You see “Caves” on signs across France, meaning the cellar or place where wines are stored and sold, regardless of whether it’s down or up a few steps from ground level. However, this morning we meet Anne-Charlotte by a door in the shoulder of a country road. Beyond is a cave that would stun Indiana Jones, chambers of white limestone 60 feet tall, cool and endless. The locals have quarried building blocks here for millennia, some scratches on the wall.
Want to understand terroir? Just look around, this is the rock that gives up minerals and flavor to the roots of the vine and eventually to the grapes. It infuses every wine we taste from the sprightly rose and creamy chenins to monstrous, teeth staining cab franc from a single vineyard of 70 to 80 year old vines. The 2010 vintage is ripe and sunny, not as big as 2009, but quite enjoyable. The 2011 is what the French call “challenging”, a challenge they met albeit with smaller crops.
Farther east the limestone and its cave are much easier to see. For miles along the river through Vouvray, 200-foot chalky cliffs on the north side are perforated with caves. Caves for homes, caves for auto repair, caves for hotels, caves for restaurants and caves and cave and caves for wine. Solid rock walls are punctured with wooden doors and glass windows with lace curtains. To call the occupants troglodytes seems unfair as it seems quite resourceful.
The same holds true for Vouvray’s chenin blanc, which achieves marvelous diversity in this clay and limestone and warmer weather. We taste Vouvray a half dozen ways, crisply dry, sweet with noble rot and petillant with small bouncing bubbles lightly. Pure fun. While here makers bring in still more tastes from the Loire including a peppery sauvignon blanc and spicy pinot noir from Cheverny and a second chance at muscadet. Andre-Michel Bregeon has brought his prize examples of his aging experiments.
Now somewhat stooped and walking with a cane, his mind and mien are still quite active. His mustache and ponytail shake with excitement. One distinction of making muscadet is that the juice is allowed to sit on the skins or lees for months, which is how it acquires its intensity. Bregeon is a pioneer of extreme aging, he always keeps one tank of wine and lees maturing for four or five years. The results we taste from a 1999 vintage not bottled until 2003 are a lovely gold, soft and almost sherried with hints of licorice and honey. And he points out even normal bottlings can be kept long past the current oyster season so he pours a 1995 muscadet, now delicate and floral with a hint of orange blossom.
We head up the river 90 minutes to Pouilly sur Loire, for our last stop in the Loire, and our tasting is at Regis and Nathalie Minet’s log cabin and sporting lodge on the river. Regis has a golf tee and bucket of balls on the porch to drive into the river, a wetsuit for swimming the Loire, a brace of shotguns for hunting and I am sure here must a jet-ski in storage.
Regis and three childhood friends have assembled the quintessential tastes of this end of the Loire. The white is now the world class sauvignon blanc that made Pouilly Fume and Sancerre famous, a touch of pinot gris. The red has switched to pinot noir but we are still on limestone and ancient calcareous river bed with rocks of Kimmeridgian clay and flint.
When we arrive Denis Jamais of Domaine Reuilly is shucking oysters on the porch which will prove perfect with the sauv blancs and a plump Sancerre rose from Michel Reverdy, filled with bananas and strawberries. The pinots are surprisingly close to Burgundy. They are all very sophisticated wines that somehow pair happily with a picnic dinner of oysters, cold meats, goat cheese and savory cabbage salad. Turns out Daniel Chotard knows more than Sancerre grapes, which he picks late and very carefully. He also ages on the lees, keeps some wine in old Burgundy barrels acquired from th Hospice de Beaune.
And plays a wild accordion that ends the night with jigs, chanteuse numbers, dance tunes, Scotland the Brave and the Marseillaise, that have us all on our feet. Farewell to the distinctive, inventive wines of the Loire.