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.
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.
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
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.
Most likely to say: “If you don’t try it, how will you know you don’t like it?”
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.
Most likely to say: “But why are you mad though? It was a joke. Stop being so sensitive.”
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.
Most likely to say: “Are you French? Cause maDAMN!”
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?
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.
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.