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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!