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Welcome to the world of Loire Valey Wine Tour!

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Welcome to the world of Loire Valey Wine Tour!

On these pages we will be discussing our tours, the wines and the vineyards of the Loire Valley. Grape varieties, wine shows and even the weather will be featured from time to time, together with wine news and events.

We hope you will drop in often to see what is happening in the Loire Valley wine growing region.

The wine awards

Sommelier Wine Awards

Sommelier Wine Awards

How often have you found yourself in this situation?

You stand in the wine store or supermarket, surrounded by thousands of bottles of wine. You know roughly what you want to buy – a fruity red, an easy drinking rosé or a white suitable for that fish dish perhaps – but how to choose between the huge range of wines (and prices) on offer?

Me, I’m a sucker for wine awards. I know some of you are cynical, and I know that the bottle on the shelf next to an award-winner can be just as good, but if a jury of experts comparing one hundred Cabernet francs think they have found something special and awarded it a medal, that’s good enough for me.

Not all award schemes are of equal value, of course. All over the world and all over the Loire Valley, little wine shows and country festivals are awarding medals to local wines. But the major award schemes are organised and adjudicated by national and international experts and should be taken seriously. They certainly help to narrow down the choice.Liger

What competitions should you look out for when selecting Loire Valley Wines?

The Loire has its own scheme attached to a major wine-trade fair held each year in Angers the Salon des vins de Loire. The Concours des Ligers held each April are extremely well respected and only Loire wines are included. 126 Ligers d’Or (Gold), 192 Ligers d’Argent (Silver), 203 Ligers de Bronze (Bronze) medals were awarded last year (2014), judged by a panel of 312 professionals – sommeliers, wine specialists, producers and journalists – who tasted and marked 2029 Loire wines (white, red, rosé and sparkling wines).

The Concours des Lys was originally a competition only for wines from the Anjou and Saumur vineyards but since 2001 has included wines from Touraine and the rest of the Loire Valley. Tasting is again held in April with a jury consisting of wine producers, dealers, brokers, vineyard and wine specialists, restaurant owners, sommeliers and amateurs, who come together to award the Lys to the top wines of the Loire vineyards.

concourspqrisParis is host each year to the Agricultural Fair and the authoritative Concours General Agricole since 1870. Recognised for its impartiality, it is the only state controlled competition and attracts more than sixteen thousand wines from throughout France. Over 3,000 specialists judge the wine, awarding Gold Silver and Bronze medals to those who make the grade, and Awards of Excellence to producers for consistent high quality. The 2014  Award of Excellence  for wines of the Val de Loire and Centre regions went to Muscadet producers Chateau de La Ferté in Vallet. The Loire did very well in the medals and in our immediate area, the Touraine, 55 medals were awarded.

condesvinsThe Concours des Grands Vins de France has been running since 1954 and is highly respected. Between 9,000 and 11,000 samples are accepted each year, reviewed by 2,100 tasters hailing from 19 countries. 2,558 medals were awarded in 2014 (around 28% of entries), with 608 gold medals, 741 silver and 1,209 bronze. The Loire Valley clocked up 30 medals this year, several awarded to wine makers I visit on a regular basis. These wines are worth looking out for particularly as the majority of them are available through the major retail outlets – at least, they are here in France.

vinaliesThe Union des Oenologues de France, the official professional winemakers’ organisation, organises two major wine awards – one for Rosés – the World Rosé Competition – and another for wines in general – the Vinalies. In rosés, three vineyards I know well have won awards: Couly-Dutheil and Pierre & Bertrand Couly, both from Chinon, collected Gold medals in 2014, while the co-op La Gourmandière won a Silver for its Gamay Rosé. The 32nd Vinalies competition gave awards to 106 Loire wines in 2014. I’m still working my way through the list of gorgeous wines!

sauvConcours Mondial du Sauvignon –the world Sauvignon blanc competition – is based in Brussels but includes committee members from the world of wine around the globe. In 2014 a total of 71 Loire Valley wines won awards, several vineyards in the list being well known to Loire Valley Wine Tour clients. I have always maintained that the Loire, particularly our end of it, is where some of the world’s best white wines are produced and this completion adds weight to my argument. Today, there are roughly four main styles of Sauvignon globally, with a few variations intent on keeping our palates interested. On one hand we have warmer climate, softer, fuller bodied, fruit and barrique-driven Bordeaux and New World Fume Blanc styles. On the other, we have cooler climate, finer bodied, higher acid, floral-herbal driven styles from the Loire and New Zealand; it’s a remarkable grape producing fascinating wines. The 5th edition of the Concours will be held in Italy in May 2015.

Chardonnay du Monde competition (21st edition in 2014). Another single grape variety completion looking at wines from 40 countries, with France well represented. A few Loire wines have been awarded medals, despite the region not being a major producer of this variety. Chardonnay is the most popular white wine grape in the world, but in the Loire Valley it is used as a blending grape. It adds structure and richness to sparkling wines and can be used in several still white wines, but it never makes up more than 20% of the blend. Just occasionally you find a 100% Chardonnay, labelled as a Val de Loire or Vin de France.

IWCThe International Wine Challenge. Now in its 32nd year, the IWC is accepted as the world’s finest and most meticulously judged wine competition which assesses every wine blind and judges each for its faithfulness to style, region and vintage. Throughout the rigorous judging processes, each medal-winning wine is tasted on three separate occasions by at least 10 different judges and awards include medals (Trophy, Gold, Silver, Bronze) and Commended and Great Value awards. Nearly 160 Loire wines won awards in 2014 with Loire Chenin Trophy and the International Chenin Trophy going to white Saumur of Château de Targé.

The International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC). Established in 1969, The International Wine & Spirit Competition was the first competition of its kind, set up to seek out, reward and promote the world’s best wines, spirits and liqueurs. Now in its 45th year, The IWSC’s relentless pursuit of excellence underpins every aspect of the competition today. What sets the IWSC apart is the formidable reputation of its judging process. The panels of carefully selected industry experts comprise Masters of Wine, buyers, sommeliers, WSET qualified educators and respected wine journalists. Every single wine is assessed on its own merits within the context of its class. Currently receiving entries from around 90 countries, the IWSC is truly international in its reach and recognition.

Monde Selection International Wine Contest. This international wine competition, based in Brussels, attracts samples from over 20 different countries to its blind tastings.

Concours International de Lyon. In 2014, some 3,685 samples from 22 countries were tasted. International tasters from all sectors of the wine industry (oenologists, sommeliers, restaurateurs, producers, wine shop owners, as well as knowledgeable consumers) have made this competition an important event. The position of honorary president alternates between a well-known sommelier and a master chef from Lyon. 42 Loire Valley wines won awards this year.

fempalmaresFéminises is unusual as the judges are female wine industry professionals or wine lovers. The ladies seem to appreciate Loire wines, with 104 medals awarded this year. In the major wine consuming countries (France, Germany, the USA and so on) more than 70% of women buy wine for the household so winemakers are taking this competition seriously.

The Sommelier Wine Awards are organised by the UK trade magazine Inbibe, with a judging panel of professional sommeliers. With no less than 266 medals and 100 commended wines, France won nearly as many awards as Italy and Spain put together. 2014 Loire results: Gold: 3; Silver: 10; Bronze: 2; Commended: 7 with Sancerre doing particularly well.

Decanter is a UK specialist wine magazine with some of the most notable wine writers contributing; it is one of the few journals I subscribe to. The Decanter World Wine Awards highlighted 174 Loire wines included a number of our favourites. It describes itself as world’s largest and most influential wine competition.

Decanter

Finally, a number of wine guides award medals and commendations each year, some of the most well respected being: Guide Hachette, Gault & Millau, La Revue du vin de France, Bettane+Desseauve and Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. A copy of the Hachette Guide (in French only) is always with me on my travels and we use it to seek out the best producers whenever we visit a wine region which is new to us.

Talking to winemakers who have won awards at these events over the years, they will tell you that they are complicated and expensive to enter. As a result, each winemaker will decide which he can contribute to each year and some will not bother at all. I am aware of many fine wine producers who, while widely acknowledged as top producers in their region, never take part in competitions. By sticking to the medal winners you will be missing out on a huge variety of fine wines, but at least you are learning to recognise some of the best in the region. Only by visiting and tasting these wines, award winning or not, will you discover the real treasures of the Loire Valley wine appellations.

Kir – Loire Valley versions

When we are touring and tasting in the Loire Valley we might treat ourselves to a little cocktail before lunching at our chosen restaurant.

In Montrichard, the ancient town on the Cher which is often our midday venue when visiting Touraine vineyards, we will sip on a Kir made from Sauvignon blanc and crème de cassis. Relaxing in the sunshine in the old market square below the romantic ruins of the 15thC castle, nothing could be finer. On the Loire Sauvignon blanc may be replaced by Chenin blanc.

In Bourgueil, further down the Loire in fine red wine country, the Kir is made from a light Cabernet franc and is called a Cadinal or a Communard.

Of course, if we are really going to spoil ourselves, we could ask for a Kir Pétillant – made with local sparkling wine – or a Kir Royal – using Champagne. And the variations do not end here; in the south of France you may be offered a Kir made with peach, raspberry or even Fig liqueurs, while here in the ancient French region of the Berry, Kir Berrichon is made with red wine and blackberry liqueur (Crème de mûres).

Kir ingredients

A selection of Kir ingredients

Originally called blanc-cassis, the drink is  named after Félix Kir, mayor of Dijon in Burgundy from 1945 until his death in 1968. Kir, an ordained priest and Second World War resistance fighter, was a pioneer of the town twinning movement, intended to foster friendship and understanding  between former foes as an act of peace and reconciliation.

He is said to have popularised the drink by offering it at receptions to visiting delegations. Besides treating his international guests well, he was also promoting two economic products of the region: crème de cassis and white Burgundy wine.

Recipes for Kir vary according to taste with between 1 part in 5 and 1 part in 10 liqueur to wine being the normal range. Here in the Loire Valley, in addition to a choice of suitable white (and red) wines, we have a local liqueur maker in Distillerie GIRARDOT, located in Chissay en Touraine, on the banks of the river Cher between Montrichard and Chenonceaux. This company, dating from 1900, produces a range of fruit Crèmes  of around 20% alcohol, liqueurs (30%) and eau de vie (40%).

 

 

 

Vouvray and other fine wines.

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A small group of clients recently asked for a very special tour via their American travel agent and we were pleased to oblige. Staying at the Chateau de Fontenay near Bléré, a lovely home dating from 1780 complete with its own 10Ha of vineyards, they were hoping to visit and buy wines at some of the best producers in the Loire Valley.

We started our tour at Chenonceaux to taste Touraine and Touraine Chenonceaux wines with the patriarch of the appellation, Alain Godeau of Caves du Père Auguste. Six generations of the family have produced wine on this site, situated on a low ridge facing south down to the river Cher and the famous chateau de Chenonceau. They cultivate 42 acres of land, including the vines owned by the chateau (which can be tasted and bought there).

All the wines produced here display a delightful fruitiness, nicely balanced by an acidity typical of the region. My own favourite is the Chenonceaux Sauvignon blanc, but many clients talk highly of the rosé, the slightly sweeter Chenin blanc, or any of the other wines in their range. Tour and tasting completed and purchases made, we moved on.

Next stop was Montrichard, with its castle constructed in the 11th C by Foulques Nerra, Count of Anjou, rebuilt in the 12th century but dismantled in 1589 on the orders of Good King Henri IV. Paul Buisse has his cellars in the limestone cliffs above the river Cher and just along from the castle, where a range of fine wine are aged in the caves.

A fourth generation winemaker, Paul Buisse himself has recently retired but the company has been taken over by Pierre Chainier, another local company who themselves come from a long line of Bordeaux and Cognac winemakers dating back to 1749.

With the joining of these two companies the range of Loire Valley wines offered is very wide and includes both local Touraine’s and wines from further afield: from the far west of the Loire comes a dry Muscadet, made with 100% melon de Bourgogne, while Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines (Sauvignon blanc) are produced at vineyards four hours’ drive up the river to the east. At the halfway point on the Loire, delightful fruity and tannic reds are made in Chinon, Bourgueil and St. Nicolas de Bourgueil. Their Vouvrays are also rather good. It’s a big region, as I’m always telling people!

The tour here includes underground production facilities cut into the limestone cliffs, storage and aging cellars and a charming troglodyte room used for group visits and tastings. One of their cellars slopes steeply up through the cliff and is used to store a reference collection of ancient vintages.

Wines at Paul Buisse never let you down and we had the opportunity to taste a wide selection before my clients bought a number of cases, including some of those lovely reds, in particular a Chinon from 2003 produced for the one hundredth anniversary of the company in 2005.

We had hoped to go next to Jackie Blot in Montlouis sur Loire but they were unable to receive us on this occasion. The highlight of the day was yet to come however and in order to be in position for our next appointment we made our way through the countryside and down to the Loire Valley for lunch at Vouvray. At le Grand Vatel restaurant we were able to taste a rather fine Bourgueil from Jackie Blot to accompany our meal, which itself was rather lovely. Unfortunately we were watching the clock and hurrying throughout, so we really did not do it justice.

Ouvouvrayr afternoon appointment was at the Domaine du Clos Naudin and we were treated to a wonderful tasting deep in the caves. The cellars are located in the same road as Domaine Huet, one of the other great Vouvray producers, but while Huet have over 30 Ha and is owned by an American businessman, Clos Naudin is 11 Ha and still in family hands.

Owner Phillipe Foreau greeted us and took us into the caves carved out of the rock by his Grandfather and Father in the 1920’s, just across the road from their house. Do not expect to be able to drop in here for a casual tasting without an appointment; they are busy people, but very welcoming to serious buyers and wine enthusiasts.

This is a very busy period on the vineyard. Cultivation of the soil is by machine and by hand as no weedkillers are used here. It is also the period when foliage is removed to reduce vine vigour and allow more light and air to get at the fruit. No insecticides, pesticides or artificial fertilisers are used on the property although they will spray against mildew if necessary, so they are very vigilant at this time of the year.

The large majority of Vouvrey’s are sparkling wines and these can be very fine indeed, as we were soon to find out. In the case of Clos Naudin, and of Huet, still wines, ranging from (relatively) dry whites through to luscious sweet wines, account for 60% of production. The sweetest are produced only in the best years: no sugar is ever added.

We started our tasting with sparkling wines and found their 2007 Brut Reserve (€17.60 a bottle) simply superb. Very fine bubbles from long cellar aging, a taste of white fruit, biscuits and butter, to drink on its own, with salmon or scallops.

The still wines were also much appreciated and we admired the hundreds of oak barrels against the limestone walls of the cave, holding and aging the stock of this gorgeous liquid. Purchases included a dry 2012, ideal with fish and shell fish, and a selection of increasingly sweet wines from 2010, 2009 and the quite remarkable, luscious 2003. I love these sweet Chenin blanc wines; never sickly, they are real wines with delicious overtones of pear, apricots and other fruits. They are produced by late harvesting of hand selected grapes, which in some years are affected by the famous “noble rot”. These are wines which will age and keep for decades. If you do not like sweet wine – try these and expect to be converted.

Our Domaine du Clos Naudine selection.

Our Domaine du Clos Naudine selection.

Phillipe proved to be passionate about his wines, keen explain the qualities and characteristics of each of them and to suggest appropriate dishes to pair with them. He is a perfect ambassador for this elite level of the Vouvray appellation.

We left the Domaine du Clos Naudin with some reluctance but drove around the vineyard lanes to get a feel for the place. Large areas of land close to, but well above the river Loire are planted with vines. Sadly, not all the wine sold is of the quality of that which we sampled today. The top quality growers are undoubtable worth seeking out and continue to fly the flag for some of the best wines that this fine wine region can produce.

Over the hills to Sancerre

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As I have said many times before, people tend not to realise just how big the Loire Valley is. The longest river in France, from its source up in the mountains of the Massif Central to the estuary on the Atlantic at St Nazaire is a distance of 1,012 kilometres (629 mi). Its main tributaries include the Nièvre, Maine and the Erdre rivers on its right bank, and the Allier, Cher, Indre, Vienne, and the Sèvre Nantaise rivers to the left bank. Between them they drain more than a fifth of France’s land area.

Vines are not grown along the whole of its length, but they are for a very significant portion and many of the tributaries are also Loire Valley wine production areas.

Aqueduct de Briare

Aqueduct de Briare

We live in a village on the river Cher and have easy access to the whole of the central wine growing region and many of the thousand or so chateaux which adore its river banks. Nevertheless, it is a three hour drive west to the Muscadet vineyards near Nantes, while Sancerre and Pouilly Fume are two hours to the east.  Visits to these outlying districts normally involve an overnight stay.

Cayeux iris

Cayeux iris

I small gap in our bookings schedule allowed us to do exactly that recently, driving through the dense woodlands of the Sologne to the ceramic district of Giens.  Our first day was full of non-wine events including a viewing of the Iris fields and display gardens of Cayeux (whose staff were busy winning awards at Chelsea Flower Show at the time). We were able to walk the dog over the world’s second longest canal bridge, the aqueduct de Briare, which carries the Canal latéral à la Loire 662 metres across the river Loire. A picnic was arranged by the river and within sight of the bridge.

After spending the night at a country B & B we moved into the wine-hunting phase of the trip, eventually finding ourselves in Verdigny-en-Sancerre, with nothing but vines in all directions and where we had an appointment with Michel and Benoît Girard. Actually two sons are involved in the Domaine, with one running the business side of things while the other is out in the fields. Michel rushes about and helps wherever help is needed. Their 12 hectare estate is made up of 40 parcels of vineyard where the average age of vines is 15 years.

Vineyards of Verdigny-en-Sancerre

Vineyards of Verdigny-en-Sancerre

The vines of the Domaine Michel Girard et Fils cover all three Sancerre soil types –Terres Blanches, composed of limestone-clay soils including the famous Kimmeridgian marl found on the western hills, pebbly-limestone soils or Caillottes nearer to Sancerre and flinty-clay soils found on the eastern slopes near the Loire. Fermentation is in stainless steel using naturally occurring yeasts and the resulting wines are blended to achieve the balance they are seeking.

 Girard, Pere et Fils

Girard, Pere et Fils

We tasted both white and red wines and after indulging ourselves with the full range bought a few cases of deliciously fruity, un-oaked Sauvignon and some serious-tasting, oaked Pinot Noir. We passed a very pleasant couple of hours discussing their wines and life in general before stomachs started to rumble and the church bells rang 12 noon.

Time for lunch, and we dropped back down to the river to eat at Saint Satur, at the Le Bord de Loire restaurant. The first course for us both was Salade de crottin de Chavignol grillé et jambon de Sancerre and while I selected a fine filet of beef with a Pinot Noir sauce, Marie-Chantal had local fish: Dos de sandre emincé d’artichaud étuvée de legumes. Wines were local of course, but in all the excitement I forgot to note their names!

Colin at Maison de Sancerre

Colin at Maison de Sancerre

Next stop was Sancerre itself, perched on its limestone and flint hill over 300 metres above the river Loire, a natural fortress given its first castle in the 12th C.  Through the narrow streets and in a restored 14thC house, the Maison de Sancerre is a great venue to discover the Sancerre wines and vineyards. The centre provides an overview of the geography of the wine region, its characters and winemaking techniques. A 7 Euro visit includes a glass of wine which can be enjoyed indoors or, as we did, on a sunny terrace overlooking the vineyards.

The view from the Maison de Sancerre  towards Chavignol.

The view from the Maison de Sancerre towards Chavignol.

A final glimpse of Sancerre

A final glimpse of Sancerre

Hardly believing how quickly time had passed, we hit the road again and headed back towards home, discussing what we had seen and tasted and planning another trip very soon. We would like to introduce ourselves to several more winemakers both in Sancerre and in neighbouring Pouilly-Fume and Menetou-Salon, neither of which we saw this time round. Then there’s Pouilly-sur-Loire wines made from Chasselas grapes and Coteaux du Giennois, which looked promising as we drove past on our way to the Pont de Briare.

Perhaps we should allow for a longer stay next time!

Salon des Vins de Loire 2014 – the awards

Exhausted but very happy, I spent the day at the Salons des Vins de Loire on Monday, meeting, greeting and tasting with the winemakers of the region and the crowds of trade buyers who had come to make contact and do deals.

Organic Loire Valley Wines stand

Organic Loire Valley Wines stand

This is a huge show and I have promised myself that one year I will do it properly, spending two or three days here and staying at a local hotel. It is the only way to do this exhibition justice.

The annual Concours des Ligers is an important part of the show, handing out awards to the best wines. This year 2283 wines were offered to the judges, who awarded 145 Gold medals, 239 Silver and 256 bronze. These medals will be very important in the sales and marketing of the award winning wines and the competition is hotly contested.

The show and the competition covers the whole of the Loire region but here is my selection of winners from the area I have chosen as home – the appellations of the Touraine and Valençay. If you click on a list it will come up in another window and be easier to read.

Gold

Gold medal winners – concours ed ligers 2014

Silver

Silver medal winners

Bronze

Bronze

I made some valuable contacts, chatting to winemakers who would be pleased to receive our wine tour clients and others who make superb wines which impressed me on a personal level. Everywhere there was pride and passion for the creation of an amazing product in conditions which are often challenging. Its an inspiring place to be.

Seeking out the award winning winemakers

Loire Valley Wine Tour

Domaine de Bellevue

In last year’s World Sauvignon awards, local wines from the Touraine came away with 16 Gold Medals and a huge number of lesser titles – but I have probably already mentioned that in these pages.

This should come as no great surprise, the Loire Valley being the home of Sauvignon blanc, but we are very proud of the growers who made the effort to have their work internationally recognised.

Bellevue wines

Bellevue wines

I recently constructed a map for Google with the names and locations of all these gold medal-winners; you can find it here: https://mapsengine.google.com/map/edit?mid=zpMMM5WEoIG0.kek7djwCKIzk

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The canal close to Bellevue

Armed with this map and a list of names and addresses, the family and I went out on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon to find one of the growers. The one we chose – Domaine de Bellevue – is close to our home and on a beautiful slope above the Canal de Berry and the river Cher at Noyers-sur-Cher.

A fourth generation wine maker (we met the fifth generation as well, two strapping young lads pleased to be following in the father’s footsteps), Patrick Vauvy is passionate about his wines. He has vines in several plots giving him a variety of soils and growing conditions to work with. In the case of Sauvignon, he likes to pick and vinify separately and blend the resulting wines to create the balance and complexity he looks for in his product. His best soil looks down on the river, faces directly south and has a sand/flint soil.

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Frost protection fans at Bellevue

Spring frost can be a problem here and he was the first in the region to borrow an idea from the growers of Quincy, installing a huge fan in the centre of his vines in 2004. This moves the cold air and allows warmer air to drop down and protect the flowers and delicate buds. Patrick likes to pick ripe berries resulting in wines of lower acidity; when they are at the perfect stage he picks day and night for a week to get the crop in. Another particularity of this winemaker: he prefers to use no commercial yeast, relying on the wild yeasts found naturally on the fruit. Only if the wine fails to ferment completely does he add commercially produced yeasts; the result is a wine that more closely reflects his own particular vineyard.

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Recently pruned vines at Domaine de Bellevue

Domaine de Bellevue Sauvignon 2012 – the one with the gold medal – has completely sold out now but we tasted a very lovely 2013, bottled on Christmas Eve. We also sampled, and bought, a Chardonnay, labelled Vin de Pays, because this wine grape cannot be called an AOP Touraine, and a rose made from Gamay, Cabernet franc, Cot (Malbec) and  Pineau d’Aunis. They produce a sparkling Cremant de la Loire using the Chardonnay as base wine and a whole range of reds, but these we did not taste.

After this experience we will try to visit all of the growers on my Concours Mondial du Sauvignon list and report back.

Large format wine

Magnums.

Mostly when we think of wine, we think of a bottle holding 75ml, made of glass, with a natural cork. It’s the standard format and one which has been with us for centuries. In fact, this size was only adopted in the US in 1979; prior to that the “standard” in the Sates was 1/5th gallon, 757ml.

In my daily travels and wine tours I sometimes come across half bottles – a Demi, 375ml – mostly in motorway service stations and airplanes. Sweet wines, which may be drunk less often and in smaller quantities, are generally offered in 500ml bottles. In larger sizes I regularly buy Magnums of 1.5L and of course, wine boxes of 2L, 3L, 5L or 10L.

Many large bottle sizes, with delightful Biblical names and volumes of 3 – 30L, are still available in Champagne but also sometimes found in Burgundy and Bordeaux.

One reason people love large-format wine bottles is that they look so impressive on the table. If you have a few guests for dinner you are likely to open a couple of bottles, but a single magnum impresses more! Good looks are merely a happy side effect of these super-sized wines’ real advantage however: they also allow the wines inside to age more slowly.

magnum wine bottles

A few magnums on sale at our local supermarket.

For most of wine’s long history, aging wasn’t an issue. Wine was consumed young and this is still the case for many – perhaps most – of the wines we drink today. Cylindrical wine bottles with cork stoppers did not become commonplace until the end of the 18th century. Among their many advantages was the fact that they allowed wines to be laid down—literally—for aging, with the wine inside keeping the cork moist and the seal tight.

The origins of the magnum, which holds twice as much as a standard 750-ml bottle, is disputed, but magnums soon came to be prized by collectors because of their superior aging qualities. In fact, thanks to their aging advantage, as well as their relative rarity, magnums of older outstanding vintages often sell for far more than double the price of standard bottles at auction. “Length of life, speed of maturity, and level of ultimate quality are all in direct proportion to bottle size,” writes wine authority Hugh Johnson.

A key virtue of any of these larger bottles for ageable red wines is that they offer better defences against some of time’s less positive effects. For example, exposure to air will eventually oxidize wine, causing losses of colour and flavour. The larger the bottle, the smaller the surface-to-volume ratio, because less of the wine is exposed to the small amount of air within the bottle. It therefore keeps better.

In addition, wine in a large-format bottle is cushioned from the outside environment by its own volume. The thermal mass of the larger bottle means that it is relatively better protected against small temperature fluctuations, vibrations, and other disturbances. Of course, even a large-format bottle must be stored under proper conditions, away from light and vibration, with constant temperatures in the 13-18°C (55-to 65F) range. Within that range, the cooler the wine, the more slowly aging will occur and natural cave cellars in the Loire Valley are generally 11°C all year round.

But when conditions are right, larger bottles are an ideal way to allow age-worthy wines to reach their full potential. Our own cellar, built in the 16th century,  currently contains storage racks for around 1300 bottles and we are gradually accumulating a selection of magnums down there –  few from Bordeaux, from Rioja in Spain, down in the Rhone and the south of France and several sparkling wines.

Bag-in-box.

This format was an Australian invention from back in the 1960’s when their main market was for cheap wine sold to unsophisticated clients. It involves putting wine into a heavy plastic bag contained in a cardboard protective box. The advantages of this system are many, with low packaging cost and subsequently lower retail cost, being a major factor.

Romorantin-Lanthenay-20140124-00106

A small selection of around one hundred different bag-in-box wines available at the same supermarket.

The primary benefit that bag-in-box packaging offers to consumers, apart from cost, is that it prevents oxidation of the wine during dispensing. After opening, wine in a bottle is oxidised by the air which has displaced the wine poured. Wine in a bag is not touched by air and thus not subject to oxidation until it is dispensed. It is not subject to cork taint or spoilage due to slow consumption and can stay fresh for weeks after opening. This makes it ideal for the drinker of the occasional glass.

Despite having an image problem, especially in the US where it is synonymous with the cheapest of cheap wines, serious winemakers around the world are increasingly packaging this way. We have tasted a number of Bag-in-Box wines since our arrival in France and now have a list of many we are very happy to drink. I am sorry if this horrifies some of you!

The best we have discovered offered in this format are rosé and white wines, but one or two easy-drinking reds are also to be found on the Elliott kitchen shelf on occasions. In that perhaps 80% of wines bought are consumed within a week or two, expensive bottles and corks serve little purpose.

Some wine makers do put inferior wines in their boxes, but others do not, offering a great bargain to purchasers of bulk wine. The only way to find out is to talk to the producer and taste his wine and we have been valiantly doing this research for several years.

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