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Visiting the Loire Valley

text and photos by Andy Leslie

winery visits

In Savennieres, don't miss the opportunity to visit Domaine du Closel - this property opposite the village green is open to casual callers. We had a lovely welcome from Madame de Jessey, with a tour of the vinyards and then tasting some really lovely Savennieres. She seemed to be no hurry, and if you ask a few vaguely knowledeable questions Madame de Jessey becomes truly animated and enthusiastic. They make a range of styles from quite austere to moelleux (sweet) that are very impressive.

(opposite, Andy in the Loire vineyards)

You will need to arrange a visit to Domaine Patrick Baudouin in advance. The property is in the stables behind a derelict house in the hamlet of Prince near Chaudefonds sur Layon.

 

Patrick was an inspirational winemaker to meet - he is clearly passionate about the quality of his wines. He makes single varietal Anjous Villages Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with judicious use of oak casks. I drank one of the Cabernet Sauvignons with dinner recently and it is wonderful stuff. Above all, he makes really serious Coteaux du Layon dessert wines. We had a barrel tasting of the 2001, each picking being vinified separately, and it is glorious - honeyed, apricotty, rich and long. This is a seriously low-tech artisan operation - we bought some wine and waited while Patrick put on labels and capsules!


  Patrick is also a leading light of SAPROS, an organisation of winemakers dedicated to producing wonderful botrytised wines. As the leaflet Patrick gave us says: "...botrytised wines must only be the natural and chance result of sun, wind, fog and botrytis. And herein lies their magic."

Tom recently wrote an article on SAPROS for Decanter magazine, which you can read here.

Château de Fesles in Thouarce is a complete contrast in terms of the scale of the operation, with a visitor centre complete with video to watch in English!

So, nothing like as personal a visit as the last two, and this is clearly also a winery on a different scale. This veneer can't disguise the quality of the wine though - ignore the straight reds and whites and try the Bonnezeaux and Coteaux du Layon - some older vintages still available showing the beginnings of concentration and development. No appointment needed.

The Domaine de Champs Fleuris in Turquant is another small-scale place, but open to casual callers. Welcomed by Patrice Retif, another great enthusiast, these were really interesting wines; a botrytised dry chenin ("Les Damoiselles") that was a revelation for me - I've only ever had sweet botrytised wines before. Really refreshing stuff. There were several vintages to taste, including the 2001 from barrel, that I think will be superb. I bought the 1999, and drank a bottle with family last week - it was widely and spontaneously admired for for it's delicious perfume. Very good with samphire & roasted garlic mayonnaise! Champs Fleuris make good reds too, and a small amount of Coteaux de Saumur, a Coteaux du Layon-style sweet botrytised wine, though not every year - the 2001 tasted from the barrel seemed very good.

We also visited Benoit Gautier in Vouvray, but he didn't turn-up for his appointment. However, brief notes on others who did included Bernard Baudry in Chinon (another where you will definitely need an appointment) where Madame Baudry welcomed us, perhaps under the impression we were wine buyers from a smart London shop, not dissolute medics from Nottingham!

The very highly regarded Domaine Huet in Vouvray we found rather underwhelming, I must confess.

other things worth knowing

Following Tom's advice, we stopped at the LeClerc supermarket in Saumur - the wine department here is really great for top French wines. Not particularly cheap, but some hard to find gems - I went for some sweet Condrieu from Gaillard.

We liked the Cristal Hotel in Saumur - you can't miss it as you drive along the quay front.

 


  Another wine-related visit worth making is to the painted caves in Chinon. The guide books indicate that that they aren't open to tourists, but although we went as part of a conference trip for a meal, all the signs in different languages pointing the way suggest that advice is out-of-date. The caves are owned by the local great and good, in the form of the society of Rabelasians (rough translation!), and are a kind of subterranean temple to wine, complete with an altar! So, we had a great time. Compared to other regions where I've visited and tasted, the welcome and enthusiasm from the winemakers was outstanding.

back to Tom's Loire report