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The Sauvignon Blanc trip

This week we enjoyed two days of visits with an American couple wanting to explore the Sauvignon Blanc wines of the Loire Valley. We were delighted to put together this custom tour featuring one of our favourite grape varieties, in the region where it originated and has its finest expression.

Sauvignon grapes awaiting picking

In France, Sauvignon Blanc is grown in the maritime climate of Bordeaux as well as the continental climate of the Loire Valley. The climates of these areas are particularly favourable in slowing the ripening on the vine, allowing the grape more time to develop a balance between its acidity and sugar levels. This balance is important in the development of the intensity of the wine’s aromas. Winemakers in France pay careful attention to the terroir characteristics of the soil and the different elements that it can impart to the wine. The chalk and Kimmeridgean marl of Reuilly, Sancerre and Pouilly produces wines of richness and complexity, while areas with more compact chalk soils produces wines with more finesse and perfume. The gravel soil found near the Loire River and its tributaries impart spicy, floral and mineral flavours while in Bordeaux, the wines have a fruitier personality. Vines planted in flint along the Cher tend to produce the most vigorous and longest lasting wines.

Our clients selected a fine hotel in Amboise as their base and we collected them each day to begin our discovery of the region. First stop was Francueil, where we were able to witness the grape harvest arriving and tour the wine-making facilities of the growers co-operative. As we were to hear throughout our trip, quantities are cruelly low, while quality is above average this year. The combination of frost, hail and mildew during this growing season has not been seen since 1991, and crops are down to 20-30% of normal.

This co-op has been in operation since 1926 and is now the largest in the Loire. We were introduced to the recently retired winemaker who still comes in to help out for the pleasure of it, after working at the cellar for 42 years.

The labeling machine at La Gourmandiere, Francuei

We were able to taste a range of interesting wines at Francueil, several with awards to their names. One of our favourites was their “Tete de Cuvee” AOP Touraine Sauvignon which has a silver medal in the World Sauvignon Wine Competition this year. We were also interested to taste the brand new appellation Touraine Chenonceaux and enjoyed this very much. Although 27 villages either side of the river Cher are allowed to produce wine under this name, there is currently only a tiny area in production and the growers are determined to produce wines of the highest quality here.

After a lunch at a restaurant in Montrichard we moved on to the famous  Monmousseau wine cellars outside the town where more Sauvignon was tasted, both local and Sancerre from the eastern edge of the region on the river Loire. Their Cheverny contains 70% Sauvignon & 30% Chardonnay and made an interesting comparison. We were allowed to go off on our own and explore the tunnels where they store their sparkling wines but with around 15km of passages we were lucky to find our way back in one piece!

From here we went on to the co-op at St Romain sur Cher where their three Sauvignons cannot help but please and have won a clutch of awards. Our journey back to Amboise was through delightful countryside and ancient stone villages.

The next day we drove an hour and a half up the Cher, passed Vierzon to Quincy, an appellation of 240 Ha growing only Sauvignon and a hidden gem producing high quality wines. We spent the morning tasting many of them, both traditional still wines and those produced from vines 40 years old or more. The growers have invested in windmill-like fans which start up automatically and, in theory at least, protect the vines from frost. This year was extreme and much damage was done, but perhaps they were protected in part by this system.

Visting the Touraine cellars

Lunch was taken in Valençay, where we also took a look at the stunning chateau and its walled, soth facing vineyard. Tastings of Valençay wines were made at the co-op and at Chateau de Quincay, who produce both Valençay and Touraine wines, making an interesting direct comparison.

Our final breathless visit was across the river at a favourite vineyard where we saw the grapes coming in and were invited to help with the hand picking. My clients had a train to catch however, but we were able here to add the last piece to the Sauvignon puzzle, tasting late picked, sweet wine from last year’s crop.

Sweet, dry, still, sparkling; Sauvignon Blanc has it all and in a range of styles dictated by the nature of the soil and climate, in addition to the desires of the winemaker. This was a fascinating trip and a deep insight into the heart of a single grape variety.

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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.

Organic is good; biodynamic is better?

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Call me old-fashioned, but when given the opportunity I always like to give organic wines a try. At Maisons des Vins, those wonderful establishments in the heart of French wine districts where a huge range of local wines can be freely tasted, I will invariably sample one or two organic wines to compare with the others on offer and I am rarely disappointed.

Greniers St Jean tasting of organic wines

Greniers St Jean tasting of organic wines

I was delighted to hear therefore, that on the weekend of the huge Loire Valley wine trade fair in Angers, there were also two or three side events featuring organic and biodynamic wines.

Biodynamics has much in common with other organic approaches in that it emphasizes the use of manures and composts rather than artificial chemicals and pesticides on soil and plants. Methods unique to the biodynamic approach include an emphasis on integrating farm animals, the cultivation of crops and the care of the land. It values local production and distribution systems, the use of local breeds and varieties and the astronomical calendar to guide cultivation timings. The philosophy of biodynamics extends from the field into the wine cellar and beyond.

At the tasting in the beautiful old building called the ‘Greniers St Jean’ we were lucky to bump into Nicolas Joly early in the proceedings. Joly is a leading proponent of biodynamic viticulture and he marked up our exhibitor list with a few “must-see” suggestions from the 125 winemakers at the show. The show featured a good forty Loire producers, including Jolys’ own Coulée de Serrant, now principally run by his daughter Virginie. We tasted a number of his truly splendid white wines: the sublime Coulée de Serrant, minerally Les Vieux Clos, old vine Clos de la Bergerie; these are astonishingly good Chenin Blancs.

Colin hard at work at the Greniers St Jean tasting

Colin hard at work at the Greniers St Jean tasting

We talked at length with organic and biodynamic growers about their principals and their wines and could not fail to be impressed by their passion. Joly felt that the consumer had the right to know what was in his wines and deplored the use of flavourings and artificial yeast, all used perfectly legally by many wine producers, both large and small.

Of the dozen winemakers from Burgundy we were directed to Pierre de Benoit of Domaine de Villaine in the village of Bouzeron. Here, they uniquely grow the local variety called Aligoté d’Or, quite a treat, especially if compared to thin and acid Aligoté Gris, which is most often served with a generous dash of blackcurrant liqueur as the popular aperitif called Kir.  This was a different beast altogether. Both the terroir and the cultivation conspire to reduce yields and highlight the qualities of this grape, producing delicious wines with floral, mineral and pastry flavours.

Around 12% of wines in the Alsace are organic and we very much enjoyed a tasting of Sylvana, Riesling and especially Riesling Grand Cru Pfingstberg at the stand of Domaine Zusslin. Alsace Grand Cru wines maycome from one of over 50 villages, but represent only 4% of the total production of the region. They are well worth seeking out.

From the Minervois in the Languedoc-Roussillon we tasted white wine from another rare grape, Terret bourret, while we were delighted to see Clos du Joncuas representing the Rhone, having bought several of their wines while in Gigondas last year.

Wine humour

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A little light relief from the Humour & Vigne event this year reminds me of the joys of communication in a foreign language:

Humour & Vigne  JONZAC-Charente Maritime
Christine TRAXELER (TRAX) Prix de la Forme.

Loire shows off Sauvignon

Loire Sauvignon Blanc came under the spotlight at Vinexpo this week as Jamie Goode presented a masterclass to highlight the region’s growing expertise with this grape variety.

The event featured a 14-strong selection of wines chosen from this year’s medal winners at the Concours Mondial du Sauvignon, which saw the Loire awarded 45% of the total medals from a field of 16 Sauvignon Blanc-producing countries.

“Sauvignon Blanc is a variety that can deliver precise wines with very good concentration of flavour,” recalled Goode of the qualities that he and the rest of the international judging panel rewarded. “You’re looking for the usual things of balance and definition and also wines that are commercially relevant.”

As for the refined selection on show at this Vinexpo masterclass, Goode explained: “We put together a range of styles and wines with unique expressions that together told a story.”

These included examples from across the region, including Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre, Quincy, Touraine and the IGP Val de Loire, all from the 2012 vintage, which Goode summed up as “a very good, precise vintage in the Loire.”

Having written his own book on the variety, The Science of Sauvignon Blanc, Goode described the grape as “fascinating”, noting: “of all the grape varieties in the world, more scientific work has been done on Sauvignon Blanc than any other.”

Among the benefits of this research has been a greater understanding of compounds including methoxypyrazines, which are responsible for the variety’s characteristic grassy aroma; monoterpenes, which contribute its floral expression; and polyfunctional thiols which create the passionfruit character that is particularly associated with Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand.

Summing up the effect of these combined influences in Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire, Goode remarked: “What the Loire seems to be able to do is wines that have ripeness while retaining some of that greenness as well.”

Goode also highlighted the important work carried out in the Loire by consultant Sam Harrop MW as he pointed to the steady “fine-tuning” of viticulture and vinification seen across the region, which is resulting in a consistent level of high quality wines.

In short, he concluded: “The Loire can produce wines that are the best expression of Sauvignon Blanc you can get. Even at the bottom end you get really characterful wines at prices no-one else can match.”

Goode is due to host a further masterclass on Loire Sauvignon Blanc in London later this year.

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 2017.

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: www.notonthehighstreet.com 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.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

In the caves of the Touraine

Wine has been produced in France for 2000 years. In the Loire Valley, St. Martin, the patron of wine growers and makers, founded the Abbey of Marmoutier, a monastery constructed between Tours and Vouvray in around 372.

In the sparkling wine caves

In the sparkling wine caves

Vines and wine are therefore part of the scenery in central France and ingrained in all aspects of local life.

One feature which always interests visitors to the region is the caves and cellars cut into the limestone cliffs and used as habitations and for both the production and storage of wine throughout the Touraine. Many of these caves are very old and when visiting one winemaker in Vouvray recently we were told that his dated from the 15th century. Originally caved out for the valuable building stone, they were later used in the raising of silk worms for the silk cloth industry, economically important in the region for nearly three hundred years. The silk trade declined when production rights were awarded to the people of Lyon, and the tunnels were then exploited to cellar wine.

A of the characteristics of the local Tufa stone is that it is soft when first cut out of the cliffs, but hardens on exposure to air. The famous castles and chateaux of the Loire, together with almost every other building in the region, are constructed from this attractive, creamy-white limestone. The tunnels, sometimes miles in length, have a constant temperature of 12 degrees C and high humidity, just perfect for storing and aging wine. As buildings, if you need extra space you can easily cut out some more.

In the cellars of Paul BUISSE

In the cellars of Paul BUISSE

Later during the same trip we visited the cellars of Paul Buisse in Montrichard, an ancient town strategically placed on the banks of the river Cher, with its ruined 11thC castle and other ancient buildings.

Paul Buisse is both a grower and a négociant, buying grapes and wine from other producers; he has a fine reputation for aging wines in his stone cellars, which can be visited, as we did, during a tasting. I had been meaning to visit this establishment for some time and he put on a good show for me and my wine tour guests, bringing out wines from Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Saumur-Champigny, Touraine and Vouvray, together with Crémant de Loire and Pays du Val de Loire. Some wines tasted dated back as far as 1989.