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How Anjou Became the Capital of Natural Wine

Over the past 15 years, Anjou has emerged as the heart of France’s natural wine movement. Jon Bonné on the wines and winemakers that sparked revolution in this Loire Valley region.

“For me it was a revolution,” Richard Leroy says, as we stand in Les Noëls de Montbenault, one of his small parcels of chenin blanc. “There was chenin and great terroirs, and no one in France knew it.”

It’s the morning after Donald Trump has been elected, and no one has quite processed it yet. My American brain is numb, and it’s quickly dawning on the French that the candidacy of Marine Le Pen, once a running joke, is no longer all that funny.

Revolution isn’t a word I take lightly, but perhaps it’s the right topic to discuss on this particular day. Certainly it’s on Leroy’s mind; almost his first words to me as I walk through the door of his small cellar? “There’s a revolution happening in wine right now.”

For sure, that’s true in the sprawling region known as the Anjou, which encompasses Leroy’s land in the Layon valley, as well as well-known appellations like Savennières. Layon, though, is the core of the Anjou. It was once known for such sweet wines as Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume, but it has transformed itself in the past 15 years into a hub for precisely the sort of wines that are popular around the world right now: made with a minimum of artifice in the cellar; free from historical baggage about what they should taste like; often produced by first-generation winemakers with no family ties to wine.

As such, the Anjou has emerged as French wine’s great hippie laboratory. (Some credit is due to nearby Angers, which hosts a number of key natural-wine gatherings.) It’s the current heart of the country’s natural wine movement, even more than the Touraine region to the east, home to pioneering vignerons like Catherine and Pierre Breton in Bourgueil, or Didier Barrouillet and Catherine Roussel of Clos Roche Blanche. And even more than Beaujolais, despite that region giving birth to the movement’s intellectual roots.

Leroy has been an icon in Anjou’s transformation, especially after he achieved wider fame as a main character in Étienne Davodeau’s graphic memoir Les Ignorants (The Initiates). He started as a banker and wine lover in Paris, tasting a lot of great bottles—Pétrus, Romanée-Conti and so on—before moving to the Loire, thinking he might make sweet wines. Soon he discovered that the town of Rablay-sur-Layon, despite being nowhere particularly special, had a remarkable history with such things. Here, chenin blanc thrives on stark and stony volcanic soils of rhyolite and the altered basalt known as spilite, found on either side of the small Layon River.

But Layon’s sweet wines require the presence of botrytis and late harvests, and Leroy was tired of competing with the local birds for his grapes. So he started picking earlier, and making dry wines. His two bottlings, Les Noels de Montbenault and Le Clos des Rouliers, quickly achieved cult status—a pinnacle of chenin at a time when that grape was beginning its star turn. Leroy had, perhaps inadvertently, mapped out the modern Anjou’s road to revolution: Find a place with clear underdog status, cheap land and newly fashionable grape varieties, and let the world take notice.

I say “modern Anjou” because the current frenzy for the region’s wines can make it easy to overlook its significant past. Once upon a time, wines from appellations like Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume were revered; Leroy himself points out that a 1921 Montbenault once sold for the same price as Château d’Yquem, the great Sauternes. But during the latter half of the 20th century, as interest in sweet wine dimmed, the region became known for cheap red wine, drab chemical farming and, more than anything, for a relatively trashy wine called rosé d’Anjou.

“The ‘70s, with throwing your keys in a bowl and all that, was washed down with awful rosé from here,” says Toby Bainbridge, a British expat winemaker in the nearby village of Chavagnes, referring to one of that decade’s allegedly libertine pastimes.

By the time Anjou’s new wave showed up, they didn’t have to struggle too much to break with the traditions of the past. When Mark Angeli of La Ferme de la Sansonnière arrived in 1989, “dry chenin had completely disappeared from the region for 50 years,” he recalls. The few reds being made were mostly rotgut, and appellation rules required them to be made from the two cabernets—franc and sauvignon—even though old-vine parcels of grolleau and pineau d’aunis thrived throughout the area.

Anjou arguably felt like the right place to work precisely because there was so little precedent for the sort of things its new pioneers wanted to make: complex, dry wines from both chenin and red grolleau (plus some cabernet franc and other things), farmed organically or biodynamically, sometimes bottled under the relatively lowly “Anjou” appellation but often marked simply as vin de France. Their ranks grew rapidly, and included important figures like Leroy, who arrived in 1996, and Réné and Agnes Mosse, wine-bar owners in nearby Tours who were inspired to make their own wine by the 1990s Loire revitalization, helmed by winemakers like Jo Pithon and Marc Angeli.

Successive waves have never stopped coming. Today it’s possible to locate at least a couple dozen emerging talents, including Vincent and Stéphanie Deboutbertin in Faye d’Anjou, who had a desire to work by horse and a sentimentality for chenin and grolleau; Geneviève Delatte and Nicolas Bertin of Bertin-Delatte, who bought their own land in 2008 after working for other winemakers; and Angeli’s former assistant Stéphane Bernaudeau, who finally set up his own cellar in 2015 and makes some of the region’s most compelling, savory examples of chenin.

Some have acquired modest land, surely, but others have uncovered legitimately serious dirt. That’s my conclusion, as least, when I go to visit Benoit Courault, who farms just on the other side of Bonnezeaux, a village now largely fallen into obscurity. Courault studied in Burgundy before moving to the area in 2005, and I’ve been drawn to the uncommon depth of his wines. The reason why becomes clear when he takes me to a nearby clearing to see Les Guinechiens, a parcel of 50-year-old head-trained chenin planted on a compelling mix of acidic soils: schist, sandstone, quartz-like rocks. “It’s been badly treated,” Courault says of his land, “but it’s a great terroir.”

That land, and its relative cheapness, attracted these newcomers; a hectare of planted vines can still be had for €13,000 (a bit more, in Courault’s case) and often as cheaply as €4,000 for unplanted land or less-desirable grapes like grolleau. But they were equally drawn by the success of earlier arrivals, who, with a colonial spirit, took pride in helping their new neighbors settle in. That engendered what Thomas Carsin of Clos de l’Elu, who arrived in Layon in 2008 after working Burgundy and Sonoma, calls “a rare spirit in the Anjou”—the sense that anything is possible.

While these new naturalist arrivals get the most credit, it’s important to acknowledge that seeds of change appeared in the Anjou decades ago—by way of Pithon, for instance, who set up shop in Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay in 1978. He was edged out of his own property in 2008, but today his family continues under the Pithon-Paillé label, exploiting new ground like the steep slopes on the escarpment of Coteaux du Pont-Barré, a natural preserve just above the Layon river, where the family grows chenin on schist and volcanic “pudding stones,” a clash of two geological epochs.

The Anjou also got a boost from one very vocal revolutionary just across the river in Savennières: Nicolas Joly, who left investment banking in 1977 to reclaim his family’s historic property, Coulée de Serrant—one of the few appellations in France owned by a single family. An early convert to biodynamics, Joly became arguably the world’s most vocal proponent for that farming system, writing several books on the subject, and founding La Renaissance des Appellations, a global group of like-minded vintners.

Savennières, as one of the Loire’s more successful appellations, offered a template for what the rest of the Anjou could achieve, even if its wines were sometimes criticized for topping 15 percent alcohol. (Even in 1965, the expert Alexis Lichine found them “very high in alcohol, and very slow in maturing.”) But current-generation vignerons like Patrick Baudouin and Thibaud Boudignon have ushered in a leaner style for Savennières—and, perhaps more importantly, they also work with land the other side of the river, in Layon. This is a matter of basic economics, given that the Anjou overall has 17 times as much plantable land as Savennières’ 146 hectares. As Boudignon puts it: “I’d prefer great terroir from Anjou rather than shit from Savennières.”

The new Anjou posse also came to a related conclusion: that it was wiser to abandon old appellation rules—controlled, as they often are in the Loire, by old-boy networks of local farmers—and simply make vin de France. That’s standard practice today in the natural wine world, but it took an early and particularly strong hold in the Layon valley. Winemakers here took pleasure in sustaining a revolutionary spirit when it came to appellation rules, including Angeli, who poked local authorities with his Rosé d’Un Jour (a play on “rosé d’Anjou.”)

Most notable, though, is Olivier Cousin, the area’s pioneer in unsulfured winemaking, whose fight over the use of a grape name and the word “Anjou” on his labels led to perhaps France’s most visible—and colorful—legal battle over wine laws in the past few decades; it culminated with Cousin arriving to the courthouse with his draft horses in tow in a symbol of defiance against modern winemaking. (The case ended after an appeals court ruled Cousin violated the rules but reversed any penalties.) That cemented the Loire’s reputation as a place where appellations were dying, to the point that even Joly cut ties with the region’s official trade body a couple years ago.

All of this makes a great countercultural tale. But I also believe the most meaningful work in the Anjou will ultimately come from those who comprehend that revolution isn’t merely a matter of ideology. While wines like La Roche Bézigon (a chenin made by another Angeli apprentice, Jean-Christophe Garnier) exist on their own terms, they’re still being grown on land—to Leroy’s point—that brims with history.

Indeed, the soils in many corners of the Anjou, along with a relatively mild climate and humidity (hence the potential for botrytis, and sweet wines) have been a remarkable asset for a long time. There’s a reason this area is called “black Anjou”: It consists of jumbled remnants of the old Armorican Massif, all dark volcanic and metamorphic rock, full of schist, rhyolite, sandstone and more. Those soils bring a very different quality to the wines than the limestone-rich soils—”white Anjou”—farther east, near the city of Saumur. They give wines from places like Layon a more somber and spicy countenance than those from farther east—a darker quality, if you will, that’s perceptible even in the area’s more willfully natural specimens.

All of which, I think, provides an opportunity for a real enduring legacy in Anjou, not just an insurgent blip. That’s important, because the thing with laboratories is that some experiments fail, and I encountered a good number of wines from the area that seemed like triumphs of minimalist ideology over taste. But there’s also a deserved clamor for the best of the new guard; try locating a bottle of Bernaudeau or Les Vignes Herbel, much less Leroy. I’d like to believe that the Anjou’s current popularity is creating pressure for better winemaking. But I do wonder: Have the wines found an audience simply because they tick the right natural wine boxes, or do they transcend fad?

It’s a question that attends any sort of popularity these days. But what seems most promising in the Anjou is that the region’s best winemakers understand that their fight was never just about them casting aside old traditions. They comprehend that the revolution has to be sustained. And if they can make that happen, the fight has already been won.

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