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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.

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.

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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.

Salon des Vins de Loire 2014

I have just received my invitation to the Salon des Vins de Loire, one of France’s largest trade wine fairs, to be held at the Parc des Expositions, Angers, between 3rd – 5th February 2014.

Salon des Vins de Loire

The Loire Valley is a vineyard 1000 km long and is the number one producer of AOP white wines and, next Champagne, the number one producer of sparkling wines.

Around 4oo million bottles of wine are produced each year on 70,000 ha of vineyards by 7,000 wine producers. 73 million bottles are exported and 9000 trade buyers from around the world regularly attend. The fair is the venue for one of the most prestigious wine competitions, the Palmarès Ligers, and a highlight of the show is the opportunity to taste many of the winning wines.

At the same time there are usually a number of smaller fairs promoting, for example, Loire Valley organic wines, so the first week of February is always a busy period for us. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

Wine, St. Vincent and Saint Martin

wine is....

wine is….

Looking for the explanation for the  patron saints of wine makers I came across this great poster inspired by van Gogh, wine and good Saint Vincent of Saragossa. Saint Vincent, whose feast day is January 22nd,  is one of a number who is venerated by winemakers, including St. Martin, St. Trifon, St. Armand, Saint Goar, Saint Lawrence, St. Morand and St. Walter.

Saint Martin is a Loire Valley character, having been persuaded to take up the post of Bishop Of Tours in 371.  He came to the region for a quiet, monastic life at the Abbey of Marmoutier,which he founded in 372 between Tours and Vouvray. His feast day is 11th November, at the end of the grape harvest and the start of Advent fast.

St. Martin is credited with bringing the Chenin Blanc grape to the region, where it still reigns supreme in the superb wines of Vouvray, 1600 years later.

How to buy Loire wine

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A selection of wine bought by a client and awaiting shipping to the USA

Many of our clients, after tasting a few wines from the growers and winemakers we visit, are keen to take some of these treasures back home.

We encourage this as you will often not be able to buy the same wines when you return, and certainly not at the same prices. One winemaker was recently telling me that his wines sell for between four and five times more in the USA, so it makes sense to buy at local prices while you are here.

It also rewards the grower for his time and kindness in allowing you to sample his wines.

There is something special about drinking a wine with friends and recalling the wonderful time you had during the trip you made to France last year. And if you can save money at the same time, so much the better!

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The temptations of the tasting room.

If you would like to buy wine during your trip, how do you go about it?

The simplest way is to purchase a case or more of six bottles, or even just a bottle or two, while you are at the vineyard. Most winemakers accept credit cards and within a few minutes the wine is being loaded into the back of the tour car. Wines can cost as little as three or four Euros ($ 4 – 5) but be prepared to pay more for special wines or vintages such as those shown in the photograph. You will find that in the Loire, even the best wines are amazingly affordable.

The next task is to get the wine back home and over the years we have discovered a number of solutions.

  1. Take it back in the suitcase. The cheapest solution involves using your baggage allowance to slip a few bottles in your suitcase. I have seen a case of six bottles go back this way and individual bottles wrapped in clothing to protect them.
  2. Bring it back in the hold of the plane. USA customs allow you to import 36 bottles without problem and may or may not charge you local taxes on entry. There will, of course, be airline fees to pay and it is worth using bubble-wrap to protect the bottles from damage during the flight.
  3. Use ShipItHome vineyards. A few vineyards in the Loire use a system whereby they have already exported their wines to a cellar in the USA. This allows you to buy your wine from the vineyard at French prices and have it delivered direct to your home from the stocks stored in the USA.  Sadly, at time of writing, only four vineyards in the Loire use this system, but clients have been delighted to take advantage of it.  And if you need further supplies later you can just get onto the ShipItHome web site and order more!
  4. Call in a specialist shipper. During our tour you are free to buy boxes of wine from any or each of the vineyards we visit. We will take it back home and store it in our cellar, taking care of all the paperwork before calling in a specialist shipper. Your bottles will be repacked into special polystyrene boxes to protect them from damage and from temperature and other shocks which can affect the wine. They are then flown to the States and delivered to your door.  In a recent example a client bought wine from two vineyards, 72 bottles in all, and the transport cost was just slightly more than the cost of the wine, effectively doubling the French price, but still half the US price. We make a charge for this service, in addition to the transport cost. Depending on the quantities shipped, charges vary from 15 – 30 Euros per bottle – in most cases this is  a lot cheaper than buying the same wines in the USA -if they were available.

Individual state laws. Often there will be state, county or city taxes to pay on your wine and charges range from 0% to 6.75%. In addition, a small number of American states will not allow you to import wine: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Utah. Duty is included in the case of US shipments.

With a range of transport option most visitors from the US are now able to take back some of their favourite Loire Valley wines and save money at the same time. It is a real pleasure to pass on this good news to my American clients.

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