Coteaux du Layon
The Coteaux du Layon region, located within Anjou, is known for its sweet Chenin Blancs, made under both the Coteaux du Layon AOC and under those of its three subregions: Bonnezeaux, Chaume, and the miniscule Quarts de Chaume. The wines are generally made from noble-rotted grapes, but can also be made from late-harvested grapes. Less common methods of wine sweetening also exist, but are not so popular.
Coteaux du Layon wines are made from the vineyards of six villages: Beaulieu-sur-Layon, Faye d'Anjou, Rablay-sur-Layon, Rochefort-sur-Layon, St-Aubin-de-Luigné, and St-Lambert-du-Lattay. These vineyards make up about 3,500 acres of planted land. Considering the large size of the appellation, the high quality and rather low quantity of the wines produced here is impressive. The reason is that the manufacture of sweet wines is not always successful, and the precision and care required in making them mostly takes greedy producers out of the equation.
The three subappellations aside, Coteaux du Layon's wines are outstanding in themselves. However, they are considered an acquired taste. The modern styles start out with only insipid sweetness (throughout history, outrageously sweet, honeyed wines have varied in popularity) and grow gradually richer and darker with age. Critics differ on whether to drink Coteaux du Layon early or late; it's mostly a matter of personal taste. Either way, the best of these wines have little difficulty developing over a quarter century.
Just like the rest of Anjou, Coteaux du Layon is an old appellation, but the processes used to make the wines are newer. The Coteaux du Layon appellation was officially established in 1950.
Climate and Viticulture
All the best of the Coteaux du Layon wines are made on slopes that lead down to the river. Coteaux du Layon is almost entirely composed of waterfront land, which is generally the source of higher-quality wine than landlocked vineyards. The river exerts a cooling influence on what is otherwise an excessively hot region. Most importantly, mist forms around the river, which is the same factor that contributes to the greatness of Sauternes. It's no coincidence; misty vineyards are more likely to attract Botrytis cinerea.
The soils of the riverbanks are perfect for Chenin Blanc...pure schist. With the combination of great soil and the river's influence on the land, this is one of the best places in France for sweet Chenin Blanc growth.
- Chenin Blanc: This underestimated grape shows its true capabilities for sweet wines in only a handful of regions across the world. Coteaux du Layon is one of these regions. Starting out only slightly sweet (though some counterexamples do exist), the wines are rarely good within the first few years. After 5-10 years they develop a fascinating, Sauternes-like honeyed richness and remarkable tree flavors of figs and nuts. Everything depends on the vintage but some can age for a long time; 1989 wines are said to be ageable for 30-40 years.
Here is a taste of 5 of the particularly good producers of Coteaux du Layon. For the best producers of its subregions, see those individual pages.
- Domaine P Baudouin: These wines often come in 500mL bottles, and as a result of regulations, are extremely difficult to find in the United States. However, they consistently follow the typical style of Coteaux du Layon.
- Domaine des Baumard: The Carte d'Or here is fairly straightforward, with pearlike sweet aromas, and can be under $25. The Clos Sainte-Catherine has the more floral aromas typical of Coteaux du Layon, with honeyed pear, nectarine, and acacia blossom scents lingering throughout the wine. This one can be around $35, a pittance compared to sweet wines like Sauternes.
- Philippe Delesvaux: Delesvaux is a small producer, only making a few wines in the Anjou area. The mindboggling Carbonifera is one of the most impressive wines in the appellation, and is reasonably priced as well at under $50. Give it a good bit of aging. Seléction de Grains Nobles is slightly less impressive, but also a top pick.
- Domaine Pierre-Bise: Pierre-Bise's wines from the village of Beaulieu are extremely impressive, particularly Beaulieu Les Rouannières. They generally come in 500mL bottles, and aren't too easy to get in the US, but the trouble is often worthwhile.
- Domaine de Soucherie: Soucherie's Coteaux du Layons are known for being a bit uncompromising, especially in their first few years of life. But they often turn out to be very impressive with the right amount of aging, as acidity turns to honeyed richness and the fruit flavors become more ripe and balanced.
The three subregions of Coteaux du Layon have lower production than the parent region, which translates to higher prices and higher quality.
- Bonnezeaux: Bonnezeaux offers sweet wines very similar to those of Quarts de Chaume for a much lower price. The region is fairly large at 270 acres, but quality is high, and the wines are rich and ageable.
- Chaume (Premier Cru AOC): The controversial Chaume AOC produces many good sweet wines. Quarts de Chaume's producers banded together to prevent the region from attaining AOC status in the early 21st century; to them, it made inferior wines and was a blight on the Quarts de Chaume name. In 2009, in a kind of compromise, it was established as a Premier Cru of Coteaux du Layon without independent AOC status. Many producers from Quarts de Chaume produce lower level wines here, but quality isn't always proportionate. Château de la Soucherie and Château de la Roulerie are two particularly good ones.
- Quarts de Chaume: This appellation encompasses only 74 acres of sheerly perfect Chenin Blanc land. Almost all producers here make wine of an amazingly high quality, arguably the most consistent in Anjou. The wines are an acquired taste and take a long time to develop, however, truly remarkable flavors can arise once they do. Low production means the wines are exclusive and expensive, but they are worthwhile to many collectors. This area still seems less famous than it should be considering the pedigree of the wines.
In the wines of Coteaux du Layon, some producers choose to add on the name of the village in which the wine was made. Beaulieu is the best of these.