Love in The Loire Valley

A few weeks ago I found myself in the inky, violet-lit underbelly of The London Edition Hotel  listening intently to a man who was encouraging everyone in the room to let themselves go, unleash their imaginations and join him on the boat as we set sail on a sensorial adventure along the winding waterways of The Loire.

Sometimes I wonder how I manage to get myself in these situations and then I remember: wine. Wine, is usually the answer.

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The speaker in question on this night is Douglas Blyde: gastro consultant to the rich and famous, wine connoisseur and waistcoat wearer of the most illustrious order. But I call him the wine whisperer. Back in 2015 he wove me wine stories about Muscadet as dawn broke over Billingsgate Fish Market and it somehow became my new favourite drink. Last year he was lilting something soft and sweet about Chablis, and discovered himself preaching to the beautific converted. This year he’d sequestered us in Berner’s Tavern’s cavernous dining room to establish another French connection: The Loire Valley.

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Recently, the new world rebel in me has been railing against the established old masters. I’ve been singing the praises of some proper modern zingers: lip-curlingly fresh English sparkling wines, jammy, hangover-guaranteeing Argentinian Malbecs and smoky, sultry Australian whites that taste like they’ve been aged in a bordello let alone a barrel. But, naturally, when faced with a wine list, it’s oh-so-easy to see why, with all that choice, most people flip past those more hit and miss Croatian, Chilean and South African bottles and head straight for the lemon-edged siren call of the Sancerres and juicy fruit Beaujolais from the French section.

You see, there’s just something about a French wine. Reliably good, usually, yes, but also cut with a certain sense of reliable charm, too. The attraction of French wine is a bit like the allure of French men, I suppose – all that well-dressed, well-matured heady Gallic charm with a majestic nose and great legs (well…probably). If French wine was a guy, he would swan into a room full of young, peppy New Zealanders and loud, fun-once-you-get-to-know-them Americans and immediately become the one you wanted to go home with.

If French wine in general is an attractive prospect, The Loire Valley itself is possibly the most eligible bachelor in its charming arsenal. A vast network of plush green vineyards that stretches along the sundrenched, breezy banks of The Loire River from Nantes to Blois, if this was a Bumble profile, it would read something like:

“Oxford grad with suspiciously good teeth and hair. Works pro bono for a charity. Likes: sculpture, shoes, shit TV and cooking. Fosters puppies, takes old ladies shopping on the weekends. Has a pilots licence and own plane. Looking for someone to help them drink their way through their inherited wine cellar and review hotels around the world.”

Fast wine facts

  • 12 varietals including four majors: Chenin, Cabernet Franc, Melon de Bourgogne and Sauvignon
  • 50 appellations from Nantes to Blois
  • 800 km of wine trails
  • It’s made it onto the Unesco World Heritage list
  • 2700 wine growers
  • 35% produced is white wine
  • 8 bottles per second are sold from Loire with the UK being one of the biggest consumers of that at 18%, alongside Germany and Belgium

So, really, it wasn’t hard to see why I fell fast and hard for the lineup of Loire Valley lotharios that were laid on for us on that particular evening. They came fast and hard, this veritable speed-dating slew of lookers like some sort of boozed-up Take Me Out or, if you’re in your thirties like me: Man O Man

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As the lights dimmed to green and the metaphorical ship set sail onto what was to become a sea of wine, the first candidate arrived with a delicate plate of Colchester crab smeared with brown crab mayo and apple pieces. He was a Muscadet ​​Côtes de Grandlieu (Clos de la Sénaigerie, Domaine des Herbauges​ 2015)the sort of older, sophisticated man that young literature students feverishly dream about meeting at university. Distinguished and learned (just check out the length of that title) with a roguish smattering of grey hair (that’ll be the aging on the lees), he’s got the edge of a zesty rascal about him. He’s the one who’s going to push you to try new things and deviate from your comfortable, Sauvignon Blanc-loving routine.

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Most likely to say: “If you don’t try it, how will you know you don’t like it?”

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Savennières (Clos de la Hutte 2015) was contestant number two, and a tricky customer. The first waft of him alone sent me reeling dangerous close to wine wanker chat territory, reminding me as it did of the straw and salt smell you get scraping along the beach in espadrilles in the summer. This lovely allusion was short-lived, however when I had a swig of it. Then it felt more like being slapped around the face with a wet lemon. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of a bastard. If this wine was a bloke, it would be the sort to carry you across the sand before dumping you unceremoniously in the sea and laughing when you emerge – soaking, indignant and determined not to be ‘that girl’ who cries about a ruined contour. It’s lucky, then, that this glass came with a juicy plate of pink, pan-seared trout with some pretty serious wasabi butter sauce and mouth-searingly salty caviar, because this wine is the equivalent of hangry – a spiky, intolerable thing until you get some food, and then it turns soft around the edges and you forget what you were cross about in the first place.

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Most likely to say: “But why are you mad though? It was a joke. Stop being so sensitive.”

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As we sluggishly slipped further down The Loire and the lights dipped into deep red boudoir territory, we were all invited on double dates for the main course (a fat chop of meltingly soft pork from Dingley Dell, where they massage their pigs for the tenderest meat). A tale of two halves, one glass was the sort you hope you don’t get lumbered with while your mate cops off with the fit one. The former was an intense, mineral-rich Saumer Champigny (Lisagathe 2014), which seemed 100% my type on paper, but in reality turned out be a bit of a melt (say what you want about Love Island, it’s increased my vocabulary no end)

Most likely to say: “I’m going to keep buying you drinks until you find me attractive.”

The latter, a velvety Chinon Rouge (Clos de la Dioterie 2009), which I dubbed the James Bond of wines – the sort that would have you half naked and in bed before you could say Bob’s your uncle (which would be a very strange thing to say at that point). It’s the sort of red that will probably be long gone come morning leaving behind a cracking tannin-induced hangover, but so many good memories that you wouldn’t even really mind.

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Most likely to say: “Are you French? Cause maDAMN!”

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We ended in a golden haze of cheese and Berner’s Tavern house Anjou wines – the boyband of the Loire Valley wine world, meaning that there’s something for everyone, whether you like an earthy, citrusy bohemian-with-a-trust-fund Anjou Blanc 2015  or a more rough-around-the-edges bad boy Cab Franc Anjou Rouge 2014 (both ‘Berners Tavern’, Clos de L’Elu).

Another worthy mention is one of the wines we had pre-dinner – a dangerously easy-drinking Rosé d’Anjou (Maison Bougrier). Don’t let the soft pink colour fool you, this lad is the type who’ll tempt you out for one drink and then lead you on a merry bar crawl across the capital. A fresher of the Loire Valley, it’s semi-sweet, off dry and “at their best at their full flush of youth”…but then who isn’t?

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By the end of the meal the boat had well and truly docked. The light was back to its pre-dinner violet haze and if I was sure of one thing it was this: I might wake up woozy and vaguely seasick tomorrow, but it would be coupled with a sense of sheer elation of the experience of being shown a bloody good time by all these wines. Because while they might not be terribly good for me, these French lovers are simply too charming to resist.

Finding ‘the one’

My favourite wine from The Loire wasn’t actually drunk on that immersive evening. It was discovered afterwards, but deserves a special mention. It’s a Vouvray (Clos du Gaimont) made from Chenin Blanc – a Loire native and one of its most iconic grapes – and trust me, ain’t nobody dope as Vouvray right now, he’s just so fresh and clean with an almost abrasive freshness and honey-laced finish. This wine might be whipcrack dry, but he’s the sort of chap you’d take home to your parents. Totally acceptable to take to any and all social engagements, if he was a man he’d probably be one of those young yet surprisingly talented millennial types who reeks of potential and owns a startup that actually survived its first year in business.

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Drink it with: Sweet-sour Asian food or something richer like buttery trout pork or smoked salmon. The French would probably eat it with Coquilles Saint Jacques, so I reckon it would be a match made in heaven with a light fish pie.

For more info on the fabulous wines from the Loire Valley, or to find your own Loire love, head to the Loire Valley Wine website

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How to talk about wine, without sounding like a wanker

I grew up watching the peerless Jilly Goolden inhaling glasses of wine and gesticulating about how she could smell old leather watchstraps, romps in sun-ripened hay bales and elderflower-draped forests; so naturally, that’s just how I thought most people chatted about wine.

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That was until I found myself working in wine, specifically writing about it for M&S, and I quickly realised how much of a complete pillock you sound if you fall into the common traps of wine wanker chat.

Here’s a starter for ten: don’t use industry words like ‘mouthfeel’ or describe a wine as ‘turgid’ and never give it human characteristics like ‘confident’, ‘brave’ or ‘sexy’ – not only do they sound inherently stupid, they say bugger all about what the wine actually tastes like. I’ve done all of these before and now tread that precarious journalistic line between informative and douchey on a daily basis.

Somebody who drinks wine pretentiously in the company of others to show off their knowledge and try to make other people feel inferior.”
“It was really embarrassing seeing Declan complain about all the wines we drank just to get attention. What a wine wanker!”

Most people can say they understand a bit about wine these days and have an inkling of what they’re buying. You tell people you’re stoking the fires for a BBQ and they’ll crack out a full-bodied red from the safe regions of Rioja or an Argentinian malbec. Basically, it boils down to three things: what does it taste like, what can I eat it with and (if you’re a connoisseur of the supermarket wine aisles) is it in the gifting appropriate price bracket of £10-18.

So, how do you talk about an event and tell people about wine they haven’t drunk and food they haven’t eaten if you can’t rely on a bit of Brontë-esque frippery in your writing?

But there I was a month or so ago, elbow-to-elbow at the Andaz hotel for the Bacchus on a Knife Edge (no, I still don’t know what was on-edge about it) with a roomful of writers and bloggers doing just that.

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After the crab and cucumber canapés and delicate rounds of buttery cod fishcakes with Scandi remoulade from Italian-Norwegian duo Nordish, the wine chat began in earnest.

And I was right in the thick of it, crossing from Brontë to bullshit in an instant as I compared the canapés matched to a salt-laced, citrus-spiked Petit Chablis as “like breathing in the seashore in winter.”

It got worse. There followed a starter from Pickled Plates of cod with roasted baby radish salad and tempura samphire paired with a La Boissonneause chablis. I distinctly remember describing it as “tasting like an English garden smells. It tastes green: like the first slice of spring.” What. A. Prat.

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There are far more interesting things to talk about when it comes to La Boissonneause, like how it comes from one of Chablis’ first organic and biodynamic vineyards; or how they mix nettles, sage and lavender with manure from their on-site, free-range cows and, come Equinox, bury the brew in the vineyard in the cow’s horns to be re-discovered the following Equinox and homeopathically applied to the vines.

Now, in my defense, if you’re going to wax lyrical about a wine, it might as well be a chablis. It’s the kind of beautifully complex white that comes with its own hazy semantic field of delicious words swimming around it. Chablis is aniseed, fennel, lemon and sherbet. It’s lime and salt and oysters. It’s earthy and buttery and mineral. It is, in short, worthy of pratting about over.

And even its own producers agree. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for blood to be spilled over terroir territory wars, or for famous chablis-producing families to marry off their kids to improve their grape stocks.

So I could, in theory, take you all the way to wanker town, where we talk about crisp whites shivering with freshness like a milky-white virgin in a dew-slicked meadow. Where we describe chablis as a sibilant sylph of a wine, lisping lemony with the siren call of the French coastline. But that probably wouldn’t tell you much about the wine we drank.

So let’s leave the clay and the chalky soil and the sweep of the shore and talk instead about the room in London near Liverpool Street station, where, against the bottle-lined walls, people sat and ate and drank. We could talk about how we all argued over whether or not the Japanese rice that the soy and mirin-doused pork steaks came on was meant to be served as soft and slippery as rice pudding comes in boarding school – amniotic and squelching and slopped out by lunch matrons with arms like mutton: russet-veined and marble muscled…but then we’d be heading back to wanker town.

So let’s talk about the wine that came after A Little Lusciousness‘s punchy pork instead, which was a slurp into the big boys of the region:

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“Cru” is used to indicate a named and legally defined vineyard, which grows on a reputed terroir; by extension of good quality.  The term cru is used within classifications of French wine in Bordeaux and Burgundy, as others have indicated in their answers.

The terms “Premier Cru”, “Grand Cru” are translated as “First Growth”, and “Great Growth”. These designate levels of presumed quality that are variously defined in different wine regions.”

So, I suppose the salient point you’re after is why should you care about chablis. Well, apart from being a universally crowd-pleasing white with the sort of gravitas that means it’s never out of place at a party or as a present, it’s also about to hit a dry patch.

2016 has been, so far, an annus horribilis for the region. Following hail and floods in May, there’s going to be around 50% less chablis produced than expected this year. So, if you’ve got nothing else from this, the main take away is: it’s good, get some now. Cheers!