Several weeks ago on a Saturday morning two members of the National Police visited the wine store of a friend. Both men had removed identification numbers from their uniforms. Their mannerisms were blunt and intimidating. They demanded to see all legal documentation regarding ownership of the wine store. My friend immediately complied, and presented these documents.
Strangely, one officer took out a personal cell phone and began, methodically, to photograph each document.
When the store owner heard this story later that morning, he promptly walked to the local station and demanded an explanation. Officers removing identification numbers? Police photographing proprietary legal documents with personal cameras? This all very odd.
So began the saga of what could be called the local wine store wars, in which a proprietor of one store (in a city to be unnamed) apparently courted local police officers – with off-duty afternoons spent sharing bottles together – before requesting that they harass the proprietor of a newly opened wine store in town. Which they did. And which, having now been informed of the wanton illegality of their actions, these officers are wishing to forget.
This is a neighborhood story. It took place in France. Yet it could have taken place in Italy, Argentina, or the United States. The difference of how it plays out depends on how strongly the civil servants of a country adhere to their legal systems. It is one thing to have laws, but an entirely different matter to ensure those laws are enforced.
It is likely that the wheels of justice will prevail, the perpetrators reprimanded, and the matter soon forgotten or transformed to a lesson about the folly of haste.
What is more intriguing is that the officers appear to have been instruments of another individual’s motive to kill competition.
Perhaps none of these individuals heard of the phrase, spoken frequently by ex-US President John F. Kennedy, that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’
This phrase was not invented by Kennedy, but adopted after he heard it spoken at a regional Chamber of Commerce meeting in New England. It means – economically – that when businesses better themselves financially, their actions often increase opportunities for neighbors to do alike. If a successful business draws more visitors and customers to a location, many other regional businesses are often better poised to increase their own sales.
Using a baton to squash competition also relates to the famed 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines – which is still considered valid. That year, at the behest of Emperor Napoleon III who was poised to host the world’s fair (‘Exposition Universelle’) in Paris, scouts visited Bordeaux to discern which wines were of the best quality, in order that they could be obtained and displayed to visitors in Paris.
Their selection of wines created a Bordeaux classification system – now more than a century and a half old – that is still utilized and considered by many as both practical and realistic.
Many merchants, wine producers, and critics never challenge the validity of this archaic system, contrary to the fact that common sense and ground realities indicate otherwise. Some other châteaux adjacent to these famed ‘first growth’ wines now produce wines that match or exceed the quality of wines listed in this ancient classification system. The unspoken belief is that this 1855 classification system should be considered valid because of its historical repute. This notion is quaint, but outdated.
Since the time of that classification, two world wars have been fought, the atom split, the airplane invented, the computer created, slaves emancipated, golf clubs teed off on the moon, and the horse and buggy replaced by the automobile. The world of agriculture was also reshaped in the past 170 years, including land management practices, technological innovations, pesticides, herbicides, management competency, climate alterations, quality control, and the economic impact of multiple external variables – including the invention of sophisticated processing equipment, the deployment of air cargo and container ships, and the viability of ‘flying winemakers’ – able to provide precise advice based on experience gained from working in dozens of countries.
If one wine store attracts more visitors to a location, all wine stores in the region can profit from the associated escalation of business. The notion that competition should be fended off by rigidly clinging to the status quo is, simply, outdated.
This web log is about wine, but this week we include two recipes. Why? Because recipes keep pouring in after my request for them for a forthcoming book – Winemaker’s Cooking Companion.
Isabelle Chéty of Château Mercier informed me of her mother – Martine’s – trove of vineyard recipes on their website recipe page (including – harvest cod, ribeye steak cooked over vine shoots, and Côtes de Bourg ratatouille), while winemaker Thomas Marchand contributed his great-great-grandmother’s recipe for pan-fried foie gras with basmati rice – originally from the wine region of Cahors.
As an American I’m woefully ignorant about the sport – but at the wine store ‘La Cave de la Citadelle’ in Blaye was recently introduced to renowned Australian cricketer Dennis Lillee and his wife Helen. They were visiting the region, and kindly offered to put me in touch with Australian winemaker friends who can provide some more valued recipes.
This week includes two recipes appropriate for the upcoming harvest (yes, it’s still a few weeks away): fried eggplant (aubergine), and ratatouille. Both come from Martine Chéty, who lives with her winemaker family in the beautiful rolling hills of Bourg, about 20 minutes away from Blaye (or 10 minutes, if you drive like her daughter Isabelle).
I plan to cook all recipes that will included in the upcoming book – so managed to rally up a pan of ratatouille yesterday evening. My effort was far from splendid. After sautéing onions, I neglected to turn down heat after adding peppers and garlic. The result? A bit of burnage…a cardinal sin of cookery. Still, the final product was decent, though a bit mushy – likely because I winced at the sight of bare veggies in a pan, and – panicked – threw in a glass of water. Not a brilliant move. No harm….live and learn.
Martine Chéty may have prepared this recipe years ago, because she recommends enjoying the ratatouille with a glass of Château Mercier Cuvée Traditional 1995. Good luck rustling up a bottle of that liquid gold. Instead I drank their Cuvée Prestige 2010 (even scoring that bottle required having an inside track). But a decent bottle of red – Bordeaux or some Cabernet or Merlot (or preferably a blend of both) – will do fine.
These recipes comes from the 13th generation of a family that has lived on the same land, and has produced wine, since the year 1697. That’s more than a century before explorers Lewis and Clark hiked and canoed across the American continent while shooting buffalo and fishing wild salmon to eat. It’s the same year Saint Paul’s Cathedral was consecrated in London, the same year the first steam engine was patented, and the year Peter the Great broke Russia’s isolation by touring western Europe.
Côtes de Bourg Ratatouille – from Martine Chéty of Château Mercier.
“August makes a cornucopia in the garden, cheerfully offering all vegetables, which I don’t want to lose. The children eat their provisions, and the rest I cook for a monstrous ratatouille which I put in jars, which, during the course of winter will bring us comforting flavors and good memories…My husband Philippe and I enjoy breaking eggs on this ratatouille when it is in the skillet.”
Preparation Time and Quantity –
45 minutes to prepare, 1 hour to cook. Serves 6 people.
Ingredients and Amounts –
Tomatoes (medium) – about 10
Eggplants (large) – 2
Zucchini (or ‘courgettes’) – 4
Onions (medium) – 3
Bell peppers (large) – 2
Garlic cloves – 2
Parsley, Thyme – generous sprinkles
Sage leaves – 3
Salt, Pepper – sprinkle
Sugar – 2 teaspoons
Olive oil – enough to just cover the pan bottom
1. Prepare the veggies – chop the onions and garlic, slice the peppers into long pieces a half-inch (1 cm) wide. Peel and chop the zucchini and eggplant into small chunks. Put aside.
2. Peel the tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for 30 seconds, removing, then putting them into ice water to cool them before peeling (put three or four into the boiling water at a time). Then seed the tomatoes by slicing each in half along its ‘equator line’ and then scooping out the seeds with a spoon. Now chop them into chunks. Put aside.
3. Sauté onions in olive oil until they are lightly browned.
4. Reduce heat. Add sliced peppers and chopped garlic. Cook for 10 minutes.
5. Add zucchini and eggplant.
6. After 5 minutes add chopped tomatoes.
7. Add salt, pepper, parsley thyme, and sage.
8. Add sugar. Stir.
9. Cook for an hour over medium heat, stirring occasionally, and adding spices/salt/pepper as needed from tasting.
This ratatouille goes well with white meats, and with a decent bottle of red Bordeaux wine, or a Merlot.
Fried Eggplant (Aubergine) – from Martine Chéty of Château Mercier.
“Eggplants (aubergines) are also known as ‘cèpes du pauvre’ (poor person’s mushrooms) because some years mushrooms are scarce or expensive. This dish replaces them with a taste that is strangely reminiscent. As we say at home, ‘When there are no thrushes, we eat blackbirds.’ “
Preparation Time and Quantity –
30 minutes to prepare, 5 minutes to cook. Serves 4 people.
Ingredients and Amounts –
Eggplants (aubergines) (medium) – 3
Garlic cloves – 3
Parsley – a few sprigs
Salt, Pepper – sprinkle of each
Sugar – 1 teaspoon
1. Prepare the veggies – peel the eggplants and then slice along axis into strips about 1/2 inch (1 cm) thick. Put strips in oven with medium heat for 5 minutes to dry them. Remove, then cut into large cubes.
2. Chop parsley until it is very fine. Crush or chop garlic.
3. Cover a pan bottom with olive oil. Add the eggplant chunks and fry on medium heat until tender.
4. Add garlic and parsley.
5. Sprinkle on salt, pepper, and sugar.
6. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring gently.
This goes well with all meat dishes and a decent red wine, such as Bordeaux, or a Merlot/Cabernet blend.
The next Vino Voices post will include some high-speed drone footage above vines, as well as between vines…
The beauty of Alsace is impressive. Strasbourg city includes soaring medieval architecture, and countryside villages are worth exploring by foot. The best wines here are also worth seeking out.
Alsace is the smallest of 22 regions that comprise continental France. Because of its location (bordering Switzerland and Germany), and history (sometimes part of France, sometimes belonging to Germany) the architecture and food appear more Tyrolean or Teutonic than French.
Before 50 BC, the Romans invaded this region and established it as a wine production center. Wise choice. They recognized the value of the sunshine and soil – the terroir – and the economy still thrives on wine production and export.
I recently spent three days in Alace with my sister and her husband where we tasted about fifty wines. Red wines are often tasted before whites here in order to end on a sweet, strong note. The seven principal grapes include six whites: Riesling, Muscat, Gewürtztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Sylvaner; and one red: Pinot Noir. Only the first four are used to make Grand Cru wines – although there are exceptions to that rule. Pinot Gris is usually sweeter than Riesling, while Sylvaner – which is apparently somewhat ‘in fashion’ now – is an acidic, somewhat indistinct grape.
There’s a huge difference between low quality and high quality wines here. We generally found Riesling and Pinot Noir to provide the best wines, though some late harvest Muscat and Pinot Gris wines are also excellent.
The AOC designation of Alsace wines is similar to that of Burgundy – where slope, aspect, and location of soils are considered critical (from a historical perspective) to ensuring quality of grapes produced. Generally, ‘tradition’ wines are from grapes grown on the plains, ‘terroir’ wines from grapes grown on lower slopes, and ‘grand cru’ wines from grapes grown on the steeper, higher, choicest slopes.
Which are dry wines, and which sweet? Some producers, including Edmond Rentz, include a graphic on the back label of bottles that indicate sweetness or dryness. But it’s not always easy to tell in advance.
“The problem with Alsace,” said Anne-Caroline from Domaine Albert Mann, “is that you rarely know which are sweet, and which are dry wines.”
Alsace is visually impressive – with rolling hills, thick woods, hilltop fortresses, and small towns of medieval origin in neighboring valleys (such as Ribeauville, Kientzheim, Kayserberg, and Wettolsheim).
Below is a scoring of selected wines we tasted from three producers (scoring was made using the proprietary Vino Value algorithm * ). Some of the ‘superlative’ valued wines are higher priced because their quality is exceptional for this region.
|Vino Value Scoring of Selected Wines – Alsace|
|Wine||Retail Price – Euros||Retail Price – US dollars equivalent||Value Score|
|Edmond Rentz (Zellenberg)|
|Muscat – 2013||€ 7.20||$7.85||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Riesling – 2013||€ 6.70||$7.30||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Riesling – ‘Les Alouettes’ 2012 – 2013||€ 9.20||$10.03||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Riesling – ‘Les Comtes’ 2012||€ 8.30||$9.05||Good Value ♫|
|Riesling – Schoenenbourg Grand Cru 2013||€ 10.90||$11.88||Good Value ♫|
|Pinot Gris – 2014||€ 7.50||$8.18||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Pinot Gris – Froehn Grand Crus 2012||€ 11.90||$12.97||Good Value ♫|
|Gewürtztraminer- Burg, Le Bourg 2013||€ 10.10||$11.01||Good Value ♫|
|Pinot Gris – Sélection Grainse Nobles 1998||€ 49.35||$53.79||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Domaine Albert Mann (Wettolsheim)|
|Pinot Noir – Clos de la Faille ® 2012||€ 32.00||$34.88||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Pinot Noir – Grand P ® 2012||€ 43.00||$46.87||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Pinot Noir – Les Saintes Claires ® 2013||€ 50.00||$54.50||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Riesling – Cuvée Albert 2014||€ 19.00||$20.71||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Riesling – Schlossberg 2013||€ 39.00||$42.51||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Pinot Gris – 2014||€ 13.00||$14.17||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Pinot Gris – Furstentum 2011||€ 24.00||$26.16||Good Value ♫|
|Riesling – Schlossberg Grand Cru L’Epicentre 2013||€ 90.00||$98.10||Good Value ♫|
|Gustave Lorentz (Bergheim)|
|Cremant – D’Alsace Brut (méthode traditionelle)||€ 10.25||$11.17||Good Value ♫|
|Muscat – Cuvée Particulière 2013/2014||€ 10.85||$11.83||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Riesling – Grand Cru Altenberg ‘Vieilles Vignes’ 2009||€ 22.75||$24.80||Good Value ♫|
|Pinot Noir – Elevé en Fût de Chêne 2010||€ 15.60||$17.00||Good Value ♫|
|Gewürtztraminer – Cuvée Particulière 2011/2012||€ 13.50||$14.72||Good Value ♫|
|Gewürtztraminer – Vendanges Tardives 2008||€ 33.20||$36.19||Excellent Value ♫♫|
* For more information on this proprietary value scoring algorithm, click here.
Though not really on fire, the Bordeaux region of France is hot. Very hot. There have been successive heat waves during past weeks (the most recent saw temperatures of 41 celsius, or 106 Fahrenheit). These leave us sunburned, thirsty, and reclining on patios during windy evenings sipping glasses of wine to cool down.
One result of this blast of sunshine is that grape vines are now leafy and full. So far, the weather has been good. Throw in a few rain showers to slake thirsty vines, and 2015 could be a stellar year for wine. The heat may shorten the growing season: harvest could begin in the first, rather than the traditional third, week of September.
Irrigating grapevines here is illegal. Vines have to push lower to seek sparse moisture. This becomes difficult when soils are dry and hard, as they are now. Evening drizzles have been insufficient to keep vines happy.
Fortunately, the forecast says heavy thunder showers are on the way.
Last week I visited winemaker Thomas Marchand at Château l’Espérance in Blaye. This modern facility is located on the right bank of the Gironde River. They produce white, rosé, and red wines with phenomenal quality for the price. Below is footage I shot of the château with a Phantom 2 drone. We would have shot more, but after the drone careened off a wall and snapped a propeller, we decided to call it a day. (Thanks for letting us use your music, Nico Vlahavas.)
Forget the Critics
Our friend Julien Pouplet (featured in the Russell Crowe narrated documentary Red Obsession) now works in Blaye for a new wine store named La Cave. He has been a wine consultant in the cities of Bordeaux, Saint Emilion, and Blaye. Julien has the rare ability to sample French wine and discern the vintage and region of origin. I recently presented three ‘mystery bottles’ over the course of days and he correctly guessed the vintage and origin of a 1996 St. Julien (Medoc) Bordeaux, a 1998 Saint Emilion Bordeaux (he knew the slope it came from), and a 2014 one-hundred percent Syrah from the Rhone Valley.
In the video below Julien explains how he does it, and he shares other wisdom.
Lunch, Isabelle Chety assured me, would be usual fare. For eight people we uncorked five bottles of wine, delved into a scrumptious salad hand-picked from the garden that morning, then dined on entrecôte steak rubbed with garlic and red wine-infused salt.
Afterwards we sampled six types of cheese before eating three different desserts. And finally? Coffee.
The small, densely populated region of France known as the Alsace borders Germany and Switzerland. It produces delicious white wines such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. If you want to learn more (including which wines match curry dinners), tune into future posting from Vino Expressions…
Here’s a no-brainer no one talks about.
If you want to learn to cook, where do you go? Cooking school? Restaurants? Cookbooks? Television chefs?
Sure. But you can do better.
If you want to cook flavors with the power to ignite passions, bond friendships, swing emotions, even fire up romance – you need to find Masters of Taste.
Who are they? What people (many since the age of four years) have developed taste buds that can differentiate between multiple olfactory stimuli – taste sensations – to know what triggers delight in those who taste?
Think about it.
What people dedicate their lives to taste? I don’t mean chefs who begin cooking school at age seventeen. I don’t mean television cooks who spent their first careers as stock brokers or engineering professors. I mean people who dunk their taste buds in the lifelong pursuit – the gustatory pleasure – of differentiating between ten thousand shades of taste.
Talented wine makers.
Find an incredible wine maker, and most times you also find a cook with taste buds attuned to subtlety, complexity, creative possibilities, and the desire to please others as they eat and drink.
The other day, Les and Clarissa from Villa St. Simon in Blaye and I shared lunch provided by friends and proprietors of Château La Rose Bellevue – Jérôme and Valérie Eymas. We sat in the shade of a sprawling tree and drank Chablis and tucked into bowls of Valérie’s gazpacho soup. While tasting this amazing summer delight, I realized that it’s time to write another book. We did a little brainstorming for the title: The Winemaker’s Cooking Companion.
This book will include recipes from winemakers, wine producers, and others from the world of wine.
We’ll start off with this family recipe from Valérie, taster and assistant producer of dozens of vintages. This recipe is well suited to the hot days of summer.
Zucchini/Cucumber Gazpacho Soup from Château La Rose Bellevue
Ingredients and Amounts…
Zucchini – 2 normal, 2 round
Table salt – 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 grams)
Water – 1 and 1/4 cup (300 ml)
Cucumber (large) – 1
Rocket salad leaves – 1/2 bag [3 ounces(80 grams)]
Garlic cloves – 2
Coconut milk – 1 cup (200 ml)
Fish sauce, or nuoc mam – 2 tablespoons (30 ml)
Dashi Bonite dried fish powder – 1 sachet
Lime juice – from one lime
White pepper – 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 grams)
1. Peel, de-seed, and chop up four zucchini.
2. Boil them for twenty minutes in the water, together with two pressed cloves of garlic and the salt.
3. Take off heat and let cool.
4. Peel, de-seed, and chop up one large cucumber. Add this to the boiled zucchini mixture.
5. Add the rocket salad leaves, coconut milk, fish sauce, Dashi powder (Valérie uses Dashino-Moto Bonito Flavored Seasoning – made by Shimaya), lime juice, and white pepper. Mix well.
6. Put in a blender. Whirl until the consistency is creamy. Add coriander leaf on top for decoration (or you can replace with mint).
7. Let cool in the freezer, then serve cold.
We enjoyed a Grand cru Chablis with this, although Valérie suggests a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc would be more acidic, and better.
(My own effort with this recipe included too much garlic, so I reduced the quantity to two cloves.)
My first ever visit to VinExpo (2015 in the city of Bordeaux) was an eye-opener. It was a massive yet well-organized event with easy accessibility, plenty of restaurants, and impressive information booths. Forty-five thousand visitors from 120 countries attended, as did more than 2,300 exhibitors. (Thanks Jemma Lopez and Valérie Eymas for organizing tickets).
The event includes far more than wine. Some unexpected surprises included the following.
1. Ukrainian wine made from the Albariño grape – (typical grape from the Galicia region of Spain). Crisp and delicious after 12 months in oak. Affordable? Very much. Nice job Yuri, Andriy, and Eugene from Kámyanka Global Wine.
2. Provence Rosé packaged and sold by…..Swedes (Bodvar). Delicious. Thanks for the introduction Linn.
3. I was reminded how good Burgundy wine is like music by the Beatles: it’s without peer, and seduces not through power or repetition but by being fresh, light, and original. Thanks Aurore (and introduction from Valérie) for sharing amazing tastes from Domaines Devillard (including Château de Chamirey, Domaine de la Ferté, and Domaine des Perdrix).
4. French vodka. No kidding. Viche Pitia makes vodka using an 18th century Russian recipe. The option that includes caraway may have you substituting vodka for wine as an aperitif in the future. Thanks Pierre and Suzanna.
5. Aerosol cocktails. Flavored with carrot, olive, beetroot, basil, thyme, and cucumber, these alcoholic spritzers (‘Garden Party’) may well liven up the New York cocktail scene. Merci Charlotte.
6. Whiskies from the Isle of Man, and from Japan. Unfortunately I never returned, as promised, Julie and Lynn of Lombard Brands…my loss. I thought the Isle of Man was well-known for the Manx Mountain Marathon, not for producing whisky. But – nice job you do.
I also learned how in 1918 Matsataka Taketsuru became the first Japanese citizen to enroll at the University of Glasgow to study Scottish whisky making. A decade later, with his Scottish bride, he founded Nikka Whisky in Japan. This amazing man was well ahead of his time.
7. Poetry and tears from Italy. Sommelier Federica Biasi introduced us to winemakers from the Marche and Abruzzo regions of Italy. Marche is one of twenty regions that comprise Italy, located southeast of Tuscany along the Adriatic Sea. Here we also tasted wine made from two grapes – white and red – I never heard of before.
The first wine the men from Velenosi Wines shared was made from the grape Pecorino. I had never heard of this grape, but did recall that Italians call cheese made from sheep’s milk ‘pecorino.’ Andre Bianco, export manager for Velenosi, told two stories of how this grape may have been named: either because sheep like to nibble this grape, or because small bunches resemble a sheep’s head.
Pecorino grapes produce white wines with naturally high alcohol content (14 or 14.5 percent) that have a zesty, fresh, mineral and citrus taste. To obtain the Italian DOCG classification these grapes must grow between 400 and 600 meters above sea level. This is ideal terrain not only for growing Pecorino, but as Andreas explained – it’s also ideal terrain for living – on mountain slopes that face the sea.
In addition to stories, Italy’s poetic language permeates the life of these wine producers. The motto of Velenosi is: Il vino è un’arte capace de far sognare (‘Wine is an art that makes us dream’).
The second grape that Andre and his co-worker Ulisse Patalocchi introduced us to was the red Lacrima. The word ‘lacrima’ means ‘tear’ in Italian. Being a good storyteller, Andrea explained how the skin of this grape is thin, and can easily break when it is mature, producing a ‘tear’ of juice. Lacrima grows in the southern region of Marche, close to the city of Ancona, and is classified in Italy as DOC.
“It is white wine masked as red,” Andrea explained. “It’s a crossover grape,” Ulisse added, “Because the wine smells white. People who love Pinot Noir usually also love Lacrima.”
The Lacrima they served was aged one year in oak barrels, with grapes late harvested to boost their concentration, thereby producing a rounder, more complex taste.
Only 150 hectares (about 370 acres) of Lacrima exist. The taste of the wine is unique enough that many well-known restaurants in northern California serve bottles of Lacrima. I also enjoyed their blend of 80 percent Lacrima and 20 percent visciole wild cherry syrup, added to produce secondary fermentation (in ancient times, sugar from wild cherries helped preserve wines). And when this liqueur is mixed with sparkling wine? Meraviglioso! (Wonderful).
Satisfied with tasting and stories, we moved to the nearby booth of Tenuta I Fauri. Here, a brother and sister team from the Di Camillo family produce Pecorino and Montepulciano wines within the Abruzzo region, south of Marche.
Tenuta I Fauri were among the first winemakers in the region to produce Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine without oak, to better highlight the taste of the grape. Their Pecorino is also clean and crisp and very affordable.
Again, there is Italian poetry in the way their company brochure describes daily work:
“…con un occhio sulle vasche de cimento in fermentazione e con un orecchio ai tuoni…”
(“…with an eye on the cement tanks during fermentation and with an ear to the thunder…”)
Pecorino and Lacrima…..two lesser known Italian wines worth seeking out. Thanks to the Italian, French, and Brazilian sommeliers Federica, Tristan, and Dg Veiga for the introduction!
“When trustworthy people give you a tip about wine, the least you can do is give it a try.”
Julien Pouplet – wine consultant, Blaye/Bordeaux
“All the great vineyards are places in which life is pleasant, and where the art of living flourishes.”
Jean-Philippe Delmas, from “The Magic of the 45th Parallel” – by Olivier Bernard & Thierry Dussard
The Loire is the longest river in France, meandering westward more than 620 miles while draining a fifth of the nation’s land before it reaches the Atlantic Ocean. I recently spent two days visiting selected vineyards in the Loire Valley with Julien Pouplet (Julien is known for rolling his eyes while being interviewed for the Russell Crowe narrated documentary – Red Obsession, about Bordeaux wines).
Highlights of this trip included tasting stunning yet affordable biodynamic wines, and learning the hard way how regional wine producers are often more focused on the quality of their product than on the details of business.
We stayed inland near the cities of Saumur, Chinon, and Tours, tasting wines from the Saumur and Touraine sub-regions of the Loire Valley, avoiding the coastal dominance of white Muscadet wine. The primary inland white grape here is Chenin Blanc, while the dominant red is Cabernet Franc. Well crafted wines here are often low in alcohol (11 to 13.5 percent) with subtleties in tastes and aromas that are unusually inspiring.
Subsoils of the Touraine include chalk limestones with flinty soils. And within the Touraine, Chinon wines – including magical bottles from such wine makers as Philippe Alliet – grow on soils produced by tuffeau. This regional chalky limestone started forming 100 million years ago (when the region lay deep under churning seas) from the dead cells of Bryozoa, minute organisms grouped in floating colonies.
While driving throughout the region you can see cliffs of tuffeau – some hollowed and transformed to dwellings (with neat window panes and doors facing the outside world), while others are cool, constant temperature, subterranean storehouses for wine.
The pace of the Loire Valley is slow, matching the almost indiscernible movement of the wide river that defines the land. Many wines here are meticulously hand-crafted by artisan farmers with sensibilities toward detail, patience, and attention to local terroir that are reminiscent of small producers in Burgundy, located further east.
Marked individuality among different vineyards is not unusual. The biodynamic Clos Cristal has three kilometers of walls with circular holes punched through them, each running parallel to vines. These were constructed in the early 1900’s. Vines growing north of these walls are trained to pass horizontally through separate holes, emerging to face south. There, fruit is exposed not only to direct sunlight, but to the warmth re-radiated from the walls. This concentrates heat, providing greater ripeness to the fruit.
Making appointments with Loire Valley vignerons is not always easy, but after meeting and sampling wines (sometimes for more than an hour), we often found many vignerons reluctant to sell their sparse and treasured bottles. Many had already been promised to known buyers. At Domaine Philippe Alliet, for example, we managed (with no small amount of bargaining acumen on Julien’s part) to buy six bottles of 2013 Chenin Blanc from the mere three barrels produced that year. Personal contacts cultivated over time, of course, is key to obtaining these wines.
However, not all wine makers are difficult to reach, and many keep regular hours (Clos Cristal, for example, is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 2.00 to 6.00 pm).
As for accommodation? Rather than staying in any stately chateau, we found an AirBNB home in the town of Saumur. The back garden included a historical monument – the largest dolmen (dolmen de bagneux) in France. Constructed 5000 years ago with capstones weighing 109 tons, this was an impressive feat of pre-literate engineering. Back in those days, the locals apparently used mushrooms (evident from images thrown as shadows on dolmen walls) rather than wine, to changed their mindset.
The value of these Loire valley wines?
In this regard there were two unexpected surprises. The first is that there is a relatively high overall value for some sparkling and biodynamic wines produced in the region. The second is that adventurous vignerons utilizing red grapes not usually used in the region may be better off concentrating on the locally favored Cabernet Franc.
Below is a scoring of several wines we sampled, made using the recently developed and proprietary Vino Value algorithm. *
|Vino Value – Loire Valley – Value Scoring of Wines|
|Wine||Retail Price – Euros||Retail Price – US dollars equivalent||Value Score|
|François Chidaine – Appellation Montlouis-sur-Mer|
|François Chidaine Brut Nature (sparkling)||€ 12.80||$14.50||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|François Chidaine Vouvray Pétillant (sparkling) 2011||€ 12.80||$14.50||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|François Chidaine Vouvray Les Argiles 2013 (white)||€ 15.50||$17.50||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|François Chidaine Les hloisilles 2013 (white)||€ 17.00||$19.25||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|François Chidaine Les Bournais 2013 (white)||€ 20.90||$23.67||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|François Chidaine Choisilles 2011 (white)||€ 20.00||$20.65||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|François Chidaine Montlouis Moelleux 2010 (white)||€ 20.90||$23.67||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|François Chidaine Vouvray Moelleux 2010 (white)||€ 20.20||$22.87||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|François Chidaine Touraine Sauvignon 2014||€ 7.70||$8.72||Good Value ♫|
|François Chidaine Tourraine (Côt, Cabernet France, Pineau d’Aunis) 2014||€ 7.70||$8.72||Good Value ♫|
|Clos Cristal – Champigny des Hospices de Samaur|
|Clos Cristal Saumur Champigny Récolte 2013||€ 14.00||$15.85||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Clos Cristal Saumur Champigny Récolte 2012||€ 14.00||$15.85||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Clos Cristal Saumur Champigny Boutifolle 2011||€ 18.00||$20.00||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Domaine Philippe Alliet|
|Rosé 2014 (Cabernet Franc)||€ 6.00||$6.79||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Cabernet Franc 2014||€ 11.00||$12.46||Good Value ♫|
|Cabernet Franc 2013||€ 15.00||$16.99||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Cabernet Franc 2013 – Mid Level||€ 17.00||$19.25||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Cabernet Franc 2013 Cuvée||€ 20.00||$22.65||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Chenin Blanc 2013||€ 15.00||$16.99||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Le Rocher des Violettes (Montlouis-sur-Loire)|
|Pétillant 2013 (sparkling)||€ 14.60||$16.53||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Chardonnay 2014||€ 9.30||$10.53||Superlative Value ♫♫♫|
|Touche Mitaine 2014||€ 15.10||$17.10||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|La Négrette 2013 (white)||€ 19.30||$21.86||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Les Borderies 2014 (white)||€ 17.40||$19.70||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Moellen 2014 (sweet)||€ 29.95||$33.92||Good Value ♫|
|Saumur Champigny ‘Les Poyeux’ 2014 (red)||€ 20.00||$22.65||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Saumur Champigny ‘Les Poyeux’ 2013 in barrel (red)||€ 20.00||$22.65||Excellent Value ♫♫|
|Saumur Champigny 2013 (white)||€ 19.50||$22.08||Excellent Value ♫♫|
* For more information on this proprietary value scoring algorithm, click here.