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Jasnières and the Coteaux de la Loir are two of the least well-known or appreciated winegrowing regions of the Loire Valley (though Henry IV cited the latter as his favorite wines). Both are located north of the Touraine region, along a Loire tributary called, confusingly, the Loir. This is the northernmost and coldest zone of the Loire valley; in fact, both appellations were nearly wiped out by a major frost in 1956. Having barely survived that blow or its modern obscurity, today the Coteaux de Loir remains a minor player in the Loire wine world at 80 hectares—for white (all Chenin), red and a little rosé—65 of which is the exclusively-Chenin Jasnières appellation. The soils are rich in tuffeau, an ancient soft, sedimentary limestone underlying and permeating the terroir of various Loire zones.
As a city kid with no family roots in wine or agriculture, Eric Nicolas studied oenology and looked to the far reaches of the Loire to acquire vineyards; he and his wife Christine founded Bellivière in 1995. Chenin Blanc is their focus, complemented with a minute amount of old-vine Pineau d’Aunis (a rare, indigenous black cousin of Chenin), Côt, Cabernet Franc and Gamay. Eric and Christine started with 3.5 hectares in the Coteaux de Loir—there were some old vines on the estate but mainly grazing land, fields of grain and trees--and gradually acquired scattered parcels over 5 villages. Today they farm a staggering 65 different sites, split about equally between the Coteaux and Jasnières and totalling 15 hectares. Many of their vines are quite old; all new plantings have been carried out with massale selections from those old vines, at a high density of 9300 per hectare.
Farming has been organic from the start and has been fully converted to biodynamics over time, certified by Ecocert in 2011. It is particularly challenging to work in this way in such a frost-prone and rainy microclimate, so production levels—never large--can swing widely. Harvest is manual and meticulous, carried out in multiple tries or passes, followed by careful hand-sorting in the winery. Bellivière wines are made in a very natural manner. The cellar is carved out of the hillside tuffeau and maintains consistent temperature and humidity (thus there is zero temperature control of any kind). The grapes are pressed and lightly sulfured; the juice is fermented with native yeasts, which Eric refers to as “the wine’s umbilical cord”. Fermentation is allowed to run its course naturally and can be quite lengthy. It and aging on the lees take place in barrique, mainly used with an occasional new one added into the mix.
Eric feels strongly about letting the vintage dictate the nature of the Chenin Blanc from each plot. Given the marginal nature of the environment and the variations in vine age and micro-terroirs, the different Chenin bottlings can vary from year to year in residual sugar, level of botrytis and concentration. Their priority is purity and precision, rather than any particular level of sweetness or dryness, though there is some consistency in how each site and its resulting wine expresses itself. Bellivière produces certain wines annually, all of which they consider “dry” though there is often some residual sugar: Jasnières under the names of Prémices, Les Rosiers and Calligramme; white Coteaux du Loir under the names of L’Effraie and Éparses; and tiny amounts of red Coteaux du Loir called Le Rouge Gorge and Hommage à Louis Derré. Other wines, including fully sweet or botrytized ones, are produced in favorable vintages.
Recently, the Nicolases have completed the building of a new cellar, which among other virtues allows for the movement of all must and wine by gravity. Additionally, it has increased their capacity. Though their estate itself is not growing in size, they began a small négoce label, Les Arches de Bellivière, in the 2017 vintage—partly to create more latitude for their son to join their operation full-time and partly to compensate for a number of harvests greatly reduced by frosts at Bellivière.
For more information, click here for Bellivière's own website.
For an estate profile, interview with Eric Nicolas and visit report by importer Jules Dressner, click here.