Friday, 7 February 2014

The Loire

The annual Loire fair was held last week on the outskirts of the picturesque, historic town of Angers.

It’s an intimate wine fair compared to the big ones in Shanghai, London, Bordeaux and Dusseldorf. But all the Loire producers are out in force, from the tiniest growers to the big-player winemakers. They come from the west in Muscadet and the Vendée, plus the central appellations and VdPs, through to the far-eastern AOC’s of Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon and Sancerre. What is also nice is that the miniscule, obscure appellations (of which there are quite a few!) are also present and I had a great time tasting wines such as Touraine-Chenonceau, Côtes d’Auvergne, Côteaux de Loir (not a misspelling!) and my favourite, Pissote.

It has been tough in the Loire for the last few years with major frosts and severe hail storms literally destroying the production levels to unthinkable yields. And although 2013 was somehow remarkably better it was nowhere near the average volumes normally enjoyed.

But the people from this region are like their vineyards: very hardy indeed! They hold their heads up high and keep going and going, always smiling, forever with their remarkable passion for wine.  The Loire folk will always make time to let you taste everything from micro cuvées, single barrels or the newest blend … and of course always time to talk goat’s cheese!

This year was no different and after a long day at the fair I was kindly invited to dinner in Angers by the winemakers of our sparkling Crémant de Abbesse Rosé. It was a great evening with lots of characters. I was sat next to Nick Butler, an Australian who was one of the first ‘flying winemakers’ Tony employed in the late 1980s! The table also had some wine importers from Dublin so you can only imagine the craic! Before long the group of older, retired French winemakers were in full voice and began reciting traditional songs, all clasping a glass of sparkling Loire rosé of course!

Next day it was back to business with another good day at the fair. I stopped at various stands to taste the new-vintage wines, discovering yet again just how good and diverse this region is.  I had a wonderful personal tasting from the amazing Jacky Blot; his wines sell out even before they’re bottled but he has let me have 300 bottles of his extraordinary Clos Michet vineyard in Montlouis. 
Jacky Blot

 I wasn’t let down on the second evening either and once again the hospitality of the locals rose to the occasion. Loire maestro Charles Sydney holds his infamous growers’ supper every year and I was privileged to be invited. The venue was at the lovely La Ferme restaurant right under the cathedral in Place Freppel in the centre of Angers. 

What an evening! 50 people in total, the majority being growers with a sprinkling of wine buyers, too. Each producer turned up with a bottle (or three!) of their wines that were passed around the tables igniting a giant game of musical chairs, everyone so intrigued about the wine they had just tasted. Finally things settled down and everyone was back in their own chair. Before the food, a grower from each region of the Loire had volunteered to give a quick overview of their growing season and harvest. A great idea and fascinating to listen to the passion.

Finally, after 3 days of madness, I took the time to visit dominating Château Angers. It’s a huge, imposing castle with its 17 towers guarding the town of Angers at its strategic location along the Loire River. This place has some history and not only a French one! 

Firstly built in the 9th century by the Counts of Anjou, it next became part of the empire of the Plantagenet Kings of England during the 12th century. Conquered by Philip II in 1204, the castle was significantly expanded at great expense to the Royal revenue.

The Château’s most famous possession is the magnificent Apocalypse Tapestry, commissioned in 1373 by Prince Louis, the son of King John II. The tapestry was made in six sections, each 24m wide by 6.1 m high, comprising 90 different scenes, taking Nicolas Bataille a total of 5 years to complete!  It tells the story of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Divine and after surviving centuries of wars, fires, occupations and revolutions the tapestry is now housed in the Château gallery. It is the oldest French medieval piece to have survived.

King Rene, who was born in the chateau in 1409, grew up with a passion for wine and planted the first vineyard inside the walls. And today, 140 Chenin Blanc vines still stand proudly in the little walled vineyard.

The gardens that decorate the grounds around the walls are simply exquisite!

A great 3 days ended on a high as I learned of the exciting news that we had won GOLDs at the prestigious Angers wine competition with Daniel Reverdy Sancerre, Les Damnes des Prieiur Sancerre and the Clos Nozieux Cheverny!

Back to Bordeaux today but here are some of the talented Loire winemakers to look out for and will be listed at Laithwaite’s very soon: Jeremie Mourat, Pierre Sauvion, Chateau Variennes, Christine Champalou and Jacky Blot.

Don't listen to the hype and talk down of the 2013 vintage. Yes, there are problems and yields were small in the Loire, but boy, there are some stunning wines! Real winemakers in the thick of it, and when you’re struggling – and I can tell you from experience – winemakers will make their best wine ever!