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Category Archives: vineyard visit

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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Vouvray and other fine wines.

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!

Kir – Loire Valley versions

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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%).

Seeking out the award winning winemakers

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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 2016 – the one with the gold medal – has completely sold out now but we tasted a very lovely 2017, 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.

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.

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 four or five Euros ($ 5 – 6) 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. Let us call in a specialist shipper. During our tours 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.