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In the second of his journeys to the world's great wine regions, sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, Nick Tarayan heads to the Loire Valley in a C240 Estate
When one thinks about taking a trip to the Loire Valley, it is difficult to imagine just how big the region is. The main drag of the valley stretches from Nantes on the Atlantic coast to Sancerre bang in the middle of France, 120 miles directly south of Paris. It's a 240-mile stretch of history, architecture, lush landscapes, magnificent food and, of course, wines.
Owing to its diverse landscapes, the characteristics of Loire wines vary enormously from one end of the valley to the other, so I decided to visit two areas which are so distinctly different as to be completely separate regions: Chinon and Sancerre.
When I was told that I would be driving an estate car on the trip, it had a rather dampening effect on my image consciousness but, when the C240 Estate turned up in the most ravishing of blues and with the most curvaceous of bodies, it could only be described as a sports tourer. It had superbly comfortable leather seats, all the gadgets that man could imagine and an engine so quiet that I had to keep checking it was still running. Any thoughts of having to take 2.4 kids with me vanished and, instead, three friends piled in (with more than a little excess baggage) and off we set.
Our 6am start meant an easy, traffic-free journey from London to Folkestone in just over an hour and Le Shuttle whisked us to Calais in 35 minutes. Then onto the supersmooth motorway, around the Paris Périphérique and 55 miles further to the beautiful, medieval town of Dordan for a pit-stop lunch at the charming Auberge de l'Angelus with its delicious £12 three-course menu.
We arrived in the Saumur region, just to the west of Chinon, in time to start the important job of tasting by late afternoon. Wine maker Paul Filliatreau originally started with a handful of hectares around his white stone cottage 25 years ago and has gone on to create a viticultural empire - still based around the same house. The family also has vineyards down the road at La Grande Vignolle, near Turquant, where we tasted mouthfilling, dense, ripe examples of red wines, made exclusively from the Cabernet Franc grape. It is a lovely property on the banks of the Loire with its own vine maze and troglodyte caves, and the welcome is warm and generous - especially when a few special bottles were opened to prove these wines, although delicious when young, can age well for many years.
Then, on to Chinon itself. The Hotel de France offers small, comfortable rooms, with balconies overlooking the main town square. Chinon is indelibly linked to two historical figures: Joan of Arc (which French town isn't?!), who inspired Charles VII to reconquer his kingdom when she visited Chinon Castle in 1429; and Francois Rabelais, the 16th century monk, lawyer, writer and physician whose name appears on virtually every building and street corner.
Chinon Castle towers solidly over the town and provides a focal point for all the delightful streets and ancient houses that surround it. It is an impressive structure, which commands great views over the Vienne river and valley. On a hill directly behind it is one of the top vineyards in the area - Clos de l'Echo - once owned by Rabelais' father. It is the jewel in the crown for Couly-Dutheil, the domaine which we were to visit the following morning.
Pierre Couly, whose father helped found the business in 1921, is an excitable man and has every right to be. His main cellars are bang in the centre of Chinon, his family vinify 130 of the 2,000 hectares of the total Chinon appellation, his wines are top class (and he has a gorgeous, chocolate-brown Labrador called Hermès).
Our tasting started with a glass of fresh, fruity 2001 Chinon Rosé - a perfect aperitif
and particularly welcome at 11am in glorious sunshine after a tour of the deep, dark cellars, which are cut into the rock below the castle. Then came the white - all Chinon whites are made, rather appropriately, with the Chenin grape - with its hints of apricot and the lovely, gravelly character which the area's soil imparts.
As in Saumur, red Chinon is made exclusively from the Cabernet Franc grape, which performs differently on different soils. A youthful 2000 Chinon Rouge from the gravelly and sandy plains next to the river had a vivacious, almost Beaujolais style, while an example from the clay slopes and plateaux exuded finesse but had more weight and structure. The Clos de l'Echo - as with other wines from the limestone hillsides - was bigger, stronger and more full-fruited, with a delicious, almost leathery character, which develops as it ages.
It would have been rude to pass up a four-course lunch at not much over £10 - especially as the restaurant L'Echo de Rabelais overlooks the vineyard from which it takes its name - before taking a short trip to visit the town of Richelieu. The town was built on a strict geometric grid system. It is surrounded by ramparts and gardens and there are 28 identical houses in the main street, which are all built in the style of Louis XIII - a remarkable example of 17th-century town planning! The fabulous chateau and town of Saumur is only 18 miles away and Tours, with its wonderfully atmospheric old town and glorious cathedral, only 35 miles. These are also great bases for exploring the local wine country, if you'd like to stay somewhere a little more lively.
Back in Chinon, the festivities were about to start. We were invited to join Pierre Couly and about 300 others at the Caves Painctes - more huge cellars under the castle - and swear our allegiance to Chinon wines. It was an extraordinary evening: being heralded into the caves by trumpeters and being made members of the Confrérie des Entonneurs Rabelaisiens by men dressed in flowing red and gold robes. There was much drinking, dancing and eating - the epitome of celebration in a grand, wine-producing town.
The following morning, a long but delightful drive to Sancerre beckoned along the tree-lined roads dotted with magnificent chateaux and gardens. The car managed to make the transition from grande vitesse to grand tourer effortlessly and was wonderfully responsive on the country road circuit. Rivau, L'Ile Bouchard and Chaumont-sur-Loire are glorious and, perhaps, less well-known than Azay-le-Rideau
- a fairytale castle which seemingly floats on water - and Chenonceau, which is probably the most impressive but (be warned) also the busiest in high season.
As we travelled eastwards, the landscape became more undulating. Soft chalk hills and green pastures were the order of the day - a far more rural feel. And then we saw Sancerre perched on a hilltop in the distance. It was utterly breathtaking; a sight which probably hasn't changed much for centuries.
A couple of miles to the north of Sancerre is Chavignol, home to the famous Crotin de Chavignol goats' cheese, as well as a huge number of winemakers called Reverdy - there are approximately 70 of them. We found the ones we wanted, Jean Reverdy and his son Christophe, at their farmhouse on the outskirts of the village, from where they can keep an eye on their 12 hectares of vines, which are spread out over the neighbouring hillsides.
The wines of Sancerre are mostly white - approximately 80 per cent - and, in contrast with our visit further west in Chenin-growing land, are made from the Sauvignon grape. The remaining 20 per cent are reds made from Pinot Noir, the grape more famously grown in Burgundy. We now see Sauvignons from all around the world, but I firmly believe that it is here in the eastern Loire and, weirdly enough, in New Zealand where the grape really shows its true colours. Sancerre's neighbouring villages, Reuilly and Menetou-Salon, use the same grapes for both colours of wine, while Pouilly-sur-Loire, famous for Pouilly Fumé, only produces white wines - again from Sauvignon.
Even within Sancerre, there are various styles of wine produced on different soils. To the west, clay soils on the highest hills produce well-balanced, powerful wines; in the centre, around the town itself, small stones and chalk make up the land, creating fine, light-bodied and fruity wines; to the east, the soil is stony and rich in silex (flint) and produces mouth-filling wines that offer a richness and complexity which ages brilliantly.
The Reverdys' vineyards are in the central and eastern regions, which means that by blending the various parcels of wine, they are very attractive when young but will age and develop into ever-more fascinating wines for matching with food. We were lucky enough to bear witness to this when Christophe pulled a 15-year-old bottle out of the cellar.
Our mission the following morning was to find a goat. It might sound strange, but for a town like Chavignol, which holds an Appellation d'Origine Controlée for its goats' cheese, there wasn't one in sight. They were obviously resting in a barn somewhere because a visit to Dubois-Boulay, the main fromagerie in the village, offered the freshest, creamiest goats' cheese we'd ever tasted. The cheese we sampled was only 24-hours' old but a true 'crottin' requires a minimum of 10 days ageing. After this time, it becomes almost beige on the crust and at 15 days starts to turn a blueish grey, giving off a strong, forest-like aroma. You must eat the lot - the crust gives the cheese flavour and is good for you. (This is a not-so-rare indication that the French are oblivious to EC guidelines - thoroughly refreshing!)
There is something in the French word 'terroir' which begins to make sense when you're there in Chavignol and Sancerre country. The French use the word as an indication that anything coming from one area or microclimate fits naturally together. It became obvious that the creamy acidity which defines goats' cheese is matched perfectly by the best Sauvignon wines. The mineral acidity and gooseberry, freshlymown-grass characteristics of Sancerre are the perfect foil for the cheese.
One of the larger and most modern wine producers in Sancerre and Pouilly is Henri Bourgeois - just up the road from the cheesemakers. Here, we were introduced to a fascinating range of wines, which included La Bourgeoise, a cuvée made from the winemaker's oldest Sauvignon vines. We couldn't help but buy a few magnums of the wonderful 1997 to take home: thank goodness for the truly cavernous boot!
An early lunch at the surprisingly-sophisticated-for-a-sleepy-village restaurant of La Côte des Monts Damnés was a treat before the journey back to Calais and on home to London. Fortunately, the drive was tempered by the fact that a fully-laden C240 Estate doesn't mean you travel slowly.
It was a whistlestop trip for us, but if you are planning to take a week or more's driving holiday, there are few destinations which will transport you out of London so quickly and where the combination of great sights, great food and great wines are second to none.
Red: Cabernet Franc - raspberry and herb aromas and a touch of earthiness on the palate. Blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Bordeaux.
White: Chenin Blanc - depending on ripeness can be quite honeyed; floral character with good acidity. Also used to make the Loire's great sweet wines.
Red: Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Bourgeuil, St Nicolas de Bourgeuil, Anjou
White: Saumur, Savennières
Fine Sweet White: Quarts de Chaume, Coteaux de Layon, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux de l'Aubance
Other producers to look out for in Chinon: Marc Brédif, Charles Joguet
For stockists and restaurants listing the wines tasted, please call the importers who will be delighted to assist and advise:
Domaine Filliatreau's Saumur wines available through Yapp Brothers, Mere, Wiltshire Tel: 01747 860423 Web: www.yapp.co.uk
Couly-Dutheil's Chinon 'Clos de l'Echo' and prestige cuvée 'Crescendo' available through Georges Barbier, London Tel: 020 8852 5801
Jean Reverdy's Sancerre available through Heyman Barwell Jones, Ipswich, Suffolk Tel: 01473 232322
Henri Bourgeois' Sancerre available through Les Caves de Pyrène, Guildford, Surrey Tel: 01483 538820
Chateau de Marcay,
Marcay A 15th-century chateau set among vineyards and part of Relais et Chateaux. Ultimate luxury - 6km south of the town.
£70-£175 per room.
Tel: 00 33 247 930 347
Hotel de France,
47 Pl du Général-de-Gaulle, Chinon
Many rooms with balconies overlooking the central square. Comfortable, traditional rooms with decent bathrooms. Private parking.
£37-£59 per room.
Tel: 00 33 247 933 391
Domaine de Beauséjour Panzoult,
L'Ile Bouchard A mini-chateau run in conjunction with the family wine business. The room by the pool 'Tourelle Haute' is especially pleasant. £47 per room. Tel: 00 33 247 586 464 Web: www.domainedebeausejour.com
Au Plaisir Gourmand
Quai Charles VII, Chinon
Regional food, including zander - local river fish - rabbit and snails, feature on this Michelin-starred restaurant's menu. Good wines. Central.
Tel: 00 33 247 932 048
13 Rue Rabelais, Chinon
Huge shellfish platters are served in small boats placed rather incongruously on the table but service is pleasant and prices not unreasonable.
Tel: 00 33 247 934 455
L'Echo de Rabelais
2 Rue du Chateau, Chinon
A modern bistro with great views of prime vineyard site and the chateau (if you crick your neck). Small terrace. Very friendly and great value for quality food (two courses for £7.50 at lunchtime).
Tel: 00 33 247 939 587
Further information: Information on Chinon:
www.chinon.com Chinon Tourist Office:
Tel: 00 33 247 931 785
E-mail: [email protected]
Chateaux, gastronomy, weather, tourism: www.lvo.com/GB Chateaux and monuments
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