Like Columbus discovering the New World
I was recently invited to a dinner at the very grand London Edition hotel for a Loire Valley themed night of wine tasting and dinner to celebrate the start of the London Wine Week. The evening was hosted by the Evening Standard's wine scribe, Douglas Blyde and Loire Valley wine officianado (my words not her's) Lindsay Oram.
I met Douglas about a month prior when he and I ended up seated together at a very long lunch at a vineyard in Surrey. We drank lots of South African wine out of water glasses - the wine glasses were like bloody thimbles, we had no choice. We told the waiter it was to allow us to take in the wine's bouquet, but I think he thought we were a pair of cheap pissheads.
Talking of cheap, and getting back to the Loire Valley, as a tight arsed Scotsman, I do like to get value for money. As long as I'm not ordering Clos Rougeard I tend to find that I get that from the Loire Valley. (That sounded like I have ordered it before... I've never even tasted it... but I'd like to. If anyone with large stocks is reading, and wants to send me some, I'd write a hilarious blog about it)
I actually proposed to Mrs Wineloon over a rustic picnic as we sipped a Cremant de Loire (the generally excellent and good value sparkling white wine of the Loire made in the traditional bottle fermented way, a la Champagne) sitting on the banks of the Vienne River (one of the Loire's tributaries) in Chinon.
With the ring burning a hole in my pocket, I didn't enjoy lunch much, as I struggled to find a moment when she wasn't stuffing baguette, pate and Camembert in her puss to do the deed. I eventually ran out of patience and awkwardly (almost creepily actually) presented the box without actually saying anything. When she realised what was going on, I got a face full of half-eaten baguette and liver debris as a response. After a cleansing glug of Cremant she eventually said yes.
So as you can imagine, with such wonderful memories, the wines of Chinon hold a place in my heart.
Best known for its red Cabernet Franc based wines, Chinon is generally a good option when dining out. It's not that fashionable so prices tend to be reasonable. Its a great food wine. Light bodied, good acidity and crunchy red berry and blackcurrant fruit flavours with a refreshingly dry finish. It drinks well with all sorts of food from lighter dishes (ask for it slightly chilled if you're feeling brave) to a dirty great steak.
If you've not tried it, as a reference point, if you enjoy the wines of Beaujolais or Nebbiolo from Piemonte I think you'd like it.
Producers of Chinon I suggest you try for starters are; Domaine de la Noblaie (the Wine Society has a range of cuvees from about £10-20 and look out for the Co-op's own brand Chinon which is made by Noblaie), Olga Raffault (her Les Picasses cuvée ages very well and the 2008 is available from Highbury Vintners - a snip at £21.50 for a wine with that class and bottle age) and Charles Joguet (his benchmark cuvée terroirs is available for £14.99 from Tanners).
My favoured white grape of the Loire is Chenin Blanc. I tend to avoid Sauvignon Blanc unless of course it is produced by the maestro Alexandre Bain who makes a fantastic Sauvignon Blanc within the geographical confines of the Pouilly Fume AOC but he is not allowed to label it as such. He fell out with the INAO (protectors of the AOC system) over what they claim to be a missed inspection meeting and what he claims to be their fear of his natural wine-making techniques (or witchcraft depending on your viewpoint).
Whatever they are called, I love them and his 2015 la Levee is a wonderful example. It is imported by natural wine witch doctors Cave de Pyrenes and could be your potion for about £20.
Back to Chenin. Well where do we start with this amazing grape? If like me Lilt was your favourite soft drink as a child, you are probably already a cheerleader for the Chenin Blancs of the Loire Valley. The totally tropical blend of pineapple and that citrus tang makes me want to do knee slides.
The wines by Domaine Huet from Vouvray are world class. We're talking very posh Lilt here.
My favourite cuvée is the Clos du Bourg. The Le Mont and Le Haut lieu are also excellent but any of these will set you back about £30-35 a bottle these days. I prefer the sec (dry) wines but they also do Demi-sec and even sweet Moelleux wines. Lay & Wheeler are regular stockists.
If these are a bit heavy on your wallet, hop across the river to Montlouis, where wine maker Jacky Blot makes some of the best chenin blanc in the Loire Valley. I recently enjoyed a bottle of his 2014 Remus, a stunning wine of cooked apple and lime with the subtle oak adding great complexity. The class of a great burgundy for less than £20. He has a range of Chenins available at Justerini & Brooks, priced between about £14-20 a bottle. World class wines at very reasonable prices.
So anyway, that was all a bit of a digression from the night in question to a meander (that was a river related pun by the way) through my favourite wines of the Loire Valley.
We tasted through a range of wines on the mezzanine overlooking the hotel bar, which is one of the coolest looking hotel bars I have seen. We're talking pool table here guys. What else does one need. Based on the decor and clientele I think its probably more than the 30p per game I paid in the Royal Hotel in Laurencekirk in the early-nineties. I didn't see any fights break out either.
After drinks, we went underground into a basement room which was lit in a way that I can only describe as "disco without the flashing". It was in fact the function room of Berner's Tavern, a restaurant I had long wanted to try out. It didn't disappoint. There followed a feast of food and wine. Blame the disco lighting for the bad photos....
I won't describe the entire menu but I will pick out the highlights.
The posh Lilt came in the form of a fantastic Chenin from the Savennieres AOC, callled Clos De la Hutte produced by Thibault Boudinon. It had flavours of honeyed apple and lime with the most subtle of oak. Quite rich, but thats the way I like it. This is the sort of Chenin makes me talk about Burgundy, which is tedious, I know. How many times have your heard a winewriter say "it's almost Burgundian"? But anyway, it was.
With the pork chop we had a Cabernet Franc taste off, between a Saumur Champigny by Chateau de Hureau and a Chinon by Loire legend Charles Joguet. It was a bit of a mismatch because the Saumur was a 2014 (a great vintage the Loire) and the Chinon a 2009. The bottle age had added a menthol complexity and balance to the Chinon, when tasted alongside the younger spiky spiciness of the Saumur. For me the Chinon was a much more classy affair and won hands down.
In his classic book "Adventures on the Wine Route", American wine importer Kermit Lynch describes the first time he tasted Charles Joguet's wine from barrel in his cellar in Chinon in the late 1970's;
"I felt like Columbus discovering the New World."
I didn't quite feel like Columbus that night, but I certainly rediscovered the wealth of treasures the Loire holds for the wine lover.