September 22, 2010
Even on a small brochure map, the Loire Valley seems a bit wide-flung, but David and I are well-seasoned road travelers who tend to wipe through a lot of miles in an hour or day. So when we planned out our trip to the Loire Valley this summer, we assumed we’d hit the highlights: salty Muscadet on the coast (maybe some bruised-looking sea clouds for good measure); a dabble of honeyed Vouvray; a dalliance with the sere perfection of Sancerre on the eastern end. As it turned out, we never got more than 20 miles away from our inn near Saumur during our whole wine trip.
The Loire, like other amazing parts of France, is dense. Those who have traveled Western Europe are probably familiar with the deal: each rural curve of one-lane road delivers another 11th-century monastery, another swath of family-owned vineyards, another chapel or very cute farm dog or teensy village. Add to this mix plentiful places to stop and taste the local ferment, and going is slow indeed.
We based our expedition at La Grande Maison d’Arthenay, a walled manor house with sundry, intriguing outbuildings, including a pigeon tower (round, common in the area). Proprietors Sue and Micaela know a boatload about wine (Sue has a degree in the stuff) and were able to answer (and, bless them, tolerate) our endless stream of specific questions. What type of trellising? When do they prune? What are their yields per acre—excuse, me, hectare?
In the locals, there is an enduring sense of pride and consistency in the viticulture and vinification. Tradition and care are hallmarks. As such, there is a lighthearted disdain of New World experimentation and frequent chuckling scoffs at how youthful the wine industry is in North America. This was most clearly evident to me in an interaction I had at Chateau Chaintres, a quaint, enclosed kilometer of vines replete with steep-roofed mansion.
We were being led through a tasting session by an 18-year-old named Hugo who was adorable, friendly, and spoke the clearest French I have ever heard. In retrospect this was probably for my benefit and he was probably dumbing it down to a significant degree, but it was a nice notch to cut in my self-esteem belt that I could understand most of what he said.
At some point during the Saumur-Champigny or the Crémant de Loire an older gentleman walked in. He was dressed in that way of the very affluent: a fleece pullover, clogs, but with glasses in very expensive frames. The conversation switched to English. He had, he said, spent many years in America. He had seen the blossoming wine industry in California. He raised his eyebrows and allowed a few platitudes about quality and selection, but, he frowned a bit, in America, there just “aren’t roots“. Here in France, he explained, winemaking went back centuries, it used slow-evolved techniques passed down through generations. He spoke of wine in France almost as something that had always just been. On the other hand, American winemakers were well-meaning, but upstarts, toiling on virgin land that didn’t have any depth of experience. Focus was on faddish tastes and financial growth, big tasting facilities and exclusivity.
In some senses, in some markets (ahem, Napa), sure. But as a native Oregonian who’d also quaffed many glasses of wine by that point in the afternoon, I wasn’t having any of it. I guess I chose the battle. I argued that I was from a strange and evergreen damp land where insane smallholders eke Pinot noir out of low, misty mountains. That there was an obsession with it in those who participated that was sometimes a bit cultish, a bit “you can brag to your friends if you make it on the waiting list” at times, but that the underpinnings were initially weird and passionate.
We left. In the gravel drive, Sue, our totally tolerant guide for the day, told me: “You know, that was the baron.” Whoops, I guess.
In my next stream of consciousness blog post, I will probably tell you about a unique walled vineyard, and, oh, yes, the caves.