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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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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.

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.

 

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.