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Category Archives: wine tasting

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.

Loire Valley vineyard open days

Vineyard open day

American clients at the vineyard open day

When touring the Loire Valley region  we always keep an eye out for signs announcing an upcoming wine event.

Last week a group of our clients were lucky in their choice of days to visit and I was able to take them to an open day for the launch of the new seasons wine at a wine producer near the royal palace of Chenonceau at Francueil.

We were treated on this occasion to more than the usual tasting of a dozen or more wines; the hunting horn troop from  Château de Montpoupon were playing in the cellars, Miss Touraine and a fine selection of wine-related antiques and artifacts were on display. We were able to talk to many of the growers and production staff and the tasting took on a whole new aspect when we had the vignerons explaining their techniques to us.

The event through our schedule into chaos and we had to ditch a chateau visit, but we all agreed, over a delightful lunch in Montrichard later, that it had been a marvelous way to spend a morning.

I have a whole pile of notices for other events on my increasingly cluttered desk, and if bookings coincide with any of these, you can be sure we will be going!

In the meantime I am talking to winemakers who export to the Far East in anticipation of a tour we are hoping to arrange later in the year for a group of buyers from China and Tiawan. I surprising number are already doing so, it would seem.

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 2017 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 (24th edition in 2017). 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 48th 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 2017, 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.

Decanter

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Welcome to the world of Loire Valey Wine Tour!

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Welcome to the world of Loire Valley 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.

Vouvray and Montlouis

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Cave des producteurs de Motlouis-sur-Loire

Our latest wine tour took in Montlouis sur Loire, where we visited Laurent Chatenay’s cave des vins bio – a shop selling organic wines. We had a fascinating tasting of still Chenin Blanc wines from Montlouis, of 2010, 2006 and 2003 vintages. In this part of the world they never know in advance what type of wine they will be producing – it all depends on the weather. 2010 was not a hot year and the grapes produced a dry white wine. In 2006 it was warmer and the wine is demi-sec, while the 2003, the year with the famous hot summer which was responsible for the deaths of many elderly people, the resulting wine is sweet. In the very best years, when the summer is hot and there are drying winds from the East which turn the fruits to raisons on the vine, the luscious sweet wine can rival Sauternes.

The Cave des producteurs de Motlouis-sur-Loire was an interesting visit, with the cellars and bottling plant open to view.

After a picnic lunch by the Loire, we drove on to Vouvray, for a tasting at a favourite producers of sparkling wine at Rochecorbon, with its limestone cliffs towering over the river. We tried both still and sparkling and could not resist buying a csae of Brut Reserve.

On the way home we took our guests to the chateau at Valencay. We have been here many times but never visited the old cellars beneath the castle. Somewhere among these dusty bottles is a Haut Brion 1901……

The cellars under the chateau de Valencay

Salon des Vins de Loire 2014

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

Salon des Vins de Loire

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

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

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

The 2013 Loire Valley pre-harvest celebrations.

Buisse at Montrichard

Paul Buisse at the Montrichard fete, serving 100% reliable Loire wines

The weather here in central France is perfect, neither too hot nor too cold.  Once the sun warms up in the morning, lifting refreshing dew from the fields, sunny days get back to the job of gently ripen the grapes. Sugar levels are slowly increasing and will be carefully monitored by the growers and winemakers; flavours are developing and concentrating. The first signs of autumn leaf colour are showing in the surrounding countryside.

Montrichard: the beach

Montrichard: the beach

It is too early to say what the 2013 harvest will bring but, after the trials and tribulations of a challenging growing season the signs are finally looking good. Soon the winemakers will be too busy to think of anything but the harvest, but just before that happens there is a flurry of little wine fairs in towns and villages throughout the region. A couple of weeks ago we attended one at the beach-side park in Montrichard, while this weekend we are looking forward to the Fête de Vin at Cheverny.

Domaine de la Girardière

Domaine de la Girardière. Patrick Leger produces excellent wines and has the medals to prove it.

The Montrichard event reminded us of why it is so important, if you have the opportunity, to taste wine before you buy it. Given that we were in the Sauvignon Blanc heartland we decided to try each of these from every vine maker at the fête, and only continue with his other offerings if the SB pleased us. One stand, surrounded by drinkers who we were assured were “experts”, did not please us one little bit and we quickly left to talk to the grower in the stand opposite. Here we found an organic vineyard producing superb Sauvignon Blanc, and many other wines in addition. We lingered, but where the only ones there for a while. We made new friends and contacts for our wine tour business, while learning a little more from each of the stands we visited.

Although only a few miles apart, the wines of Cheverny are different from the Touraine wines we tasted on that occasion. One excitement will be the opportunity to taste several wines made from the rare Romorantin grape, only used in the appellation of Cour-Cheverny. It is a Charnonnay-like variety which, in the hands of a good winemaker, produces wines similar to Chablis. A Romorantin vineyard at Domaine Henry Marionnet claims to be the oldest in France. It was planted in 1850 and somehow survived the phylloxera epidemic that devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century. In fact their current small parcel of Romorantin grapes was replanted from cuttings of the originals: they are not grafted.

As it is the 20th anniversary of the AOC Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny, we are looking forward to a great show of wines.