Monday, August 06, 2007

Two Days in the Loire Valley

My first appointment during my stay in the Loire Valley was in the small town of Reuilly, about an hour and a quarter from my hotel in Pouilly-sur-Loire. As I drove there, the landscape changed from sharply hilly to a gently rolling countryside of yellow fields, reminiscent of the American Midwest. Every now and then, scattered amongst the wheat and maize, I could see plots of vineyards, the Sauvignon Blanc vines reaching straight up into the sky (Sauvignon Blanc tends to grow vertically whereas most other varietals tend to spread out).

A Typical Chateau in the Loire Valley
This was unlike anything I’d ever seen in wine country. In Napa, vines hug the steep flanks of the mountains, then spread out on the valley floor like the headwaters of a massive flood. In Burgundy, vines are splayed out from Dijon to Lyon over the hills and on the plains, a carpet of trellises linking the north to the south. In the Rhone, vines crawl out of the ground like alien creatures escaping a Martian landscape covered in stones and pebbles. But this? This was like planting vineyards in Iowa. Nothing had prepared me for Reuilly and its neighboring town of Quincy.

I arrived a bit late after getting somewhat lost (again, one of the pleasures/pains of driving in France is the lackluster signage, meaning every turn might produce a lovely discovery or an annoying dead-end). The wines were so-so, nothing to get too excited about, but what really surprised and frustrated me were the prices. Apparently, being close to their more famous cousins of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé had gone to these wineries’ heads as well. No one in their right mind would pay for the quality they were offering.

And while it might sound like I’m a cheap bastard (and, by all means, I am), I am looking for something that offers a good quality-to-price ratio (QPR, in professional terms). Making a so-so wine at high prices just doesn’t work in my equation.

So I slowly made my way back to the Pouilly region, stopping at various wineries where I’d made appointments, only to find again and again that prices had become stratospheric while quality had not. My last stop of the day was at a winery on a hill next to Sancerre, where I found excellent quality (finally!) but similar prices. In my head, I did the math to see if I could make this work, but alas, it was not to be. That said, the winemaker and his son could not have been more understanding, even giving me the name of one of their friends who was making good wines across the river (north of Pouilly-sur-Loire).

I quickly jumped into the car and raced back to the area. Again, I discovered an excellent wine and a capable winemaker, but the cost, especially with the Euro climbing to the heavens, was just unacceptable. I sighed in defeat and ate a lovely dinner that night, sitting outside at my hotel’s restaurant with a nice bottle of Sancerre.

The next day dawned bright and sunny (enfin!), and I jumped into my rental car and once again abused its little engine, racing from appointment to appointment, screeching around surprising bends in the roads and trying at all costs to avoid the ever-present ditches on their sides. This day was slightly more productive, though not by much. I did find some excellent quality wines being made but they too were far too expensive.

I ate a lovely (and cheap!) lunch at the Bistrot des Vignerons, near the town of Sury-en-Vaux, a wonderful 3-course affair with a bottle of Badoit water that cost me less than 20 Euros. Then it was back to the grindstone (or wine press, as it was).

At this point, I would like to mention one interesting winemaker making Sauvignon Blancs unlike any I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know if I liked them, but I do know they were interesting and made me go “hmmmm”. Not something I find nearly enough these days. These Sauvignon Blancs are not for the everyday-consumer, they are weird, unique expressions of the grape from a winemaker who’s not afraid to (really) push the envelope.

Sebastien Riffault (Sebastien's website) is his name, and he and his father share a winery. The father makes traditional Sancerres, crisp, elegant, beautifully expressive wines. But Sebastien, well, his wines can be found only in limited quantities in the US. And there’s a reason for this: 1) he has only 2 hectares and practices extremely rigorous biodynamic treatments of the vines, meaning a very small production; and 2) they are, as I mentioned previously (and you’d have known had you been paying attention), weird. He allows his grapes to reach a very high level of maturity, so the sugar levels are very high. Then he ferments the wine to the point where there are almost no grams of residual sugar. Unlike other producers, he makes the wine go through its malolactic fermentation, where the malic acid is transformed into lactic acid. This has a tendency to tone down the wine’s mouthfeel and make it plusher, almost softer. Most Sancerres and Pouilly Fumés are not treated this way, which is why they taste leaner. What you get with Sebastien's bottles is a fat wine that smells like a late-harvest dessert wine but has no sugar on the palate and ends with some bracing acidity.

In addition, he uses Lithuanian names for his two cuvées, making for some very un-French sounding wines. In case you were curious, they are named for his Lithuanian wife. Lastly, he was written up on a blog I enjoy reading, Wine Terroirs (by all means, feel free to click, I won't consider it cheating).

Not your everyday bistrot wine, as I’ve been saying.

Thus ended my two-day visit to the eastern Loire. I hadn’t found anything I liked at the price points I needed, but I was looking forward to my next step: the Cahors region of South-Central France. My aunt and uncle awaited me at their rebuilt farmhouse (mas in French) just north of the adorable fortified city of Montflanquin.

Next, a long drive south into the sun and warmth.

Pictures of the Loire can be found here, just click on the picture, no need to sign in.


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