Springtime in the Garden: My Sentimental Sprint Through the Loire Valley

The Worst Laid Plans

My travel plans were spectacularly flawed. Somehow, I had left myself only four days to see the entire Loire Valley. You know, the region that traces the path of the longest river in France? With some of the most complex soils in France? That produces one of the most diverse collections of wine in France? That Loire Valley.

It was going to be hectic.

After a short period of panic, I devised an elegant solution. I would fly into Paris, rent a car at the airport, and drive to Sancerre—the section of the Loire that lies closest to the capital. From there, I would follow the river’s path, checking in on producers in Touraine then Anjour-Saumur, and end at Pays Nantais, in the coastal region of Muscadet. Easy.

Of course, the reality was far messier. My trip being somewhat last minute, the producers I wanted to see had narrow windows of availability that did not slot neatly into my mental itinerary. Instead of plodding gently westward, I zigzagged across the region, crossing the river and doubling back on myself more than once. In short, I spent a considerable amount of time in the car. And oh what a car it was.

I can no longer recall the precise make, but I’m fairly sure it was French. In my mind, it’s a kind of Renault/Peugeot/Citroën mash-up, boxy and utilitarian, the kind of car that can only be described as “serviceable.” I do remember that it was red, but not racing red, not that bright cherry hue that speaks of luxury and speed. It was more of a dull, dark red—the color your mother might paint her fingernails if she’s feeling frisky. It was a terrible car, and for four glorious days, it was my personal herky-jerky bucket of woe.

Sketches of Sancerre

Sancerre is the most famous wine from the Loire today, a fact which has been both a sail and an anchor for the region. While this popularity has brought considerable money and acclaim, it has also unleashed an army of bland bottles that have marched their mediocrity to bistros, cafes, and country clubs the world over. There have always been exceptions—brilliant producers such as Vatan and the Cotat family, whose wines show the heights of which the region is capable—but most people’s first taste of the Loire is a cold, crisp glass of nothing much.

Lucien Crochet was the first fancy Sancerre I ever tried. It was also, and for a considerable time, the only Sancerre I stocked in my store.

For the first few years after college, I ran a little wine shop in Harvard Square, Cambridge, that nobody cared about. The owner had a larger, more profitable store elsewhere and let me do whatever I wanted so long as the bills got paid. In protest of all the offensively inoffensive Sancerre on the market, I offered only single-vineyard and specialty cuvées from Crochet. My hope was that this would excite and inspire our clientele; the more likely scenario is that it left them annoyed. Offering exclusively high-end Sancerre is exactly the sort of thing that I would roll my eyes at today. But in my defense, I was 22, and all 22-year-olds, if given even a dollop of power, are punks.

I didn’t want to take the train. I specifically wanted to drive to Sancerre so that I could study, pulling over where required, the way the landscape changed as I approached the Loire. I love those moments, those intangible wine country borders where the air changes and suddenly Sonoma feels Sonoma-y, the Kamptal, Kamptallic.

Instead, because I hadn’t slept on the plane, all of my energy was focused on staying awake (toward this end, I highly recommend French hip hop—the greatest irritant since asbestos). By the time I pulled into the driveway at Lucien Crochet, I was deliriously tired and mentally unprepared to speak French. Thankfully, Gilles Crochet was an entertaining and bilingual host. We hopped into his ATV. Because it was my first time to the area, he showed me not only his vineyards, but multiple vantage points where I could take in the whole of the region.

You know that thing where you hear someone’s voice and you imagine their face but then you meet them in person and they look completely different? That was Sancerre for me. I’m not sure why—maybe it was all those boring bottles—but I had expected Sancerre to be relatively flat. In reality, the region is dramatically hilly with a number of rather impressive slopes.

Most of Crochet’s vineyard holdings are in the commune of Bué, one of a handful of villages that combine to form the Sancerre region (Chavignol, where the Cotats are based, is a more famous example). Because the communes are set in a series of hills and valleys, Sancerre’s vines enjoy the full spectrum of aspect along with elevations that range from sea level to over 1,000 feet.

The soils closely resemble those of Chablis, which makes sense considering that Sancerre is significantly closer to Burgundy than it is to Muscadet. It is also a part of the Paris Basin, that ancient seabed, laced with limestone, that links Chablis with Champagne and the sparkling wine region of Southern England. Terres blanches, a sticky clay studded with chalk, is Loire-speak for Kimmeridgian, and its presence defines many of the region’s best sites. Caillottes is a compressed, pebbly chalk that forms the base of many of Sancerre’s hillsides. Crochet’s vines enjoy both types, with the former making for richer, broader wines and the latter more elegant, linear wines. The differences are well studied; Crochet’s 38 hectares are spread across about 90 parcels, most of them vinified separately. This fragmentation is common for the region and demonstrates a further kinship to Burgundy.

The third of the region’s main soil types is silex, which is also known as flint. Gilles Crochet pauses on an overlook and points to the hilltop hamlet of Sancerre. “See that line of trees running away from the city?” he asks. “That’s a fault line. Silex runs along that line and also on the other side, to the east. There’s not a lot of silex over here in Bué.”

Sancerre is part of a larger area called the Centre-Loire, so-named not because it is located in the middle of the Loire, but because it sits in almost the exact center of France. The other AOPs in the group include Pouilly-Fumé, Quincy, Reuilly, and Menetou-Salon. This is Sauvignon Blanc country, with a side of Pinot Noir. But it wasn’t always this way.

According to Jacqueline Friedrich’s 1996 book, A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire, Pinot Noir was Sancerre’s sole grape for nearly 300 years until phylloxera arrived in the late 19th century. The region’s post-pest recovery dawdled until the twin advent of family cars and paid vacation in the 1920s made Sancerre easily accessible to Parisian tourists. The producers working at that time seized the opportunity to reinvent themselves and committed their vineyards to the arguably more appropriate Sauvignon Blanc. That said, forces may be shifting again as climate change has vignerons taking a more serious look at Pinot Noir.

Lucien Crochet produces white, red, and rosé Sancerre, but the focus is on bright, ethereal Sauvignon Blanc from lieux-dits and particular soil types. These wines are often so subtle that considerable time in the glass is needed for them to fully reveal themselves. “Anyone can make an aromatic wine,” Gilles tells me, “and from anywhere. I prefer to make a chalky wine.”

The most recent vintage, 2018, is lovely, but threatens to upend the established house style. Being both a bountiful and ripe year, it adds considerable cream to the lemon and steel of Crochet’s usual creations. Nonetheless, its aftertaste was a sunny counterpoint to the gray and rainy sky as I trundled off to my hotel for a much-needed night’s sleep.

Chinon in Brief

The next morning, I drove maybe 10 feet before my car started shrieking at me. “Désengager le frein de stationnement!” the dashboard displayed in blinking red letters while a shrill beeping rattled the windows. I had no idea what was wrong. Out of equal parts arrogance and poor planning, I had neglected to pack a French-English dictionary. “I’ll just Google any words I don’t know,” I had assured myself, foolishly, not remembering that WiFi was hard to come by in the country.

I couldn’t access the web, but I could make a phone call. I checked the time. It was 8am in Sancerre and 11pm in Oregon. My husband might still be up. “What the hell is going on over there?” he shouted through the phone. “Are you in an air raid?!”

“I need you to Google Translate something for me!” I yelled back between beeps. “F! R! E! I! . . .” Five minutes later, with the French term for “parking brake” now branded on my brain, I set back out on my journey. The drive from Sancerre to Chinon is supposed to last about two and a half hours. To get there directly, one must head due west, parting ways with the Loire River, which arcs way up to the north past Orléans before swinging back down toward Tours, the main city of the Loire Valley.

Even without the river views, the Loire countryside is striking. Cream-colored houses with gray slate roofs appeared and disappeared in the morning mist. Goats mounted the sagging walls of crumbling stone barns. Blue-necked pheasants, straight out of a Louvre oil painting, eyed me suspiciously from countless meadows. Groves of pencil-thin white birch trees, upright and tightly packed, interrupted the expanse of fields, their wispy burgundy branches glistening with dew. And large produce trucks, the word BIO proudly displayed on their sides, passed me intermittently, reminding me that this is, in fact, the garden of France.

I was so enraptured by the scenery that I didn’t notice when the pavement turned to gravel underneath my tires—gravel that eventually gave way to rocks and dirt. My map app assured me I was still on a major thoroughfare, but reality failed to conform. Reluctantly, I called Domaine Olga Raffault to explain that I would be late. It was a phone call I would repeat three more times before finally arriving.

Sylvie Raffault, Olga’s granddaughter, met me in the driveway and hurried me inside. She was understanding, but my navigational struggles had severely compressed our visit. Following a quick tasting and a winery tour, where stately old oak casks and the occasional chestnut barrel squared off against rows of stainless steel, we stomped out behind the winery to the Les Barnabés Vineyard.

The centerpiece of Olga Raffault’s production is a trio of single-vineyard Cabernet Francs: Les Barnabés (sand, gravel), Les Peuilles (clay-silica), and Les Picasses (limestone). Tasted together, they provide a snapshot of the diversity and complexity of Loire Valley Cabernet Franc, ranging from fruity and cheerful, to savory and edgy, to long lived and profound.

Chinon occupies the southwest corner of the Touraine subregion, forming part of the only neighborhood in the Loire where red wine takes the lead. Across the river and to the north are the Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil appellations, while Saumur and Saumur-Champigny lie to Chinon’s immediate west. Though these last two are technically a part of the Anjou-Saumur subregion, their shared allegiance to Cabernet Franc unites them all in spirit.

Viewed collectively, this area is capable of producing what I believe to be some of the finest red wines in the world. When made well and from an auspicious site, Loire Valley Cabernet Franc can offer all of the shy grandeur and perfume of Burgundy, but with the power and stoicism of Bordeaux. You would think this combination would be the perfect palate middle ground, but instead the wines tend to be treated more like a forgotten middle sibling. Still, the recent raging success of rosé, itself a kind of middle child between white and red wine, gives me hope that Loire Cabernet Franc’s viral moment is just around the corner.

Of Raffault’s wines, it’s those from the limestone cliff of Les Picasses with which I’m most familiar.  A decade ago, when I worked as a sommelier at New York’s Veritas, we had a mini-vertical that included the 1990, 1985, and 1976 vintages. Sylvie Raffault explains that the domaine has always held back a considerable amount of production for cellar aging, but that the only importer they send library selections to was and is Louis/Dressner. In my best faux-French, I attempt to tell Sylvie how important that was to my early restaurant career.

Sometimes, as a sommelier, you feel like a can opener. Other times, you feel like a wizard. And sharing older vintages of Olga Raffault with guests made it seem like I had magical powers. Specifically, the ability to conjure stupendous and beautifully aged wines for relatively little money. The Burgundy ballers who flocked to Veritas were not interested in our old Chinon, but for younger drinkers or enthusiasts with shallower pockets, those wines offered a life-changing glimpse at the transcendental nature of great old wine.

As Sylvie and I turned to leave Les Barnabés, kicking up pale gray dust in the process, I noticed a startling number of power lines converging in the near distance, back toward the river. Because the Loire is so wide, deep, and long, it is home to several nuclear reactors, the first of which was built in Chinon in 1957. Its ominous smoking towers made an unsettling backdrop for the bucolic winegrowing region.

The Savennières Wavelength

With the twin chimneys of Chinon’s nuclear power plant in my rearview, I made my way across the river and toward that other monument to unseen forces: Coulée de Serrant.

Nicolas Joly’s teachings informed my early education in wine, and while I’d seen him speak multiple times, I had never sat down with him one-on-one. Despite repeated warnings the he was “impossible to interview,” I set up a tasting. We met in his study. With its turquoise walls, mustard-colored curtains, cherry red rug, and floor-to-ceiling books, the chamber appeared both stately and zany. Much like the man himself.

Joly hadn’t even sat down before he launched into a lecture on biodynamics. He talked about Plato and four stages of matter, of archetypal forces and wavelength pollution. In truth, much of it was hard to follow, but what I believe it boils down to is this: a biodynamic garden, no matter how small, is like an acupuncture needle, a place where cosmic energy connects to the earth’s surface. The more biodynamic vineyards, farms, and ranches that are out there, the stronger the planet’s spiritual alignment. At least I think that’s what he meant.

The Coulée de Serrant estate has been in Joly family hands since the 1960s, around the same time the Savennières region pivoted from sweet to dry. But no matter the style, Savennières has always been committed to Chenin Blanc. Indeed, this is the place where many aficionados believe that the notoriously difficult grape reaches the apogee of its potential. “Chenin is a problematic child,” Joly tells me. “It becomes either a genius or a terrorist.”

The Savennières AOP is small, covering only 145 hectares, and most of its slopes face east or south. Inside Savennières are two smaller appellations: Roches aux Moines and Coulée de Serrant, an effective monopole. Across the river, on the opposing bank, sits Quarts de Chaume—the sweet foil to dry Savennières.

The disparity between Savennières and the Loire’s other famous Chenin Blanc appellation, Vouvray, is stark. While Vouvray enjoys mostly limestone soils, the vines of Savennières grow on schist. In their book, The Dirty Guide to Wine, Alice Feiring and Pascaline Lepeltier claim that the Chenin/schist combo makes for wines with “round, plump, grainy, juicy fullness.” That description jives nicely with nearly all of my Savennières tasting notes. Whether the particular aromatics range from quince to hard cheese to honey, Savennières is inevitably powerful on the palate.

Nicolas Joly took over the family estate in 1976 and converted it to biodynamics in 1985. Under his care, the wines took a blousy turn, but the recent vintages I tried were not lacking for tension or brightness. Joly suggested this might be related to his favorite new piece of cellar equipment: a tuning fork. Twice a week during élevage, Joly pings the metal rim of each barrel with a fork tuned to A, which he claims brings the wines into balance. But this isn’t just any A—this is A at 432 Hertz, which is different from the international standard.

I’ll explain.

Go to almost any concert or opera in the world and the orchestra always tunes to the same pitch: the A above middle C. For many centuries, that A note varied slightly according to region. A violinist in Poland might tune to an A that was a few semi-tones lower or higher than a violinist in England, for example. In the 1930s, the increasingly powerful broadcast community lobbied for standardization. In response, the ISO met in 1939 and decreed that the official frequency for A was 440 Hertz. This is now known as “concert pitch.”

The ISO’s decision did not please everyone, and 80 years later, there remains a community of people who believe that true A is 432 Hertz, which is close to the frequency used during Mozart’s time. The reasons for this are complex and varied (and occasionally a little nuts), but one of the most common arguments is that an A at 432 Hertz makes for a middle C of 256 Hertz, which is a multiple of 8 Hertz, which is the Schumann Resonance.

The Schumann Resonance, a very real and scientifically documented phenomenon, is an electromagnetic pulse that emanates from the planet roughly eight times a second (8 Hertz). The extended logic is that, if you tune your instrument using A at 432 Hertz, you will end up playing in harmony with what has been dubbed “the earth’s heartbeat.” You can see how this might appeal to the man who effectively brought biodynamics to the world of wine.

Joly showed me around his property, introducing me to vines, rocks, and cows in turn. His unkempt gray locks curled outward from the back of his head, revealing a broad, high forehead; the effect was of a man who had spent his whole life walking against the wind. Unlike the almost frantic energy of our interior chat, outside he was tender, boyish. “I like very much to have a donkey, and I don’t know why,” he said with a shrug and a grin, gesturing toward his favorite farm animal and making clucking noises.

Back in the house and on my way out the door, Joly pulled me quickly into the cellar, excited to show off his tuning forks. “I travel with this one,” he tells me. “I get especially disoriented in airports, and if I give myself a little ding on the sternum, I can realign.” He walked over to where I was standing and after a quick “May I?” bounced the prongs lightly off my forehead.

The sound it made inside my skull, disturbingly, was boing.

Muscadet & Night

The next morning, I drove a sopping hour to the sprawling Muscadet region. Muscadet is a wine that I’ve enjoyed many times but thought about hardly ever (I know I’m not alone in this). But one wine changed that for me: Domaine de la Pépière’s Clos des Briords.

Several years ago, a sommelier friend poured me a glass of Clos des Briords while I heroically held down their bar (it was windy). That was one of the few times I remember being actually startled by a wine. Could this really be Muscadet? With its layers of flavors, mounting intensity, and long, saline finish, it bore only a slight relation to the innocuous Muscadets I typically enjoyed. This was no quaffer; this was a serious, world-class wine, sourced from a tiny three-hectare vineyard of 70- to 90-year-old vines grown on granite. I promised myself that one day I would see this site. Ten years later, I finally made it.

Rémi Branger drove me to over half a dozen different vineyards during our morning together. By the end of the tour, I was able to pick out the Pépière plots by sight. All around us, stubby, low-trained vines stretched for miles, the ground between the rows scorched by herbicide. Though this was the Sèvre-et-Maine subregion—supposedly the top of the Muscadet food chain—the vast majority of those vines were destined to be machine-harvested, the fruit thoughtlessly vinified, and the wines tossed out into the market without much ceremony.

Pépière’s vines, by contrast, were typically the oldest around: twisted, thick, and often moss covered due to the region’s perpetual dampness. Cover crops thrived between rows (sometimes even sprouting from the vines themselves!), indicative of their biodynamic farming. When transitioning to biodynamics, Pépière chose to work with Biodyvin rather than Demeter due to its higher tolerance for copper use. Copper sulfate, or Bordeaux mixture, is an essential anti-fungal treatment for such a rain-soaked region.

Muscadet is subdivided into several AOPs, but the largest and most prestigious is the Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine region, so-named for the Loire tributaries that run through it. The land is low, battered by moist ocean winds, and relatively flat, but the soils are complex. Granite is concentrated in the south, gneiss dominates in the center and the north, and quartz, silica, sand, clay, and gabbro (a volcanic rock related to basalt) are sprinkled throughout.

In honor of this diversity, the top producers banded together and carved their sizable appellation into a series of crus. The first round was approved in 2011, and a second batch became official in June of 2019. To list a cru on the label, a wine must be aged on its fine lees for a minimum of 17 months and a maximum of 21 months following harvest. This is a significant extension of the normal “sur lie” rules, wherein a wine must be bottled between March 1 and November 1, the year after harvest.

Anyone who thinks that Muscadet is humdrum ought to sit down for a tasting of Pépière’s crus. It turns out that the non-aromatic Melon de B grape (formerly known as Melon de Bourgogne) is the perfect translator of terroir. With few aromatic terpenes to distract the senses, shifts in the more subtle earth tones become blaring, and variations in structure and weight shine through. That Pépière’s softly floral and creamy Château-Thébaud is crafted in the same way as its austere and rocky Gorges—and from the same variety—will make a believer out of the staunchest terroir atheist.

Upon leaving Pépière, I temporarily abandoned my nostalgia tour to check in on one of the new stars of Muscadet, Julien Braud. Braud is perhaps most famous as the winemaker/blender behind the pop wine phenomenon Forty Ounce Muscadet, but he is also the proprietor of a small eponymous brand.

Braud comes from a multigenerational winemaking family, but his desire to farm organically forced him to branch out on his own in 2012. We met in his tiny winery which, like many Muscadet cellars, appeared empty at first glance. All the fermentation tanks—typically concrete lined with glass—were below ground to take advantage of the natural cooling influence of the soil. Rows of red manhole covers lining the floor provide the only clue to their existence.

Braud’s portfolio of wines show his youthful stretching. Joining his range of extraordinary and expressive Muscadet crus is a pert Folle Blanche (prior to phylloxera, this variety covered two-thirds of the Nantais) and a charming pét-nat. Like Pépière, he is starting to experiment with red varieties and recently planted a small patch of Merlot.

Julien Braud adores the quality of the luscious 2018 vintage, but he loves its bounty even more. The last couple of years have been challenging ones for much of the Loire. “In 2016, I lost 40% of my fruit to frost and another 40% to mildew,” he admits. The experience was painful but enlightening. Among other lessons, he learned the importance of year-round cover crops. “Otherwise I can’t get the tractor into the vineyard right away to spray for mildew after a heavy rain.”

Evening was quickly descending so I bid farewell to Julien and checked into a remote B&B for the night. I was starved but also cold, wet, and exhausted, and venturing out on my own for a meal seemed daunting. Purely for the calories, I cracked a bottle of Cabernet Franc that I had picked up along the way. Two glasses later, my hunger had abated and sleep came easily.

Return to Touraine

The Touraine is a large expanse of land that spans both sides of the Loire river between Saumur and the Centre-Loire. It contains the specialized appellations of Vouvray, Montlouis, Chinon, Bourgueil, and others, but most of the area under vine falls outside of these subregions where the wines are only eligible for the Touraine AOP.

Because this appellation covers such a vast and varied area, it is something of a Jack of All Grapes, complete with the attendant lack of mastery. I don’t mean to say that nothing stands out; it’s more that diversity is the order of the day. Loire Valley staples such as Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc thrive, but so do Gamay, Malbec (here called Côt), Chardonnay, Pineau d’Aunis, Romorantin, Grolleau, Menu Pineau, and occasionally even Cabernet Sauvignon. This range is reflected in the portfolios of the producers, some of which bottle dozens of different wines.

Touraine and next-door neighbor Saumur rest on a base of tuffeau, a local form of limestone. Sturdy but shapeable, this stone was quarried for the area’s many châteaux. Sand, clay, gravel, and patches of silex layer on top of it, forming a wavy and gentle terrain. The ocean influence, which rides in on the river, is most clearly felt in the west. Toward the east, the climate becomes increasingly continental with shorter, hotter summers and more extreme winters.

Clos Roche Blanche had long been my favorite Loire Valley producer. An early taste of Clos Roche Blanche Gamay ignited my love for the variety, well before I had tried a Cru Beaujolais, and their Malbec was my high watermark for the grape. Which is why I was devasted to learn that operations had ceased after the 2014 vintage. My heart was broken, but I still wanted to explore Touraine Gamay and Malbec. Instead of chasing down the new owners of Clos Roche Blanche’s vineyards, however, I allowed myself to be pointed in the direction of relative newcomer Les Maisons Brûlées. Their property very nearly touches the now-defunct estate, so I scheduled my appointment hoping to catch a whiff of my former love’s cologne in their wines.

Les Maisons Brûlées was founded in 2013 by husband-and-wife team Paul and Corinne Gillet. The pair hails from Alsace, but high local land prices sent them vineyard-shopping in the Loire. After multiple years running a restaurant in Buenos Aires, they settled into their new life in the countryside, about an hour east of Tours along the Cher tributary.

With shaggy blonde hair, sloping shoulders, and a sleepy smile, Paul Gillet resembles a California slacker. We walked around his property—a farm with horses, chickens, cats, a dog, and gardens—and admired his vines. In true Touraine fashion, his six-hectare vineyard contained nine different varieties, including a patch of Gamay from 1960 and some own-rooted Sauvignon Blanc. The soil was mostly calcareous clay dotted with chunks of silex. He collected the shiny stones as we strode through vine rows and pointed out the different colors.

In the winery, a hulking antique Champagne press was pushed to one side, waiting for harvest to bring it to life, while every conceivable size of wooden vessel filled the remaining nooks. A black-and-white poster showing booted legs half-sunk in a vat of grapes promised: Rock N‘Roll Save Your Soul.

The wines were as raw and wild as the property itself—mostly good, sometimes bizarre, always interesting—with the reds seemingly better able to weather the weird than the whites. My favorites were the Érèbe, a blend of Côt and Cabernet Franc, and R2L’O, a cofermentation of Gamay and Pineau d’Aunis (both bottled as vin de France). Neither offered any ghostly traces of Clos Roche Blanche, but they did provide me with a peek at the new wave of Loire Valley wines as well as an affirmation of the natural versatility of the Touraine.

With the tasting concluded, I climbed back into my car, which is when I noticed the smell. It seemed that last night’s leftover wine (aka dinner) had become somehow unmoored and spilled all over the trunk. Left to bake in the sun, an odor had blossomed. I soaked up what I could with some tissues, rolled down the windows and headed back out on the road, praying the scent would blow off.

The Lady Lunches

Did you know that French credit cards have a special secret embedded chip and pin system that American cards do not? I didn’t. But I figured it out fast when I coasted in to an unmanned back country gas station on my last liter. Card after card was rejected, and without any humans present to accept my cash, I was stranded.

My car was not the only one with an empty tank.  Loire Valley restaurants have a strict lunch cutoff time of 2pm, and I am notoriously bad with deadlines. Because of this, my daytime dining had consisted solely of snacks, but now I was out. Out of gas, out of snacks, and out of patience with my own poor planning and incompetence.

I rolled the dice and managed to make it to two more gas stations, both unmanned, before locating one with some actual personnel. Even better, there was a supermarché next door. I had just enough time to fill the car, fill myself, and get back on the road for the long drive to Saumur. After some easy shopping (supermarket French is my spécialité), I raced through the lot with my winnings: a baguette, some cheese, and a salad for me; soap, sponges, and water for the car.

Meanwhile, the smell had evolved into a full-blown stink. Just opening the door enveloped me in a stale cloud of drunkard’s breath. It was nauseating and, more importantly, a liability were I to be pulled over. My attempts to clean the spill were laughable. As I could not remove the panel to rinse the wine, I basically just ground in a bunch of soap, which I also could not adequately wash off. The foam bubbled and dried on the cheap gray felt, forming a toxic-looking white crust that was far more obvious than the original stain.

Fears of paying some enormous cleaning bill were starting to creep in, but I was in survival mode. I plunked down in the front seat and tore into my bread, but as I reached for the salad I realized that I had forgotten to grab silverware. I looked at the clock, did some quick math, and sighed; it was already too late.

And so there I sat, in a parking lot, in my reeking car, all by myself on a beautiful spring day in the middle of the Loire Valley, using my hands to shovel salad into my mouth without so much as a glass of wine to wash down my dignity.

Saumur or Bust

Saumur gets bound up with the greater Anjou in books and on maps, but its wines and soils more closely resemble those of the western Touraine. Indeed, it can be difficult to distinguish between the Cabernet Francs of Chinon and Saumur, but I find the former tends to be a bit more muscular, the latter more finessed.

Though much of Saumur is dedicated to the production of sparkling wine, it is also home to two of the Loire’s most famous red producers, Clos Rougeard and Guiberteau. Here you will find none of Cabernet Franc’s occasional rusticity—both estates produce wines of remarkable polish and pedigree. Within the sommelier set, they are often referred to as “unicorn wines,” but Guiberteau is unique in that it is also made by a unicorn—an American winemaker working in France.

Brendan Stater-West grew up in Eugene, Oregon, a stone’s throw from vineyards, but it wasn’t until he was teaching English in Paris that he fell in love with wine. A taste of Guiberteau’s 2008 Brézé Cabernet Franc changed his life; it turned his head so completely that he tracked down the producer and eventually begged his way into the cellar. Now he is the estate’s winemaker, has purchased a small patch of Brézé for his own brand (Stater-West), and has even married a local girl and started a family. Dreams do come true.

The Guiberteau winery is among the more modern Loire cellars I’ve visited, and the wines often hint of new oak. They wear it well, but still, that’s a relative rarity for the region. The Stater-West wines, on the other hand, drink like stripped-down Guiberteaus, with less obvious oak, higher toned aromatics, and slightly elevated acidity. Both brands are superlative. Said Stater-West, “Cabernet Franc can be supple, serious, and ethereal. I strive to bring out the ethereal.”

His affection for the Brézé vineyard is palpable (his Instagram handle is @brezelove, after all), and with only a small amount of pleading, I convinced him to take me there. As it was getting rather late in the day, we raced through the village and reached the gentle crest of the vineyard just in time for sunset.

The vineyard was much larger than I had expected, with around 400 hectares of Cabernet Franc and Chenin planted in the limestone-studded heavy clay soil. According to Stater-West, Romain Guiberteau’s grandfather had passed down the following wisdom: plant Cabernet Franc where the soil is deeper than one meter, so that the roots have room to stretch and find water; and plant Chenin Blanc where the soils are shallow in order to tame the variety’s natural vigor.

Brézé can be viewed as a case study for the Loire as a whole. A handful of serious producers (Stater-West, Guiberteau, Clos Rougeard, Domaine du Collier, Antoine Sanzay, Arnaud Lambert) share 80 of the hectares and apply careful farming and thoughtful vinification to produce wines of terroir. The majority of Brézé, however, is locked up in contracts with cooperatives, who blend the individual mark of the vineyard away into the nowhereness of bulk wine. And while Stater-West has seen an increasing number of growers shake free and move toward making their own wine, the dominant business model of the region favors mediocrity.

In short, the quality may be high, but the potential is limitless.

Vouvray on the Verge

The next morning, I got into my car and sniffed in dismay. Because of my disastrous cleaning attempt, a kind of moldy cardboard smell had harmonized with the old-wine aroma, and the fake floral scent of the soap added a gagging soprano to the chorus. I hadn’t thought it could get worse, but it was. Significantly.

The sun was out but the wind was crisp with cold. Nonetheless, I had to air out the car. In order to stay warm, I blasted the front heaters and moved my seat up as far as it could go, so that I was practically laying on the steering wheel. Where the speed allowed, I hung my head out of the window in an attempt to escape the smell. More than one insect—plump and juicy as a young Vouvray—met its end on my eyeglasses.

This was a terrible state in which to pull into Huet, one of my all-time favorite producers and final visit of the trip. But I cleaned myself up, nosed some flowers to reset my palate, and entered the long, glass-walled tasting room of the venerable estate.

Domaine Huet was established in 1928 by Victor Huet (pronounced hoo-ETTE), a bistro owner. He had developed respiratory problems following exposure to mustard gas in WWI, and his doctor instructed him to leave Paris for the pure air of the Loire. He purchased some land and started a winery, but the drama of war followed. During the Second World War, Nazis occupied Vouvray, and Victor’s son Gaston spent four years in a prison camp. Meanwhile, Huet’s large limestone caves had become a kind of sanctuary for the community. As the far entrance was hidden by a thick grove of trees, the locals could sneak in unseen. Every Friday night, they would gather in one of the larger chambers for a much-needed evening of music, wine, and dancing. Years later, a modest cellar expansion revealed the abandoned tomb of a 19th-century Prussian soldier. It seems that the land now known as Domaine Huet has seen its fair share of battles.

A different kind of war has been waging in Vouvray for the past few decades. In a certain sense, the region’s popularity has invited the same sort of affliction as seen in Sancerre—fulfilling demand at the expense of quality. But Vouvray faces the added complication of its long association with sweet wine, a category that has become increasingly unfashionable. Thankfully, Domaine Huet and a handful of other top estates have maintained a high bar, never faltering in their production of exquisite and ageworthy Chenin Blancs across the full spectrum of sweetness.

Huet’s production is centered around three main vineyards: Le Haut-Lieu, Le Mont, and Clos du Bourg. As with the vineyards of Olga Raffault, they demonstrate the geologic range of their region. Le Haut-Lieu, the originally purchased parcel, features deep clay-rich soils over a limestone (tuffeau) base and typically yields generous, easy wines. Le Mont is stony with an abundance of silex over tuffeau and generally makes for firm, profound wines of remarkable complexity. And Clos du Bourg features the shallowest soils with the highest concentration of limestone; these wines tend to be intricate, inward-looking, and refined.

Sarah Hwang, Domaine Huet’s current proprietor, caught up with me in the caves. She is part of the Filipino-American family that purchased the estate in 2003, the year after Gaston Huet passed away. Decked in yoga pants, she contrasted sharply with the ancient oak casks that lined the dark and humid hall, but the disconnect melted as she merrily detailed for me the intricacies of the estate, its vineyards, and their winemaking processes.

The Hwang family, which also owns the Tokaji producer Királyudvar, has worked hard to maintain the Huet house style, but their presence has raised a few eyebrows. Foreign investment may be the norm in many of the world’s top wine regions, but it is still something of a rarity in the Loire Valley, where things remain a bit more insular. The Hwang’s purchase speaks both to the cachet of Vouvray and the remarkable transformation that is befalling the Loire Valley, however slowly it may be unfolding.

On our way out of the caves we pause to consider the barrels, most of which are black with age. Because Vouvray is typically bottled with some degree of residual sugar, it’s important for the winemaker to be able to arrest fermentation at the desired level of completion. And because the natural fermentations proceed so slowly, that stopping point generally occurs during the winter.

“Back in the day,” the tour guide explained, “the winemaker could simply swing open the cellar door and the rush of cold air into the tunnel was sufficient to halt fermentation. Today’s climate, of course, doesn’t allow for that.” In order to adjust for climate change, they turned to technology, and the antique casks have been fitted with large metal glycol hoses. Thick and silver, they drape and coil across the barrels like sunning robotic snakes.

Changes, indeed.

Le Fin

As I headed back to Paris, I lamented that I had left so much of the Loire unseen. I didn’t commune with the river, the last untamed waterway of France that stretches nearly the length of the California coastline. I didn’t see any castles. I didn’t eat nearly enough goat cheese. And there are still dozens of vignerons that I long to visit.

But here’s what I did see: a vastly underrated wine region, iconic wineries in their stride, a new generation shaking things up, and more than one eyeful (and glassful) of true beauty.

The Loire is an exciting place right now. There were moments of my trip where it felt like everything was changing simultaneously and others where it seemed like nothing had, or ever would, budge. But the through-line bisecting all of it, or at least all of the wines, was value.

In fact, that was the final task of my wretched steed—hauling all the bottles of wine I purchased back to Paris. In the end, the three cases cost more to ship home than to purchase. And while I lament that such esteemed producers don’t command more for their efforts (with a very few notable exceptions, of course), I was selfishly grateful for the bargain.

After all, I very likely had a massive cleaning tab to pay upon my return.

Bibliography

Feiring, Alice and Pascaline Lepeltier. The Dirty Guide to Wine: Following Flavor from Ground to Glass. New York: Countryman Press, 2017.

Friedrich, Jacqueline. A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1998.

Anonymous
Parents Comment
  • Thank you for the sweet note!

    Geoff is right, the bit about the A-note and tuning forks was meant to provide some Joly coloring and should not be read as hard science that we are promoting. But I thought it was too deliciously wacky not to include. Interestingly, I am writing from South America where I just discovered a winery called 432Hz, so clearly other winemakers are thinking about this as well!

    Regarding your question, no I do not write every day. Most of my GuildSomm pieces are very research heavy so I spend a lot of time reading and talking to people. Research and writing is probably an even 50/50 split of my time..

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