Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Wine Tasting at Chateau Chenonceau and Chablisenne

The Loire River
We spent the night in the small town of Amboise with its ancient castle, pedestrian walkways, rose covered houses, and colorful cafes all nestled along side the Loire River.
The next day we drove the short distance to Chateau Chenonceau, the famous castle that spans the River Cher and was the home of both Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici.  We had 1.5 hours to tour the castle and magnificent gardens, and though it was raining a bit, it was still an enchanted place.
Chateau Chenonceau
Chateau Chenonceau
At 10:30 we all met in the wine cellar for a private tasting.  Called La Cave de Domes, it is in the AOC of Chenonceau and was started in the 15th century when Diane de Poitiers was living in the castle.  They have 12 hectares of vineyards in front of the estate and produce around 6,000 cases, which they sell 100% direct to castle visitors.  We tasted a sauvignon blanc, a rose of grolleau and a cabernet franc.  All were well-made, and served with delightful appetizers of goat cheese, pork pate, and brie.
Toasting with Rose Wine at Chenonceau Wine Cellars
Tasting Rose in the Cellars of Chenonceau
After the tasting, we climbed aboard the bus and drove 3 hours to the small town of Chablis in Burgundy.  We stopped halfway so everyone could experience how fancy the French gas stations are along the freeways – very large with multiple stalls of clean bathrooms, and small grocery stores and restaurants.
Visiting La Chablisenne Coop in Chablis, Burgundy
We arrived in Chablis just in time for our 3:30 appointment at La Chablisenne, one of the largest and most famous cooperatives in France.  We were welcomed by the winemaker, Vincent, who described the wine-making process and led us through a tasting of 6 wines.
Everyone was fascinated to learn about the special Kimmeridgian soil of Chablis, which is a combination of limestone and ancient shellfish.  He showed us a large sample of the soil and pointed out to small seashells imbedded in the slightly yellow rocky substance (see photo).
Chablis Winemaker with Kimmeridgian Rock
Chablis Winemaker with Kimmeridgian Rock
Chablisenne was started in 1923, and today they have 250 winegrowers who sell their chardonnay must (harvested, destemmed and crushed in advance) to the coop.  Altogether they farm 1300 hectares and produce around 9 million bottles of Chablis per year.
We left Chablis around 5pm and arrived in Beaune around 6:30 to check into our hotel, the Le Panorama situated in the vineyards about a 20 minute walk from the center of the walled town.  After quickly unpacking most of us headed back into town to eat in the many scrumptious restaurants of Beaune.We  proceeded to taste through these areas starting with a 2012 Petite Chablis which was delightfully crisp, fresh and lemony.  Next was a 2012 Chablis with high acid and salty minerality.  The 2011 Mont de Milliuer Premier Cru that followed had seen 25% oak and was more complex, but the two 2010 Grand Cru’s which followed were both amazing, with layers of complexity, mineral, lemon, and a very long elegant finish.  They were the 2010 Gran Cru Blanchot and Chateau Grenouile Grant Cru.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Antique Chenin Blanc Vines in the Loire Valley at Plou & Fils Winery

80 year old chenin blanc vine
(Monday, May 19, 2014) Our next stop was a small family winery called Plou & Fils that was located in the Amboise AOC. Started in 1508, the vineyard and winery had been passed down the generations to the current general manager and enologist, Matua. He was tall, energetic, in his early 30’s, and with a great sense of humor.
He beckoned for all 31 of us to follow him up a small dirt trail to the top of a hill where their vineyards were situated. As we were walking towards an amazing vineyard of ancient gnarled vines, he told us to be careful of snakes in the grass. Everyone with sandals on jumped and several people screamed.
Arriving at the vineyard we were all mesmerized at our first sight of an 80 year old Chenin Blanc vines. They were on small goblet trellis system with spur-pruning, but the trunks were huge and twisted. Matua said they were not producing that much anymore and that he would probably pull them out in 2 or 3 years. We asked him not to, and Dan suggested that he craft a special vineyard designate wine from the plot.
Cellars of Plou & Fils
Cellars of Plou & Fils
Next we visited a younger malbec vineyard and saw the small “sexual confusion” orange plastic traps that are used to prevent moths from breeding and destroying the vineyard. Everyone was surprised at the name of the trap. Matua pointed out other vineyard plots in the distance, including chardonnay, cabernet franc, grolleau, gamay and sauvignon blanc. All together he has 88 hectares of vines.
Next Matua led us through the most comprehensive tasting of our trip, in which we tasted over 15 different wines. He started with the reds, and I found several cab franc/malbec blends that I enjoyed and purchased. Then we moved onto other varieties. One of the highlights of the tasting was a rose called Milady made from the grolleau grape. His chardonnay was also exquisite, along with all of the sparkling Chenin blancs. Again the prices were very reasonable, so everyone purchases several bottles at prices of only $5 to 8 euros per bottle.

Wine Tasting at Plou Vineyards in the Loire
Wine Tasting at Plou Vineyards in the Loire
As we were departing we asked Matua about his marketing and sales strategy. Amazingly, though he produces 360,000 bottles (30,000 cases), he sells 50% direct to consumer from his tasting room, and the other 50% direct to trade via trade shows and wine competitions. He’s obviously doing very well!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Visit to Chambord Castle and Caves de Vouvray

Chambord Castle in Loire Valley
(Monday, May 19, 2014) We departed Paris promptly at 8am and arrived at the castle of Chambord around 10:15.  Everyone was awestruck at the grandeur of the “hunting palace of the kings” with more than 400 rooms.  After touring Chambord, we drove a short 15 minutes to the town of Blois where we had time for lunch and witnessing the amazing mechanical dragons that emerge from the Hudini building on the square of the Chateau.
Next we drove about 40 minutes to the charming village of Vouvray where we had an appointment for a tour and tasting at the Caves de Vouvray.  This is a large cooperative with 35 winegrowers, producing around 416,000 cases of Chenin blanc wine per year, with 90% of it being sparkling (cremant).
Tour of Caves de Vouvray
Tour of Caves de Vouvray
We were quite impressed with the 2.5 miles of “tufa caves” where the wine is stored, and enjoyed the clear explanation of the winemaking process.  All the cremants are made in the traditional method with primary fermentation and aging in stainless steel tanks for 6 months, then secondary fermentation in bottle, but only for 1 year.
We were surprised to learn that they still hand-riddle (3 week process) more than 50% of the wine and use gyro-palates for the rest (one week process).  Amazingly they charge the same price for both types of bottles, and admit there is no quality difference.  We could only surmise they must have some good riddlers that they want to keep employed.
Vouvray Sparkling Wines
Sparkling Loire Wine
Here we received the best explanation for the difference in the terms “Petillant” which is sparkling wine produced with less bubbles because less yeast and sugar is added to the bottle; whereas “Mousseux, which has double the number of bubbles (more similar to Champagne) has more yeast and sugar added to the bottle.  We were told this winery specializes in the production of Petillant Chenin Blanc wine.
This large coop only exports 10% of the production, and sell the rest via their tasting room, trade shows, and through other wine channels in France.  Back in the tasting room we had a delicious tasting of 4 of their wines, and were able to experience the difference in bubbles and mouth feel between the sparkling Chenin blanc “Petillant” vs. “Mousseux,” with the latter definitely having more bubbles than the former.
The tasting room was large with an excellent selection and very reasonable prices.  Everyone stocked up on Loire Valley chenin’s, cab francs, roses, and sparklings for only $5 to $7 euros per bottle!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Snapshot of Loire Valley Wine Statistics

Castle in the Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is about a 1.5 hour drive south of Paris and stretches 800 km (approx. 500 miles) from the east in Sancerre to the Atlantic Ocean. It is the longest wine region in France. With a continental climate, the vineyards are greatly influenced by the effect of the Loire River and the Atlantic. They have a special soil called “tufa”, which is a type of soft yellow limestone. Many of the castles and caves of Loire are made from this stone, and it can be found in many vineyards along with some clay and small pebbles.

Grape Varietals and AOC in the Loire Valley

The signature white grapes of the Loire Valley are Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, whereas the signature red grape is Cabernet Franc.  However, other varieties can be found here as well including Muscadet, Gamay, Grolleau, Chardonnay, Malbec, and others.  The Loire Valley is the largest white wine producer in France, with 52% of their production being white and 26% red.  At this time, there are 63 AOC’s in the Loire.

Number of Wineries and Vineyard Hectares

According to the Vins Val de Loire ( there are 7000 winegrowers, with many of these being small family producers.  In addition, the Loire Valley has around 100 negotiants and 24 coops. The wine industry here provides 33,000 direct jobs for France.

The Loire produces around 400 million bottles (33 million cases) of wine per year making it the 3rd largest producing wine region in France.  They have 70,000 hectares of vineyards.  Annual wine revenues are 1.2 billion euros, of which 220 million is received from exports.

Map of Loire Valley Wine Regions
Sparkling Production in the Loire – Pettillant Vs. Mousseaux

Interestingly, many people may not realize that the Loire Valley produces a large amount of sparkling wine (cremant), and is the 2nd largest producer behind Champagne. Cremant wines in the Loire can be made from chenin blanc, chardonnay, and even red grapes such as gamay and cabernet franc.

Loire cremants are differentiated by the terms “Pettillant” and “Mousseux.”  Pettillant is sparkling wine produced with less bubbles because less yeast and sugar is added to the bottle; whereas “Mousseux, which has double the number of bubbles (more similar to Champagne) has more yeast and sugar added to the bottle.

Sweet Botrytised Chenin Blancs

The Loire Valley is famous for its late harvest and botrytised Chenin blancs from such famous areas as the Coteaux du Layon and Vouvray. These amazing sweet dessert wines have exquisite acidity and can be aged for years.

Unique Loire Valley Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc

Garden in the Loire Valley
Cabernet franc from the Loire Valley tends to be lighter in color with raspberry, violet, and earthy notes. They are distinctive and delicious.  Some of the best come from the AOCs of Chinon and Bourgueil.

In the far Eastern section of the Loire lays the famous hill town of Sancerre where they create one the most exquisite sauvignon blancs in the world.  The nose smells like a field of spring flowers and grass, while on the palate notes of grapefruit and mineral shine through.  Other regions known for sauvignon blanc include Pouilly-Fume and Touraine.

Loire Rose & Muscadet

The Loire Valley also produces different types of delightful roses that range from bone dry to fruity and slightly sweet. These are primarily made from cabernet franc, gamay, and grolleau, or sometimes a blend of these.  They make a wonderful drink as an aperitif or a refresher on a hot day, and are reasonably priced.

White wines from the Muscadet region of the Loire near the Atlantic are crisp and refreshing. Made of the Melon de Bourgogne grape, but generally referred to as Muscadet, they are great with oysters and other types of seafood.

Great Prices for Loire Wine

In general, wines from the Loire are a good value, often ranging from $5 to $7 euros per bottle. However, some of the more serious cabernet francs from Chinon and Bourgueil or late harvest Chenin Blancs from Cote de Layon or Vouvray may be more expensive, but they are still a great deal compared to comparable wines from other regions of France.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Lazy Sunday in Paris – Visits to the L’Organerie and Relaxing in Parks and Cafes

Sunday was a free day, so some people slept in, whereas others jumped in the metro early to arrive downtown before all of the crowds. It was a perfect sunny day with blue skies, and all Paris seemed to be enjoying the balmy May day.

Janeen and I took the metro to l’Organerie in order to see Monet's famous lily pond paintings.  When we arrived around 10 in the morning, a wonderful French band was playing in the plaza in front of the gates.  We decided to stop and dance a bit before heading into the museum. I enjoyed the music so much, I bought the CD.  The name of the band is Yordan.

I hadn't been to l'Organerie in years and was very impressed with the renovation.  We had the place almost to ourselves, and it was very moving to wander through the oval rooms where Monet's huge last masterpieces are hung.  There was a reverent feeling in the air, like we were in a cathedral, and we whispered when discussing which was our favorite water lily scene.  These paintings were Monet's last gift to France before he died, and it broke my heart to learn that for many years no one visited them because they thought they were out of style.

Another wonderful surprise for me at l'Organerie were the many other collections of Impressionist works that are now housed there.  We spent another hour enjoying paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, and other famous artists.

Afterwards we walked across the Seine and wandered around the back streets before taking the metro to the Luxemborg gardens where we relaxed by the pond.  The garden was filled with people taking in the sun and flowers, reading books, children playing, and it seemed all of Paris had come out on this beautiful day to savor life.

Later we found a delightful cafe where we were lucky enough to snag a sidewalk table.  We ordered the 3 course meal of the day, and then sat there relaxing, drinking wine, and watching all of the people walk by with their cute dogs and fashionable clothes.  It was one of the highlights of my trip, and a dream come true to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon at a sidewalk cafe in Paris for three hours.

We started with a half bottle of Sancerre that we had with a fresh green salad complete with chevre.  The main course was tender chicken served with spring vegetables and melt in your mouth mash potatoes.  We had this with a half bottle of Chinon cabernet franc.  Dessert was fresh fruit with cream that we enjoyed with tiny cups of espresso.

Eiffel Tower, Paris Farmer’s Market, Walking Restaurant Tour and Dinner in Montmarte

Saturday we were each given a metro pass for the day.  The first stop was the viewpoint overlooking the Eiffel Tower – an inspirational way to start the day. Next we went to a small farmer’s market and flea market in the Marais District.  This was followed by a walking tour of wineshops and 3 restaurants.

The afternoon was devoted to free time, but we met again in the evening to take the metro to Sacre Coeur – the lovely white church on the hill tops of Paris.  The view was amazing.  Our celebration dinner was held at La Cremaillere Restaurant in the Montemartre area just a short walk from Sacre Coeur.  Here was had 3 courses with wine.  Later we took the metro to view the famous Moulin Rouge, and then visited several nightclubs in the area where we enjoyed dancing to a band that played old rock & roll music.