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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Pays d’Oc IGP recipe challenge: Partridge in a pear tree pt.1

Sometime in the last decade, around the time Sideways came out, drinking Merlot, like drinking Chardonnay, became a little bit uncool.

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Perhaps it was the echo of Paul Giamatti as Miles Raymond spitting out: “If anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking Merlot!” Maybe it was market saturation, when every wine growing nation from America to Argentina became to make Merlot from vines planted in geography that would give quantity rather than quality. Either way, I never really got it.

An inherently heritage variety with the official stamp of ‘noble grape’ attached, Merlot is one of the most drinkable reds around. A good bottle almost goes out of its way to be welcoming: soft, rich, low-tannined and often, illicitly, voluptuously fruity. And when it’s good, it’s very good.

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So when I was asked to pick from four wines from the Pay d’Oc IGP 2015 collection and spotted a 2013 Les Boissières, it was a bit of a no-brainer.

The challenge was to match this plummy, purple-stained red’s notes of nutty oak and sweet, sticky berry to a dish worth serving up over Christmas. Given the whisper of winter that’s winding its way around London’s bleak December, and the fact the my palette is already laced with the biting spice of mulled wine and the woody richness of late Autumn vegetables and that I’m finding myself humming snatches of half-remembered carols that spill out unbidden at odd moments of the day, I took inspiration from a festive classic: The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Specifically, the first gift on the first day: a partridge in a pear tree. Given that this song was apparently French before it was taken by the British and published in 1780, it gave me a lovely excuse to mix the wine of France with some other English-adopted ingredients – pears, parsnips and partridges.

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This hearty, warming dish pulls all the sweet, spiced and nutty notes from the wine, while offering enough full-flavoured sustenance to stand up to this beautifully muscled Merlot.

 

Roasted partridge with braised onion barley risotto and parsnip crisps

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Ingredients

2 partridges
1 ripe Comice pear
4 white onions
800ml chicken or vegetable stock
120g pearl barley
1 bunch of sage
1 parsnip

Kitchen cupboard:
olive oil
balsamic vinegar
salt & pepper
salted butter

Method

  • Peel and halve four medium-sized white onions and chop half your pear into chucks and lay them both face down in hot pan coated in a slick of melted butter. Season with course sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Turn them after a minute or so to coat each side in butter, then pour over 500ml of chicken stock (homemade is best). Cover and leave to simmer on a medium heat for around 40 minutes until the fruit and vegetables have become soft and unctuous.

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  • Deglaze the bottom of the pan with a splash of boiled water and transfer the contents of the pan to a blender and whizz until you’ve created a sweet, aromatic onion paste. A generous spoonful of this paste is perfect for adding richness to risottos without cream or cheese and makes a brilliant base for winter vegetable soups.
  • Rinse the pearl barley in a sieve – 120g dry should be enough for two people.
  • Set aside a heaped tablespoon of the onion paste for later and put the rest in a big heavy-based pan along with the barley and 800ml of water. Bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the grains are swollen and tender, stirring occasionally to ensure the base doesn’t burn – this should take around 45-60 mins. Add more water if the pan gets dry.

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  • About half way through cooking the grains, put 20g of butter into a heavy-based frying pan along with a few sage leaves. As the butter starts to foam, drop in your two partridges and sear for about a minute on each side until they’re golden.
  • Pop the partridge in a pre-heated oven at 180 degrees C for 15 minutes to roast. Remove from the oven and leave the birds to rest for 10 mins. this should give you perfectly cooked, slightly pink breast meat.
  • Make parsnip crisps to garnish by shaving slivers of parsnip with a peeler and drizzling them with olive oil (or truffled olive oil if you’re feeling fancy – the earthy notes pair well with game birds) and balsamic vinegar. Bake at 180 with the partridge for around 5 mins until they turn a deep golden brown. Remove from the oven and peel away from the baking sheet, leaving them to one side while you make the sauce.
  • Deglaze your partridge pan with a splash of boiled water and a good glug of Les Boissières Merlot – it may seem wildly decadent, but as Julia Child once inferred, you should never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink!

“If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.”

  • Add in a your leftover tablespoon of onion paste and the remaining chopped pear and reduce down until you’ve got a glossy jus to dribble over at the end.
  • While it’s reducing down, carve your partridge. The principle is exactly the same as a chicken – find the ridge of the bone between the breasts and slice either side, carefully cutting the meat from the bone in short, sharp slices. You can also carve around the little legs and snap them off at the bone to serve whole – the meat on these is extra juicy and flavourful. I estimate one partridge per person. Keep the carcasses to boil into a beautifully gamey stock for later.
  • Spoon a generous helping of the pearl barley onto a plate and top with the partridge breast and legs. Top with shards of parsnip crisp and crispy sage leaves and pour over the reduced jus.

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Find out more about the exceptional wines of the region here: http://www.paysdoc-wines.com and on their twitter account @paysdocigpwines

And buy the wine I was matching, Les Vignes de L’Arque, Les Boissières, Merlot, 2013 (£10.25) at Leon Stolarski here: http://www.lsfinewines.co.uk/acatalog/Les_Vignes_de_l_Arque.html

The Wine Trail, Blenheim, New Zealand

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Sunshine, cycling and wine as far as the eye can see. Sound like paradise? Well it certainly did to us as we grabbed a wine map, teased our rather squashed, rented tandem bike from the back of the campervan and wobbled off into Blenheim’s wine country.

Regimented rows of the precious grapes cover thousands of acres of the undulating countryside here and there are over 140 wineries in the region, with more than 60 of them offering free wine tasting to visitors – on the expectation that you’ll fall so utterly in love with the region’s brand of zingy, citrus sauvignon blancs and clean, ripe pinot noirs that you’ll end up leaving with a pannier full of bottles.

We meandered to Saint Clair Family Estate cellar off the cycle-friendly Rapaura Road before making our way – ever more carefully and ever less upright to Framingham Wines via the cellar doors of Cloudy Bay, MOA beers, Prenzel liqueurs, Bouldevines, Hans Herzog and the Fudge Kitchen, for an emergency sugar hit, obviously. By the day’s end, with panniers bulging and me doing probably less than 30% of the peddling, I can say shaky hand on tipsy heart that this the most fun you can have outside of a bungee harness in New Zealand.