Charlie’s Road Trip to the Loire - 3/3
Posted on May 21 2021
We hug the Loire river’s South bank on our journey east, passing numerous historic buildings and Chateaux along the way. After 20 minutes, we peel off South Eastwards following the river Vienne from its confluence with the Loire. 5 minutes later, we’re crossing the river and following its course, so close we could almost reach out and skim our hands across its surface. At this point, the river is broad and still as a millpond, ensconced by trees and fields.
We’ve not been on the road 40 minutes before we’re crossing the threshold of Chinon, its ruined castle tower perched on a mound ahead of us. We’re all craning our heads, scarcely able to see it through gaps in the buildings that line the road.
It is quite the site and has been standing since the 12th century. It was once home to Henry II. Richard the Lionheart was born here. Later in the 15th century, it was where Charles VII hid after losing most of his kingdom. It was visited by teenage Joan of Arc, who inspired Charles VII to fight back and reclaim his kingdom. It became his capital and had a prosperous century before it began to deteriorate as new lords drained the city’s resources, including stones from the fortress and ramparts to build houses elsewhere.
Château de Chinon
Today, its medieval streets are pretty much intact, and are home to a host of boutique shops and markets that create a vibrant, bustling atmosphere during the day. We’re too late to experience this though and are only in time to watch straggling vendors storing away their wares and locking up shop for the night.
We reach our hotel, drop off our bags and head down to the bar to grab a light bite and some more wine before heading to bed. We opt for a Pineau d’ Aunis from Domaine de la Roche Bleue. An estate run by Sebastien Cornille. He is predominantly based in the Jasnieres appellation, a fair way North of Tours and has been making wine since 2008. Sadly, it is too far from our route to make a detour, although after tasting his wine, we are sorely tempted!
Pineau d’ Aunis makes light, fruit driven styles, but is rarely made as a single varietal. It is most often employed in Loire Roses to add a peppery intensity.
Different approaches to fermentation are used when making this wine, allowing a complex expression of fruit and texture to manifest. Once fermented, the different cuvees are blended and matured for a time in old oak to allow the wine to integrate and soften out without the oak influencing the flavour profile.
The result is a vibrant, and light style of wine that exhibits floral, spicy and red fruit-driven aromas. The palate shows more earthiness, which is carried nicely by fresh acidity. Tart red fruit characters and spice dominate. The wine’s structure is slightly stemmy, but not astringent. It is well balanced by the mouth-watering acidity that washes it back. The finish is long and refreshing.
The wine was the perfect conclusion to the day. A beguiling style made from a grape variety none of us had tried before. We went to bed looking forward to exploring the town of Chinon, getting out amongst the vines, and tasting some more amazing Cabernet Franc.
We rise early, none of us can stomach another hotel breakfast. Instead, we make a beeline for a local bakery across the street. Its 7 AM, and the bakery is already a hive of activity, which we take as a good sign. The window displays are mouth-watering. A plethora of colours draws our eyes in all directions; golden custard, red berries, the glossy caramelised glaze of tartes aux pommes, and tanned whispy peaks of lemon meringue mixed with flaky, outsize croissants and pains au chocolat so fresh we can almost see them steaming.
We grab coffees and cram ourselves with pastries and jam before setting out to explore the town. We are too early to explore the castle grounds, but enjoy a happy hour meandering around the narrow, twisty streets amidst the hustle and bustle of vendors opening up shop and sleepy tourists taking stock of their surroundings.
The streets of Chinon
At 8:30 AM, we are back in the van and setting off for our first winery visit of the day. The journey sees us following the Vienne river towards its confluence with the Loire. Our first stop is a meeting with Olga Raffault.
The Domaine has a long legacy-dating back five generations. The Domaine’s namesake, Olga took over the reins from her husband who died suddenly in 1947, on the eve of what was promising to be the best harvest on record. They had in their employ an ex-prisoner of war, Ernest Zeinninger. He was taken in by the family, and ensured the legendary harvest was successfully completed. He became a father-figure for Olga’s two children. The estate is now run by Olga’s granddaughter Sylvie, and her husband Eric de la Vigerie, with their son Arnaud also providing a helping hand.
From Left to Right: Sylvie, Eric, and Arnaud from Domaine Olga Raffault
We are greeted at the door by Arnaud, who quickly sits us down and welcomes us warmly. He tells us we’re to taste wines as they do in Burgundy, starting with the reds, and moving on to the whites.
He introduces us to the estate, which covers 24 hectares of vines in total, 23 of which are Cabernet Franc, and one dedicated to the production of Chinon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc.
He tells us that there are three different terroirs at play, and these are vinified separately. We can see the wines lined up, and as he hands us a glass of 2009 Chinon Rouge from their Lieu-Dit Les Picasses, we just know we’re in for a treat.
The vineyard sits up on a plateau that overlooks the Vienne. The site is well exposed and is the highest point between the Vienne and Loire rivers. The soils are stony with deposits of clay atop limestone bedrock, which is said to give the wines depth and intensity, making them some of the most age worthy Cabernet Francs in the world, in a good year. 2009 was one such year, and as we are drinking it, we are amazed at its vibrancy, with all components still very much firing on all cylinders. Plenty of fresh acidity, plenty of vibrant fruit and plenty of structure to boot. This could be laid down for a good five years yet.
That said, the wine is incredibly harmonious, with each component balancing the other, with delicious plum fruit giving way to earthiness, which in turn leads on to spicy, gamey notes, all culminating in a delicious, hunger-inducing finish.
We taste several more back vintages from the same site, up to the 2015.
Domaine Olga Raffault Chinon Rouge, Les Picasses 2015
By all accounts, this was another incredible vintage with a long summer drawing out the growing season. There were enough cooling elements to give vines a break and preserve acidity, leading to wonderful depth of flavour and balancing acidity. The tannins are ripe and already well integrated, leading to a style that is already wonderfully drinkable. It has a graphite streak with subtle herby undertones, but a wonderful luxurious core of blackberries and dark plums.
The finish has flavours of woodland, which stick around long after.
We follow up with the whites which all have a bracing freshness which acts as a wonderful palate cleanser and reinvigorates our palates nicely for more to come. Arnaud knows we’re on a tight schedule and runs through the tasting with great efficiency.
We wrap up after an hour, and head on our way for Domaine Catherine et Pierre Breton, a 15-minute drive away on the opposite bank of the Loire.
They are a (bio)dynamic duo, having set out on their own with 6 hectares of vines in 1989. They are firm believers in a natural and holistic approach to wine making, limiting the use of Sulphites to the absolute minimum, and allowing wines to ferment spontaneously with naturally occurring yeasts from the environment of the winery and the skins of the grapes. Their focus is on extracting the characteristics of the land and the year as purely as possible.
These wines are lighter in style when compared with Olga Raffault, with more floral, herby nuance coming through, and a delicious, vibrant red fruit profile. Aromas are delicate and perfumed. Could easily sit around with the glass pressed to my nose all day long.
We tasted their sparkling Vouvray earlier on the trip, but are also treated to their Vouvray Sec, which is equally wonderful and drinkable.
Pierre and Catherine bounce off each other with their infectious passion for the region, their wines, and vines. We manage to get completely carried away with the time and fail to taste through all the wines they had planned for us.
We were already 30 minutes behind schedule when we reluctantly had to leave the warmth and comfort of the Bretons’ hospitality and hit the road again.
Catherine runs out just as we’re getting into the van and thrusts a bottle of their Grolleau at us – to have, she said, as an aperitif.
Catherine & Pierre Breton
We gear up for a long ride east. The time is now 11:30, our next destination is the city of Tours, a 50-minute journey East along the Loire. We’re not stopping here though. We nip out and get ourselves food for the road, before heading on our way again.
We’re in for a long stint in the van, aiming to reach Sancerre in time to catch Rianne at Domaine Lucien Crochet. We get on our road trip playlist. We get to thinking what a good idea it would be to crack open the Grolleau as our aperitif before grazing our way to Sancerre.
It is a light, low alcohol red, which disappeared in a matter of moments. The perfect red to have lightly chilled outside before tucking into a barbeque meal on a hot, sunny afternoon.
As we leave Tours behind us, the sun finally shows itself after what has been a dismal couple of days, further lifting our spirits. After Tours, the Loire river arks northwards. We leave it in the rear-view mirror as we continue on our Easterly trajectory.
It takes us 2 hours and 45 minutes to arrive at Lucien Crochet’s estate. We arrive just in time. Rianne was expecting us at 3:30, and the time has just gone 3:45.
Rianne, the Domaine’s Export manager is a busy lady, and only had an hour’s window to work with. The estate has been passed down over several generations and has been consolidated along the way. They now have 35 hectares of vineyard, 25 of which is Sauvignon Blanc, and 9 planted to Pinot Noir. They have vines across four different communes including Sancerre. Gilles, son of Lucien is boss with his wife Laurence. They focus on the diversity of soil types, and one of the highlights of the wines tasted was a Sauvignon Blanc made from a blend of parcels that all had one soil type in common.
Grapes from this wine are hand-picked from parcels of vines planted on calcareous, chalky soils. This manifests wonderfully on the palate, alongside black currant leaf, citrus peel and grapefruit, with just a soft hint of peachy stone fruit in the mix. It is fairly light in body but has an interesting textural quality to it. The chalky, slightly salty mineral backbone really shines through on the finish. A great wine to whet the appetite as an aperitif, but equally well suited to fresh-water fish, or the local cheese, Crottin de Chavignol.
As with all our previous visits, the Crochets’ philosophy is grounded on sustainability and extracting the essence of terroir, they only use natural yeasts, minimise additions of any kind, and don’t fine or filter the wines. They use the most up to date equipment with most vinification taking place in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks to preserve the more delicate fruit qualities and natural freshness.
Sadly, our visit is cut short, and just 45 minutes after arriving, we are back in the van. We have one stop left on our epic trip of the Loire. We are dropping in on Luc Prieur of Domaine Paul Prieur et Fils to taste more of Sancerre. Luc is a young wine maker, full of ideas and energy, and he’s quickly ushering us out of the door, exclaiming that a visit to Sancerre is no visit until we’ve been up the Monts Damnes, an iconic small range of hills that are considered the heart of the Sancerre region.
Les Monts Damnés Sancerre
He reminds us of a younger version of Thomas Batardière amongst his vines, discussing them and the terroir with us in much the same way. This time, mercifully, with the sun shining, and mist hanging comfortably beneath us, further softening the gentle contours of the surrounding countryside.
He follows the same mantra with his wines, vinifying by parcel to express the different climats and using natural yeast to ferment. Luc goes on to explain that the Sauvignon blanc made on the Monts Damnés produces some of the most structured and complex iterations to be found in the Loire, rivalled only by some areas of richer silex soils. He uses large format oak barrels to ferment and mature this cuvee, rounding out the palate and allowing time for the full fruit flavours to meld with the acidity.
As described, the wine is fuller and more intense than those we tasted from Domaine Lucien Crochet. It has some savoury nuance which complements the rich fruit profile nicely. The acidity is fresh but seamless, acting as an under current carrying the fruit right to the back and sides of the palate. Delicious, broad, and expressive. This is an incredibly food friendly wine that would pair well with richer dishes such as pork belly or chicken. It would also work wonderfully alongside harder cheeses.
We then move on to taste Luc’s Sancerre Rouge. The Pinot Noir grapes come from a 5-hectare parcel which sits in the shadow of the Monts Damnés called ‘Les Pichons’. The soils are deep, allowing vines to root deep.
50% of the wine sees oak, only 7% is new, adding a subtle smoky nuance, but in no way detracting from the gorgeous, delicate red fruit that frames it. This is a delight, and a wonderful wine to conclude our vineyard visits on this trip. There is enough freshness and texture here to work well with a whole host of foods, including earthy mushroom-based dishes, game birds and semi-hard cheeses.
Luc Prieur from Domaine Paul Prieur et Fils
By now it is 6:45, we wave goodbye to Luc, and head North West towards Orleans, to re-join the Loire river one last time before wending our way to Paris. Our three-day road trip has seen us travel almost 400KM. We have experienced the breadth and diversity of wines and styles the Loire has to offer and enjoyed some wonderful cuisine along the way.
One day soon, we vow, we will return and stick around for a few days longer, give ourselves a proper opportunity to spend time in the historic towns and cities that dot the riverside on its long, winding journey across France. Its source far to the South East in the Ardeche department.