Charlie’s Road Trip to the Loire - 2/3
Posted on May 14 2021
After a sound night’s sleep, our second continental breakfast of the trip and feeling slightly the worse for wear from the previous day’s shenanigans, we pile in to the mini-van and head south. The air is damp and drizzly, casting a dull haze over the surroundings. The moody sky promising heavier rain to come.
Once through the suburbs of Angers and on to the A87, the dull carriageway does little to lift our spirits. Even when crossing the river, we barely get a glimpse of it beyond the semi-transparent fencing that lines the bridge walls.
Then suddenly, after 30 minutes on the road, emerging before us is the Viaduc du Layon, and the steep banks either side of the carriageway drop away to open countryside, revealing wonderful views up and down the Layon river valley. Well, what would have been lovely views, had the mist not descended upon us. As it was, we could scarcely make out the narrow Layon below…
Ten minutes later, we arrive at our first destination; the house of Thomas Batardière. He welcomes us with open arms but doesn’t let us in to his house. Instead, we’re encouraged to hop back into the minivan and follow him to see one of his vineyards. A prospect we had not even considered in our hungover states.
We drag our feet, and crawl back into the van. We follow him down incredibly narrow country lanes for a few short minutes and pull over on to a muddy verge. Thomas practically drags us out of the warmth and comfort of the van into the damp, dank outdoors.
Thomas’ energy and passion for his vines soon breaks the lethargy, and before we know it, we’re all chatting animatedly with him about his lifestyle, and the well-tended vines we’re overlooking.
It turns out that before getting hooked on wine, he was a cinematographer, and had studied Anthropology at University. He talks of his strong connection with the land, having grown up in Angers. He mentions his time at Château Yvonne where he was understudy to Mathieu Vallée before buying his two hectares of vines.
He goes on to explain what makes this area so unique. His vines are surrounded on three sides by water, with the river Layon just a short distance to the north, and two little tributaries flowing south-north to join it lie either side. All this water gives great humidity to the area, and regularly generates mists and fogs. This makes ideal conditions for the formation of ‘noble rot’ which adds complexity and intensity to late harvested sweet wines-a style the appellation of Côteaux du Layon is famous for. That aside, his focus is on ethereal dry wines.
The soils are unique too, comprised of red sands, quartz, and clay. He explains that they give good drainage, but also allow the vines to root down to the compacted clay subsoil, which has an abundance of water stored within. He explains how this combination, along with the old vines he works with – a minimum of 30 years’ old, with some up to 90 – contribute to the mineral intensity, and the incredible tension found in his wines.
With the rain now lashing down, Thomas decides its time for us to leave, and we head back to his house. It just so happens that there’s a little restaurant and wine bar just up the street, where Thomas has a little surprise for us…
L'Auberge Du Layon (restaurant near Thomas Batardière).
We are ushered in by the owner and are confronted with a line of bottles from local producers, with Batardière’s iconic wine labels standing out from the crowd at the beginning of the line-up, with one, his sweet wine at the very end. It may only be 10:30am by now, but the spread before us is irresistible, and the animated restaurateur-cum-sommelier starts talking through the wines, and even proffers cheeses to match!
We are soon whisked off to vinous heaven, and while away a happy hour tasting through all the local produce laid out before us.
This wine is fermented and matured for a short time in stainless steel to preserve the vibrant fruit flavours and accentuate Chenin’s natural tension. This wine ages on fine lees until the summer. It is bright and fruit-forward, with a crisp acid backbone that brings lashings of stony, steely, salty mineral complexity with it. A mouth-watering, moreish introduction to his wines. One that we paired with a local Selles-Sur-Cher Goat’s cheese. The creamy texture eats into the wine’s acidity and washes back wonderfully. The cheese’s earthy notes complement to perfection, bringing a harmonious finish that just keeps giving.
His sweet wine is the crowning glory and demonstrates the amazing versatility of Chenin Blanc as a grape that can express a true sense of place and produce wines of incredible balance and finesse both when bone dry, and when containing 270 grams per litre of residual sugar!
Thomas Batardière Oscar 2017
Hailing from his oldest plot, grapes are picked from a 90-year-old massal selection developed specifically to produce sweet wines. The vines are bush trained, and have small bunches of tightly packed berries, ideal for the onset of botrytis (‘Noble Rot’). This wine is only made in years when the botrytis sets in early. This preserves the high levels of acidity needed to balance the nectary sweetness of the wine. The 2017 we tasted demonstrates this incredible balancing act and leaves us begging for more. Not a drop of this was spat out!
We jump into the van reinvigorated, heedless of the bad weather, hangovers long forgotten. The next stop, the white city of Saumur. The journey on this leg is far more pleasant with mile after mile of rolling countryside and vineyards spreading out before us.
It takes us an hour to get to Saumur. Already on the south side of the Loire, we missed the imposing view of Château Saumur from the north bank, but on our trip through the winding streets of Saumur, we understand why it is referred to as ‘the white city’. All the old houses in the historic centre are made from limestone mined from the neighbouring countryside. It is 12:30am, we have a couple of hours to explore and enjoy the old town.
We head straight for Château de Saumur. It is situated on a hill overlooking the town, and the views from the ramparts are breath taking. The weather doesn’t deter us, and contributes to the moody atmosphere, with mist hovering over the river, and low clouds scudding across the countryside.
Chateau de Saumur
We then check out the Cavalry museum, and learn of the Cadre Noir, one of the most prestigious riding schools in Europe. The town celebrates horses, and many of its annual events and festivals involve horse shows.
By 2:30pm, we are more than ready to tuck into some food. We head for our booking at Le Gambetta. A restaurant fronted by Céline Pihours Geffroy, who immediately makes us feel welcome, and seats us at a round, white tableclothed table in a cosy corner of the dining space. The lighting is warm, and despite the formality of the welcome, and the white tablecloths, there’s a real homely feel to the space, and to Céline’s approach on the floor. We opt for the five-course taster menu, with wine pairing (which goes without saying).
The opening salvo sets the tone for the rest of the meal, a delicious duck pâté paired with the Loire’s top sweet wine - a Quarts de Chaume! Foie Gras and Sauternes eat your heart out!
The pairing worked a treat. The vibrant acid lifting the creamy pâté off the palate, and the intense sweet, yet rich flavours of the wine melding with the rich, succulent flavours of the duck were silence-inducing.
The courses and wines just keep coming, and what an experience it is, each course raising the bar for the next. A decadent treat that none of us regret, and all of us will cherish and talk about long after.
With stomachs full and a drowsy, afternoon drink-induced stupor setting in, we head out to our next vineyard visit. We are heading coincidentally for Château Yvonne, where Thomas learned much of his craft.
We follow the Loire river East for 15 minutes, hugging its south bank. The driver, almost missing our right turn lurches the van sharply right, narrowly missing a stone wall, and we carry our way down an extremely narrow gulley of a road, walled in on both sides. 5 minutes later, we arrive at our destination.
Château Yvonne has been around since the 16th century, but wine wasn’t made here until 1813. Vines were neglected for a long time throughout the 20th century, and it wasn’t until 1997 that the estate modernised and started producing wine on a more commercial scale. Yvonne partnered with Jean-Francois Lamunière and Françoise Foucault of Clos Rougeard, who are renowned for their red wines made from Cabernet Franc.
Then, in 2007 Mathieu Vallée took over the reins and carried on where they had left off. He is now considered one of the leading lights of the Saumur/Saumur Champigny appellations, tending to 3 hectares of Chenin Blanc and 8 hectares of Cabernet Franc, all dotted in small plots across the region, giving rise to a diversity of soil types and micro-climates, which give a great range of options when it comes to blending, and an ability to make incredible wines with great balance.
Bleary eyed, we stumble out of the van into the grand courtyard in front of the house. Mathieu Vallée strides out of the conservatory doors to welcome us, and quickly has us sat down in a tastefully decorated, quite homely tasting room. He chats to us about our time so far in the Loire and laughs when we talk about our decadent lunch. Upon discovering we’re coming fresh from a morning with the ebullient Thomas, he starts sharing some stories and anecdotes of their time working together.
We then get down to business and start tasting through his Saumur Blancs. He has set out before us three examples. The oldest is from 2010, then we have a 2016 and a 2018.
All show how well-suited Chenin Blanc is to maturing in bottle. The 2010 tasted as fresh as though it was made yesterday. It was only with the following two vintages that we realised that it was by far the more rounded and open of the wines. They all show Chenin Blanc’s wild side, with a wonderful quite textural grip, some delicious earthy notes mingling with the wonderful honeyed, pure, pear-soaked goodness the grape and the region is known for.
The most youthful of the 3 but showing all the expressions of a warm year in the Loire. Delicious honeyed, tropical notes on the nose. The palate kicks off with a zippy, mineral driven acidity which carries with it the exotic fruits, ripe pear, a hint of citrus and green apple, earthy and slightly herby notes. The finish is long, opulent, and complex, holding with it a panoply of flavours you wish would never end.
Then, we move on to the reds. Same vintages, same outcome. The wines are unbelievably ageless. The fruit profile so pure, and the nose so delicately perfumed! The 2010, was starting to show some wonderful earthy development, reminiscent of an autumnal woodland walk. The tannin still providing sufficient grip, and the acidity beautifully integrated, but with a razor’s edge.
Delicate, but expressive floral aromas, with violet and rose petals coming to the fore, beautifully underlaid with red forest fruits and a hint of green tomato leaf. The palate shows more herbaceous expression with the floral notes taking a back foot. Light and delicate, it mystifies us how the bracing acidity manages to hide itself so well under such a light body, and the tannin too, whilst present and quite grippy, does not detract from the purity of expression this wine shows. The finish is not as complex as the Chenin, but is just as pretty and long, dominated by slightly leafy red fruit and violet.
We all express gratitude for the opportunity to taste the wines vertically, and get a real feel for vintage variation, and the Château’s style. These are all wines that we agree drink beautifully already but have incredible ageing potential.
We pile back into the van and head east towards our next stop, Chinon where our adventure will kick off bright and early tomorrow, with more Cabernet Franc in the offing. We breeze off listening to the sweet tones of Bowie, ageless as the wines we just tasted.