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Monthly Archives: September 2017

Chinon, Bourgueil and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil

The ancient streets of Chinon

Needing to be in Tours for business, we decided to use the opportunity to follow the river Cher down to Villandry, drift through the Azay-le-Rideau vineyards  and tour the wine growing areas of Chinon and Bourgueil, on either side of the Loire.

The region is about two weeks away from harvest time, after a year which might be described as “challenging”. The maritime climatic influence has protected vineyards from the worst of the late frosts which have devastated the more northern Loire wine areas, but they still had frost, too much summer rain and a lack of sun which has meant extra work and many more worries. In the end though, it would appear to be an average harvest both in quality and quantity, if local vignerons are to be believed.

We lunched at Chinon on the river Vienne, 10km south of the Loire and went in search of the tourist office, Maison de Vin and the wine growers’ Co-op, all of which were closed especially for our visit. Heading off north, somewhat disgruntled, in the direction of Bourgueil, we happened on the Maison des Vins et du Tourism at Véron, one of the Chinon villages, where we were made very welcome and enjoyed a good chat about their wines and the 2012 season. The wine we tasted was a bit woody for my liking but we will return one day soon to do a proper tasting.

Suitably fortified and encouraged, we continued across the Loire to Bourgueil, where the Maison des Vins is a great example of how these things should be done. Owned by the wine makers of the appellation, each grower is represented by three wines, all of which can be purchased and several of which can be sampled on a rotating basis to ensure fairness. The staff were knowledgeable and friendly and introduced us to the idea of two styles of Bourgueil (and St. Nicholas de B.) wines, depending on their location – either river valley or limestone hills. The river valley wines are lighter, fruitier and can be drunk much younger. The limestone cliffs and hills produce a much more tannic wine which keeps longer – and suits my pallet better.

The vineyards of Saint Nicholas de Bourgueil showing vines on the plains and the hills and Cabernet Franc two weeks from picking

St. Nicholas also has a Maison des Vins, based in a restaurant in the centre of the village. This was closed, but to be fair, most people seemed to be tending to vines before the impending harvest. We were told about a cellar, La Cave du Pays de Bourgueil, which welcomes tourists and houses a museum of wine pressing equipment, where Bourgueil and St. Nicholas could be tasted side by side. This is on the agenda for our next wine tour to the region later in the month.

All these regions, Chinon and Bourgueil with their associated villages, produce red wine from Cabernet Franc, a grape intoduced to the region in the 17th century. It was placed in the care of the Abbot Breton at Bourgueil, whose named is used for the variety in these parts. Rosé wine is also produced from this grape. The area is important for other crops, notably tree fruit – apples and pears in particular – with dried pears a gastronomic speciality.

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Illegal grape vines and award winning wine

Occasionally we like to make our cottages available to paying guests. One such guest stayed last night, an English lady with impeccable French, who has been living in the Chinon area for many years. It was during a pleasant meal, comparing notes on life in France and swapping amusing anecdotes, that we were introduced to the concept of illegal grape varieties.

She had tasted a wine made from the grape Clinton (we finally arrived at the name after considering a number of American presidents), a variety reputed to drive drinkers mad but which clearly had not done so in her case. All of this was completely new to me and sounded quite unlikely, so today I have been investigating with increasing amazement at what I was reading. Politics, big business interests and horticulture can make for a heady mix.

Firstly, the botany. All European wine grape varieties are derived from a single species: Vitis vinifera. The United States has sveral grape species including Vitis aestivalis, Vitis rupestris, Vitis riparia, Vitis rotundifolia and Vitis labrusca. An Asiatic vine Vitis amurensis, is also of interest. Both naturally occurring hybrids and deliberate crosses have been made between the species and varieties and Clinton is one of these, a spontaneous cross between the North American species Vitis riparia and Vitis labrusca dating back to 1835 when it was discovered in New York State by High White.

In 1840 European vineyards were ravaged by Powdery Mildew disease and the search was on for hybrid varieties combining the qualities of the European grape with the disease resistance of the American species. While early in America’s history the trade was in European varieties to grow in the new lands, gradually the trend was reversed. In 1873 it was discovered that Phylloxera had been imported along with the American plants. This root pest went on to wipe out the European vineyards. At the darkest hour for European vine growing it was discovered that some American varieties were resistant to Phylloxera, in addition to protecting against Powdery Mildew and Mildew. By grafting the “noble” European varieties onto rootstocks of American hybrids, total disaster was averted at the last moment and the wine production industry saved. In addition to Clinton, varieties included Noah, Othello, Oberlin, Baco, Herbemont, Jacquez and others.

By the 1930′s the population of France was 35 million; wine production was around 91 million Hectolitres! There were huge problems associated with overproduction alongside alcohol related health issues and the French government were unsure how to deal with either. The result was a carrots and sticks approach, grants and propaganda on the one hand and series of poorly thought out laws which, amongst other things, banned the growing of the American hybrid vines. As late as 1950 posters were produced suggesting the wine made from these varieties was inferior and there was dark talk of Methanol and other dangerous chemicals found in the wine. The myth of poisonous foreign varieties undoubtedly helped protect the interests of large producers, while discouraging home production and folk memories persist in tales of “mad wine”.

This afternoon a Christmas fete was held in Saint-Romain-sur-Cher and we took the opportunity to visit the village wine co-op. We tasted a range of wines and bought a few boxes, discussing the wines and the growing season with very knowledgeable staff. A white made from Sauvignon Blanc had been awarded a gold medal this year and was very good. We also tasted their Gamay primeur and asked them about our recent observations of this wine at the Montrichard wine festival.

We had identified a taste we were unhappy with in at least half of the dozen or so wines we sampled at the festival and we were told that it was a production problem, caused by the late rains initiating disease and a lack of due care in harvesting. Here they harvested only a small part of their Gamay crop for the Primeur, picking by hand and selecting only the best fruit. There was no “off” taste in this wine; something else we have learned this week.

At the end of our visit we walked the dog amongst the vines where pruning was well underway, single Guyot style. The soil was very sandy but with flints derived from the limestone beneath.