This far north the sun sleeps in but I don’t mind. The holiday lights are still on and the French are masterful at illuminating public buildings. In Nantes, the musee and the streets around the plaza are hung with gold and white lights like swags of bunting. In the next town the colors are white and blue. In France Santa is in his sleigh and the locals wish everyone Bonne Annee all month long. We will encounter at least three New Year cakes as we follow the wine road up the valley but will find the litte king doll only once. And we are a troupe of 18, wine merchants from across the U.S. plus our guides.
The Loire is a valley of strong terroir and varietal character to match. Its grapes are those that fit this part of the north, in rare cases chardonnay but cab sauvignon need not apply. At the coast, there is muscadet, muscadet and muscadet, until we cruise up into the lands of cabernet franc and chenin blanc. Also-rans elsewhere, these grapes sing and dance here. You can think of the Loire as the land of beautiful castles; I think of Rabelais and his roustabout pals. Before we leave muscadet, Eric Chevalier gives us a taste of sauvignon gris, the rarest grape we taste, and one not to forget, clean focused with cactus needling yet not unpleasantly so.
We head east in the valley of the Loire, now far over its banks, to Epire in Savennieres, our first stop in chenin blanc country, where an unloved grape achieves elegance. It has to here in an 18th century chateau and the much older Romanesque church that serves as its cellar. Here the chenin can be austere crisp with the minerality of schist soils or a more powerful chenin aged in large chestnut barrels. Here we also meet chenin blanc’s longtime companion, plummy cabernet franc from Anjou. I think I could live the rest of my life with these as my only two wines. After another stop deeper into the cab franc country of Bourgeuil, I am convinced, especially when the wine is old vines, ideally on limestone.
At the next winery, we dive deep into the cellar for a tasting of three chenin blancs, a dozen cab francs and a good helping of wit and charm from owners Catherine and Pierre Breton. Their rose of cab franc is named Avis de Vin Fort, French for ”Small Craft Advisory,” and a fine time for sailors stuck in port to drink a clairette, summer or winter. Breton is fierce about the superiority of Bourgeuil’s franc; Fie on neighboring Chinon, he jokes. He uncorks a dusty bottle of 1961 Bourgeuil to prove it. Fifty years old, lovely and lively. No surprise, the Loire has shipped this wine to the world since the 1200′s. And as Breton notes, by the 15th century this was one of the power center of Europe; the castles and palaces prove it.
But we must on to Chinon, and why not, many Rabelaisian tales of debauchery and cab franc are set here under the ancient castellated walls high on the north bank. We end the night at a warm old auberge with a beef daube in a saturated sauce of Chinon cab franc that has been slow cooking for centuries. Our wines come from Charles Joguet, an old firm known to many for its snappy rose in the 19th century label. Our hostess however is one of the bright young faces in Chinon, Anne-Charlotte Genet, whose family runs the estate. Before the meal is over, she promises to try to visit B-21 in May.