The Loire has become French wine’s experimental heart, a place where young winemakers can afford to take risks and make what you might call vins d’emotion, which I’ll translate as “wine with feeling.” And the Anjou area, surrounding the city of Angers is the very core, host to more of them than even the surrounding regions.

Most have no interest in the often outmoded appellation rules, which is why the dramatic spread of wines marked, simply, vin de France catalyzed in the central Loire. The best wines display their origins, although many are also as much about process—or lack of process, given the wide proliferation of natural-wine proponents in the area. For a natural wine lover, it is a paradise.

What follows is a short list of some of the most promising names in the Anjou today. But there are many other notables, including: Ferme de la Sansonnière (Mark Angéli), Domaine Mosse, Les Vignes de Babass, Bertin-Delatte, Didier Chaffardon, Le Batossay (Baptiste Cousin), Bainbridge & Cathcart, Domaine Les Grandes Vignes, Les Roches Seches, Domäne Vincendeau and La Grange aux Belles.

And it’s impossible not to consider the Anjou without considering some new names from Savennières, its most famous appellation, including Thibaud Boudignon, Damien Laureau, Clément Baraut and Eric Morgat, along with Tessa Laroche’s improvements at the well-established Domaine aux Moines. Of course, there are always the wines of the Joly family, a whole discussion unto themselves.

Richard Leroy

Leroy’s wines have become legend among chenin-philes. They’re big and dramatic; some past vintages have been uneven, especially with oxidative notes, but a preference for browning the grape juice and a return to using modest levels of sulfur dioxide in 2014 seems to have returned a level of precision—and extraordinary depth. The Les Noëls de Montbenault, from rhyolite soils, is more generous and salty, while the Les Rouliers, on sandstone, is harder-edged and intensely savory in its flavors.

Stéphane Bernaudeau

During his years working with Mark Angéli, Bernaudeau acquired about 3.5 hectares of land; he finally left Angéli’s property in 2015, tired of “running between the two, racing like I was a Parisian,” and moved into his own minuscule cellar. His specialty is intense, sublimely-textured chenin from Layon, including Les Ongles, from 30-year-old vines on schist; Les Terres Blanches from a tiny head-trained parcel on limestone; and the stately Les Nourrissons, from century-old vines on schist; plus several reds.

Benoit Courault

Courault studied in Beaune and apprenticed with Eric Pfifferling (L’Anglore) in southern France, and he brings a Burgundian sensibility, including near-fanatical attention to his vineyards—even field-grafting his own vines. His chenins are flamboyant and profoundly mineral, including Gilbourg, from old vines on schist, and Les Guinechiens, from a 50-year-old parcel just outside Bonnezeaux. He also has an unusual talent in the region with reds (thanks to a nuanced understanding of whole-cluster fermentation), including Les Tabeneaux, from cabernet franc and grolleau, and Les Rouliers, solely from franc.

Les Vignes Herbel

Laurent and Nadège Herbel took over winemaker Jo Pithon’s old house and vines in 2014, although they’d been working in the region since 2005. Laurent found he had to manipulate the wines too much to remain in the appellation, so everything is now vin de France, including La Pointe, chenin from 1920s vines, and a smoky cuve-aged red, Alfred & Leon.

Deboutbertin

Vincent and Stéphanie Deboutbertin arrived in Faye-d’Anjou in 2012, more or less in between their hometowns (Rennes for him, Poitiers for her), determined to work by horse. They focus on a basket-pressed chenin, Achillée; pineau d’aunis, L’Aunis Étoilé; and grolleau, Baliverne. And Vincent’s pride for his native Brittany is evident in the “Breizh [Breton] Punishers” hoodie he sports.

Clos de l’Élu

Clos de l’Élu is a longtime property in Saint-Aubin-de-Luigné acquired in 2008 and run by Thomas Carsin, who spent several years in Sonoma, and his wife Charlotte. This is the heart of Chaume (sweet-wine country), but l’Élu retains a slightly experimental focus on dry wines, including a weighty barrel-aged chenin, Bastingage, and another, the amphora-aged Ephata, nuanced if assertively tangy. Also a number of reds and at least two whites (Terre!, Désirade) from old sauvignon blanc vines.

Jean-Christophe Garnier

Garnier worked for a decade as a sommelier in Brittany and the Rhône before arriving in 2002. His whites include La Roche Bézigon, aged in large cask, from two facing schist terroirs on either side of Layon, one of Carboniferous-period soils and another from older Brioverian-era soils; plus bottlings of each on their own. The two together seem to balance out some rusty flavors found in the individual parcels.

Pithon-Paillé

The continuation of Jo Pithon’s winery, now run by his son, Jules, and Jules’ wife, Tania. (The other partners, Pithon’s stepson, Joseph Paillé, and his wife, Wendy, moved to the south of France.) The wines are back on track after a few years of shuffling roles for the family; it’s a big lineup but the Coteau des Treilles, from vines on steep and historically important slopes, and the grolleau-based Grololo, are standouts.

Patrick Baudouin

Baudouin returned from selling books in Paris to reclaim his parents’ old Layon property in 1990, and made only sweet wines until 2001. But he has become a careful student of the region’s history with chenin blanc. There’s a wide range of wines, including Savennières, and the chenin sometimes has a touch of leftover sugar. His Effusion, from rocky volcanic soils, has the richness from malolactic fermentation; while the Les Gâts, from a 1947 planting on schist, is big and savory, with a curry-leaf tang. He makes several reds (and sweet wines) too, including La Fresnaye, from cabernet franc on schistous soils at the edge of the typically white wine-centric Layon.

Clau de Nell

The future of this biodynamic property, established in 2000 and acquired eight years later by Burgundy legend Anne-Claude Leflaive, briefly seemed unclear after her untimely death, in 2015. But estate manager Sylvain Potin, a Loire native, has continued his work seamlessly in Martigné-Briand, at the eastern edge of the Anjou. Here the soils transition from black to white (limestone), and that difference is evident in the wines’ brighter flavors. These are finessed wines, the Chenin Blanc radiant with an almost Puligny-like ripeness to the yellow fruit flavors; the Grolleau more savory (blackberries and celery salt); and the Cabernet Franc all smoke and violets.

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