A trip was organised to Saumur on a dull and damp day this week, picking up American clients and touring Bourgueil & St Nicholas de Bourgueil, fast becoming favourite wine areas in the huge stretch of the Loire Valley that we consider our territory.
There is no finer way to understand a wine than to drink it in the region of its production and get out into the vineyards and we do this often, both professionally and when visiting other parts of France in our free time.
We are beginning to get a handle on Bourgueil & St Nicolas de Bourgueil, separate AOCs which at first glance make no sense at all. The wines are produced in the same way, in neighbouring villages and using the same Cabernet Franc grape variety. Both AOICs came into existence in July 1937.From the point of view of a consumer the region needs reorganising into three new Appellations’: the land down on the ancient sandy islands of the Loire River, the deep soil of the alluvial plain and vineyards up on the limestone ridge. These three geological areas produce quite different wines, while those in the same soil type in the neighbouring villages are very hard to tell apart.
This reorganisation is not going to happen any time soon, if only because of the deep political and social rivalries between the two communities. I am told the folks in Bourgueil consider themselves on a higher social level to those working in the fields of St. Nicolas and co-operation for their mutual benefit seems highly unlikely.
The Maison des Vins in Bourgueil has tried to make it easier for consumers. They display examples of wines from many of the winegrowers of Bourgueil and offer tastings of a selection. They have labels above each wine indicating which soil type the wine comes from. Suddenly you feel the air is clearing and you have half a chance of negotiating your way around the wines on offer. Staff is knowledgeable and friendly and an hour spent in the Maison des Vins is never wasted: I have been several times, learnt much and rarely resist a small purchase.
We moved on to the Cave du Pays de Bourgueil for another excellent tasting, with a unique opportunity to taste St. Nicolas de Bourgueil and Bourgueil wines side by side. The Cave houses a museum of winemaking in the limestone quarry tunnels which date back to the year 990 when the Abbey at Bourgueil was built from its stone.
It was here that I discovered the Bourgueil “Vin de Sable” or “Vin de Cote” wines for the first time. This wine is not widely known outside the region, is light and easy to drink, ideal BBQ and summer party wine which is purchased eagerly by the locals. You won’t find it in your supermarket, wherever you live!
When you move up to the gravel alluvium or to the more tannic wines on the tufa limestone ridge of both Bourgueil and St Nicolas de Bourgueil, the differences are mostly derived from production techniques. The limestone Bourgueils spend a year in oak barrels and are macerated on their skins for longer, for instance, while the winemakers in St Nicolas they rely on their old vines, many up to 70 years or more, to give the wine its character.
St Nicolas de Bourgueil is produced only in the village of the same name and has vineyard covering just under 1000 Ha, while Bourgueil wine can be produced in the villages of Benais, Bourgueil, La Chapelle-sur-Loire, Chouzé-sur-Loire, Ingrandes-de-Touraine, Restigné, St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Saint-Patrice, with around 1,400Ha in production.
Our midday meal this trip was a real treat with a stop at a great restaurant right in the heart of the village of St. Nicolas. Saint Nicolas Gourmand uses fresh, local produce and home-made dishes, presented in the ‘nouveau cuisine’ style, with beautifully arranged dishes in modest portions but of the very highest quality: just the way I like it. It was suggested by others that we leave the choice of wine to the waitress and this was not bad advice. The St. Nic (from alluvial soil) went well with main courses of duck, local river fish and even my wild boar – no mean achievement.
Not even the wet weather could dampen our spirits after such a trip. I trust I shall be returning to this end of “our patch” soon.