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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.


Christmas gifts for the wine enthusiast

My family have been giving me a hard time recently for not giving them a wish list for Christmas 2015.

With this in mind and tongue firmly in teeth, I thought I would produce this, my first Christmas Gift List for Wine Enthusiasts.

In no particular order, here are a few ideas:$_57

Bath-time fun with the Umbra Aquala Bathtub Caddy. This bamboo bathtub caddy is the ultimate accessory for your bath (I am told) and features a book and a wine glass holder – very civilized! A snip at $46.92 plus shipping.

The Discovery WineStation is an automated, temperature controlled, four-bottle wine dispensing and preservation system for the home.  You choose the right wine and just the right amount – a taste, a half glass or a full glass – with the touch of a finger. Wine-and-Beverage_Silo_DYWS4_500x500The WineStation maintains the freshness of your wine for up to 60 days using argon gas.

I have seen these or similar devises used in Maison des Vins around the region: it really does work. The web site I saw suggests you ask for a quote – never a good sign – but I gather they cost around $5000.


The are companies around the world making furniture out of old barrels, recycled corks and of course, bottles. While some are very chunky and look like I made them, there are also some delightful pieces out there.

I rather like the Champagne cork side table and other assorted tables and stools pictured here and have even found a UK source: 211168_2_800

Barrel staves seem to be widely used in furnature making and I was able to try one of my favourites and the Chateau de Miniere in Ingrandes de Touraine recently.

Delightfully comfortable, it also featured that all-important wine glass holder.

They  had a barrel stave hammock hung between two ancient trees in the park,  which I really must have a swing on at some stage.

Wine luggage is essential for when you go on a Loire Valley Wine Tour and decide you would like to take a dozen bottles back on the plane with you. IMG_2456_mediumIn this case we can leap to the rescue with the Lazenne Wine Check, an example of which I normally keep in the back of the car in case someone needs one.

This specialized wine travel carrying case works in combination with polystyrene inserts allowing you to bring up to 15 bottles of delicious, local goodness (wine, champagne, cider, beer, whiskey, olive oil) home!

It’s reusable, easy to handle (rolling wheels, carrying straps) and airline / FAA approved; cost around €120.


Organic, Biodynamic…….let’s be reasonable!

It’s only natural.

I am often asked to take clients to a “boutique winery” and it is so easy to oblige; in the Loire Valley there are very few major producers. The average vineyard holding is just 10Ha (less than 25 acres) producing around 70,000 bottles of wine. Often they are third, fourth or even fifth generation family affairs, passionate about their wines and concerned about the quality of the environment in which they live and work.

Most growers recognise the importance of nurturing and protecting the environment and a number of those who do not use organic methods subscribe to systems of cultivation which use only a minimum amount of pesticides and fertilisers.

Interestingly, only about 15% of French vineyards are currently registered organic – Bio in French – but the trend is an upward one, with large numbers of growers under conversion.


Why is this important?

The vine suffers from a large number of pests and diseases and in the 18thC European vineyards were nearly wiped out by the devastation caused by the Phylloxera insect and Mildew diseases, both imported by accident from the United States. Since then, vineyards have been subjected to regular and heavy chemical spraying to keep them pest and disease free.

These days many of our foods – including wine – contain detectible levels of pesticides, some of which have known harmful effects, while the health impact of others are not yet fully understood.

In reaction to this increasing reliance on chemicals in agriculture, many growers are choosing alternative, low-input methods to reduce or avoid using them. Research into the effects of agrichemicals on our health suggests this is an important change.


Certification of environmentally friendly wines.

There is was no legal definition of organic wine In Europe until 2012, although grapes could be grown organically and labelled as such.  Since then the framework on organic wine production has been adopted throughout the EU and an AB (agriculture biologique) symbol adopted.

agriculture biologique

Agriculture biologique

Organic and Biodynamic wines are now certified. To be a producer with the ability to place the word “organic” on the label the wine maker must use only organic farming techniques for a minimum of a three year period. Certification may be granted from any of the French Ministry of Agriculture regulated agencies: Ecocert, Qualite France, ULSAE, Agrocert, Certipaq and ACLAVE. Once they are certified as Agriculture Biologique vineyards they can use either the EU or the official Organic logo.


Biodynamic Certification is granted to estates that for a minimum of a three period farm their vineyards utilizing the techniques proposed by Rudolf Steiner. The same bodies that certify organic producers also certify Biodynamic estates although additional or different certification is available via the Demeter organisation. Producers with SIVCBD – Biodyvin on their label are members of The Syndicat International des Vignerons en Culture Biodynamique.


Natural wine.

There are a number of different views about the best way to produce fine wines with low environmental impact – natural wines. According to “More Than Natural” a web site promoting such ideas, most good winemakers see themselves as non-interventionist, or natural. They try to use as few additives as possible and as little manipulation as they can.

Often they have to compromise at some point. Where and why they make that compromise depends on what they are trying to achieve and how much they are prepared to risk in order to achieve it.

More Than Natural tell us a natural wine is a wine made –

  • in small quantities,
  • by an independent producer,
  • on low-yielding vineyards,
  • from handpicked, organically grown grapes,
  • without added sugars or foreign yeasts,
  • without adjustments for acidity,
  • without micro-oxygenation or reverse-osmosis.

Most natural wines are neither filtered nor fined. The few that are will either be filtered extremely lightly or fined with organic egg-white.

A natural wine contains no more than,

  • 10 mg/l total sulphur if red,
  • 25 mg/l total sulphur if white.

If sulphur dioxide is added, it will be only at bottling and only in the tiniest quantities. Many natural wines are made without the addition of sulphur dioxide at any point.

In a perfect world all natural wines would be unfiltered, unfined, and completely unsulphured. In reality this is not easy to acheive. The perfectly natural wine is  seen as the goal towards which the natural winemaker is striving. Sometimes he will get closer than others. Just occasionally he will achieve it. The winemakers that interest us are those who get closest most often.

Exactly how a wine is made is not something that can be decided in advance. Each year, and each wine, is different. The winemaker has to improvise. There will always be times when, however reluctantly, he has to intervene to prevent it from spoiling.


Natural wine types.


Terra Vitis

Terra Vitis

Terra Vitis. Proponents of “viticulture raisonnée” or sustainable viticulture. According to this organisation of over 500 growers, all Terra Vitis certified estates are committed to observing nature and deploying natural vine defence mechanisms (e.g. :  the introduction of typhlodromus, a vine pest predator).

The Terra Vitis approach includes a full range of measures to maintain and enhance biodiversity, the beauty of our viticultural countryside and a living earth:

Measures to safeguard fauna : counting grape berry moth larvae to avoid any unjustified insecticide treatment,  the use of products that cause no or little damage to the fauna is mandatory (the list of products prohibited by Terra Vitis is updated every year), no use of herbicides on tracks, ditches, walls, water sources, hedges and woods is allowed;

Measures to safeguard flora : grassing between the rows of vines,   it is forbidden to fully clear the vineyards of grass and wild plants as well as to destroy tracks, ditches and hedges;

Measures to safeguard viticultural countryside : sorting and recycling of waste in approved areas (plastics, oil, waste fluids), upkeep of the outdoor areas of the business, water sources, walls and woods and the reduction of doses applied compared to recommended dosage are included in the requirements.


Organic. At its most basic level, organic wine is made from grapes that have been grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.

Winemaking techniques should be organic as well; little or no manipulation of wines by reverse osmosis, excessive filtration, or flavour additives (such as oak chips). Many organic winemakers also prefer wild yeasts for fermentation.

Certification requires a producer to study the organic standards, which cover in specific detail what is and is not allowed for every aspect of farming, including storage, transport and sale.

Compliance – farm facilities and production methods must comply with the standards, which may involve modifying facilities, sourcing and changing suppliers, etc.

Documentation – extensive paperwork is required, detailing farm history and current set-up, and usually including results of soil and water tests.

Planning – a written annual production plan must be submitted, detailing everything from seed to sale: seed sources, field and crop locations, fertilization and pest control activities, harvest methods, storage locations, etc.

Inspection – annual on-farm inspections are required, with a physical tour, examination of records, and an oral interview.

Fee – an annual inspection/certification fee (currently starting at $400-$2,000/year, in the US and Canada, depending on the agency and the size of the operation).

Record-keeping – written, day-to-day farming and marketing records, covering all activities, must be available for inspection at any time.


Biodynamic. Biodynamics takes organic farming to a new, higher, spiritual level. The father of the movement is widely regarded as being Rudolf Steiner who gave a series of agricultural lectures in 1924 setting out the broad principles.

Nicolas Joly

Nicolas Joly

His best known follower since then has been Maria Thun (1922-2012) who published an annual biodynamic gardening calendar.

Nicolas Joly was one of the earliest French vigneron proponents of the biodynamic movement, since when the idea has spread widely in Alsace, Burgundy and many other parts of the world. Joly studied at Columbia University and subsequently started to work for J.P. Morgan in New York as an investment banker. He was later posted to London, but in 1977, he left banking to take over his family’s wine estate Château de la Roche aux Moines in Savennières.

Dementer rules require the conversion of the entire farm (incl. secondary crops, animal husbandry, areas producing products for home consumption, etc.) Ruminants must be present in arable enterprises – the minimum requirement is 0.2 livestock unit/hectare.

At least one application per year of cow horn manure and horn silica is required, as well as the spreading of prepared manures on all areas of the enterprise. All organic manures (stable manure, compost etc.) are to be treated with the compost preparations. A composite preparation (such as cowpat prep, barrel compost, prepared 500 etc.) may be spread as a substitute on all areas of the enterprise which receive no prepared manure in the course of a year. Chicken manure may only come from certified organic farms. GMO free declaration is required for all inputs at risk from genetic modification.

Vine plant material quality has to be to Demeter standard if available and, if not, then of organic quality. Conventional quality may be used only with prior written permission of Demeter-International. Treated seeds are strictly forbidden and crop imports are restricted to a prescribed list.

Clear separation of product flow in all steps of production is required to trace a product back to the farm at any time. This includes transport, processing, storage and export, with the introduction of a lot number system.

It usually takes three years conversion time to achieve Demeter certification. The conversion time can be shortened if it can be proven that previous farming methods were organic or extensive. A valid certificate from an accredited organic inspection body is a precondition.

Biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Key to biodynamics is considering the farm in its entirety as a living system. To this end, biodynamic farms are supposed to be closed, self-sustaining systems. Biodynamics also sees the farm in the context of the wider pattern of lunar and cosmic rhythms.

In this holistic view, the soil is seen not simply as a substrate for plant growth, but as an organism in its own right. The idea of using synthetic fertilizers or pesticides is thus an anathema to biodynamic practitioners. Instead, they use a series of special preparations to enhance the life of the soil, which are applied at appropriate times in keeping with the rhythms of nature. And disease is seen not as a problem to be tackled head-on, but rather as a symptom of a deeper malaise within the farm ‘organism’: correct the problem in the system and the disease will right itself.



While they tend to agree on the big details, each grower can and will develop biodynamic methods to suit their own particular situation. Winegrowers drawn to this philosophy tend to be inventive types, always experimenting and refining their practices to see what works best for them. As a result, there are many different flavours and variations around this common theme, and it’s hard to define biodynamics in any sort of rigid way.

The benefits.

For the consumer, all this concern and attention to detail can only be a good thing, which ever flavour of culture takes your fancy. While pseudo-scientific apologists complain of lack of scientific proof, wine lovers are increasingly enjoying the fruits of the labour of growers and winemakers – organic, biodynamic and culture raisonnée.

These trail-blazing producers risk much to protect the environment and give us wine of this quality – yields are generally much lower and the danger of pests and disease far higher. 100% crop failures are not unheard of, when a grower refuses to spray to control Mildew in a wet summer, for instance.

Is the risk worth it? For these growers it is, and with the market for their wines rising alongside the awards they win, there are plenty of supportive anecdotal observations backing them in their effort to produce fine wine without destroying the environment in the process.

Cork thoughts from abroad.

Sierra de Grazalema National Park , Andalucia, Spain

Sierra de Grazalema National Park , Andalucia, Spain

On a recent trip to Spain we explored the Sierra de Grazalema National Park and the Los Alcornocales Nature Park in Andalucia. Grazalema is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of 53,411 hectares of rugged limestone mountains, while Los Alcornocales is 167,767 Ha of spectacular sandstone peaks and gorges, with a unique flora and fauna, and seemingly endless forests of cork oak. Despite being in southern Spain, it is wet, very wet, and water has played a large part in shaping the landscape.

Cork Oaks (Quercus suber)

Cork Oaks (Quercus suber)

The cork oak forests, some of the most extensive in the world, are a valuable resource both for the local farmers who harvest the bark and the wildlife which live amongst them. The production of the Iberian pig, adapted to a pastoral setting where the land is particularly rich in natural resources, is deeply rooted to this Mediterranean ecosystem and contributes decisively to its preservation. The forests are an important resting place for overwintering birds migrating from the north and the home to a large range of raptors, including Eagles, Vultures, Buzzards and Kites. The forests also shelter the critically rare Iberian Lynx and other shy mammals.

A mixture of planted and natural forest trees, the cork oaks (Quercus suber) are exploited using traditional methods, carefully pealing the bark from mature trees once every decade.

Stack of drying cork bark

Stack of drying cork bark

It is a skilful and labour-intensive process involving teams of five men. The sections of bark are transported out of the mountains, often by donkey, and brought to an area to be stacked and dried in the sun before processing and forming into wine corks. Spain sells about 3 billion corks each year, making it the second largest producer after Portugal.

Cork oak trees harvested of their bark this summer.

Cork oak trees harvested of their bark this summer.

There has been much talk over the years about the problems of cork taint in wine and of the desirability of alternative closures. In the early 1980’s a compound called TCA was identified as the principle cause of tainted wine and corks were widely blamed as the source of this. It has since been discovered that any use of Chlorine as a steriliser risks the creation of this compound, which gives ”off” flavours to wine. After a very slow start, research funded by the cork manufacturers and government agencies has resulted in improved processes, greatly reducing the problem.

Today, over 80% of the 20 billion wine bottle stoppers used each year are natural cork, 12 % are plastic corks, screwcaps are dominant in New Zealand with around 7% of the total, and 1% of closures are glass stoppers. The humble cork is still very popular and manufacturers have come up with a range of corks for different markets.

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.


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!