no vintage on the label, I likely tried the 2008 last June.
It was visually clear, steely gold. The nose intense with yeast, mineral, vanilla. Dry. The acidity was moderately high, typical of Loire chenin blanc. The body was medium light. The palate carried green apple, soft white pear, brioche, mineral, lime, while strawberry and rhubarb squeaked in. Great drink, fresh, focused yet complex.
But then a new shipment arrived. The 2009’s foil was shorter but taped with a silver band (the 2008’s probably fell off). The code on the bottle was D061068. Curiosity made me crack it open in April.The acidity rang higher. The body weighed in fuller, richer. The nose of apple, honey and yeast was familiar. Apple and pear were still on the palate. But herb, mineral and eucalyptus wrapped up the finish.
It sounds new, but so am I. I’ve tried more wines since last year. I’ve read more. My palate may be the same. But my mind doesn’t taste things the same. The context changed as well. Hell, the bottle might be warmer. Even within the same vintage and lot, bottles vary. Was it from the bottom of the tank? Filled on a cold day? Shipped improperly? I don’t know.
Objectivity is impossible. The most we can hope for is some consistency and specificity. We should admit that both we and the wine evolve. No score is universal or eternal. Does the first wine Robert Parker rated still taste amazing? Will Wine Spectator’s Top 100 all be worthy, drinkable or taste the same by the end of the year?
Now it’s July. I found the last bottle of the 2008 (F0806 14214) hiding in our understock. A year on, the appearance recalls the clear straw gold. But the green apple now also smells of caramel. All the acidity, medium body, length and steady fizz persist. Yet the wine tastes mature. Apple, even apple skin now face more noticeable yeast, caramel and bread notes.Maybe I set myself up. I know this wine is older, so of course I taste mature notes of caramel and yeast. Knowing these wines are chenin blanc from the Loire immediately cued anticipation for citrus, green apple and acidity before. So much of it is in my head.
But enough psychobabble. Triple Zéro tastes amazing. Between the three tastings, it is refreshing, complex and unforgettable. Jacky Blot’s method-maniacal scrutiny and fanaticism with dryness come straight to the glass. The fruit is stellar. Drink it alone (or with friends). If you can’t get comfortable with the acidity after a glass (and I mean glass, not sip), then pair it with fresh fruits, mild young cheeses or any foods you want a beer with. It will cool your world back down.