|À la mode in Parisian restaurants and bistros, these are thoroughly modern wines; ideal with a wide variety of foods and ready to drink early. However, some of the best
vines produce a wine that can age well, even up to 20 years or more for the top crus. Given time they develop a fine and complex bouquet marked by both the fruit and the oak. The best way to
discover the wines of this sub-region is to go there. As Saumur is only about 150 miles from the channel ferry ports it's a convenient stop-off for wine loving holidaymakers on the continent.
I spent a hugely enjoyable weekend in Saumur and found the warmth and hospitality of its vignerons as refreshing as the deep, fruity and complex wines they produce.
|The Daheuiller family owns and works Domaine des Varinelles which was created in the mid-nineteenth century. The house, winery, cellars and a small parcel of their
42 hectares of vines are clustered together around a smart courtyard in the centre of the village. Right: Maturing Saumur Champigny Vieilles Vignes at Domaine des Varinelles.
When I arrived there was a fire of vine roots glowing in the cheminée and the tasting table was already set up with opened bottles, tasting glasses, the ubiquitous spittoon or crachoire and even plates of little snacks. It certainly pays to telephone ahead rather than arriving unannounced!
|Visiting the cellar of André Bonneau at Domaine La Bonnelière is like descending into Aladdin's Cave; thousands of shiny coins pressed into the soft tuffeau walls and ceiling glitter in the candlelight and
a plaster Saint Vincent looks down from his glowing niche like a benevolent genie. André bought the estate in the early 1970s and now runs the family business with his two sons Anthony and Cédric.
The younger son Cédric (pictured right) conducted the tasting of three different wines from the domaine including a vertical of their old-vines Saumur Champigny from the best vineyard - les Poyeux.
The Cuvée des Poyeux is made from vines with an average age of 35 years. A third of the wine is aged for 10 months in second-year oak barrels. The 2003 is a deep, dark ruby with a nose dominated by red fruits and is already drinking well. The 2002 is a softer wine with a slightly smoky finish. Best of the flight is the 1989 which, like Les Varinelles, shows how well these wines develop in the bottle. The colour has matured into a deep oxblood with bright tawny tints. First impressions on the nose are of fresh mint and oak, then the fruit, especially cassis. The tannins have softened into an elegant, silky-smooth structure and a lively acidity balances stewed fruits and a hint of wood smoke. The wine is still packing a punch after over 25 years in the bottle. Bonneau's generic Saumur is a very acceptable wine as is the Champigny Cuvée Tradition, both of which offer great value for money.
|On the outskirts of Varrains, Thierry Germain (right) owns 22 ha of organic vines at Domaine des Roches Neuves. This domaine recently achieved the unofficial
classification of cru exceptionnel from Revue du Vin de France.
Thierry is a passionate winemaker and an enthusiastic communicator. His blend of new and traditional methods produce an outstanding wine - much praised on both sides of the Atlantic. He employs malolactic fermentation and grows his vines organically but he eschews micro-oxygenation and over-extraction. A 21st century exponent of his cherished Saumur he still finds time at weekends to open his door, and a few bottles, to the buying public.
These wines sell out fast and I bought the last case of Terres Chaudes 2003, an excellent wine with a dark, inky robe and primary aromas of red currant above a subtle oak; it should age superbly. The whites too are superb. The Saumur Blanc Insolite 2003 releases pink grapefruit aromas above a sophisticated oak - like a top-class South African chenin blanc crossed with a fine white Burgundy. The 2004, as yet unreleased, is still in its infancy with fresh-bread aromas and a more pronounced mineral character.
|A short drive from Varrains brings you to Dampierre-sur-Loire where the ancient cave-dwellings can be seen all along the left bank of the river. Just up above the village is the hamlet of Chaintres and the
winery of Paul and Fredrik Filliatreau. As with most wineries here, it is very much a family affair. Though retired, Madame Filliatreau senior still presides over the tastings and recalls vintages going back to 1967 when the
family bought the estate. I asked her which of the vintage vins de garde she preferred and was told that the young, printemps wines where her favourite, bottled in the spring following the harvest.
Each of these properties offers some remarkable wines from a recent run of successful vintages. For wines that give such pleasure in their third or fourth year it may be too tempting to keep them for a decade or more in the cellar but, after tasting the 1989 and 1996 vintages, I know that these wines will reward a long, patient cellaring. The experience has inspired me to visit the other centres of fine red wine production in this oft-overlooked region - Anjou-Brissac, Chinon, and Bourgeuil.
Before leaving Saumur I bought some pieds de cochon from Gerard Girardeau. As he carefully wrapped my charcuterie I took a look at his business card. Next to a government health warning about the dangers of alcohol is the famous quote by Louis Pasteur - "wine is the healthiest drink known to mankind". Against such a hero of French science, the health department's advice seemed feeble and I was perversely given to thoughts of taking the cork out of a couple of bottles.
As he showed me to the door I asked him what he'd be drinking with his Sunday lunch. "A bottle of Château de la Grille '89" he told me. "Is it your birthday, Monsieur?" I asked. "It is often my birthday!" was his smiling reply.
|Patrick Hilyer is an English restaurateur running a busy bistro in Normandy. he is a passionate wine enthusiast and, as well as his professional wine interests, organises tastings and events and chairs a regional wine
association. Patrick regularly visit his favourite vignerons to buy wine for the restaurant and for his personal 'cave'. During a recent trip to Saumur, he wrote the following piece on the red wines of Saumur Champigny for