Monday, 30 August 2010

Day 29 - La Loire commence...

So, while my dear friends in the UK have a well-deserved day off for the Bank Holiday, I spent my morning driving south-west to the Loire. While not a particularly great distance as the crow flies, it was not the most straight-forward, so it wasn't until just after mid-day that I reached Pouilly-sur-Loire, home to two Appellations - Pouilly-sur-Loire and Pouilly Fumé.
The vines of Pouilly-sur-Loire
I stopped off at the Tourist Office to obtain some information on the immediate region, but was delighted to find that they had a little wine presentation and tasting...

Well, what a presentation - it was incredibly well done - in particular the presentation on the seasons of the vineyard - if you wanted to learn about the work of a vineyard in an interesting an informative way, this is the palce to come. When the description of the pruning and burning of vines in winter was described..... smoke was piped into the projection room, for the rain, similarly mist...... So professional, so excellently executed..... in such a small village!
Once all the pieces of the presentation had completed, I was offered a tasting of 4 local wines, all white:
  1. AOC Pouilly-sur-Loire 2009 (Cédric Bardin) - This appellation is 100% Chasselas grape, one I am completely unfamiliar with. The nose was buttery, floral and a wee bit hazelnutty..... On the palate, very subtle flavours of citrus, mainly grapefruit and again the hint of hazelnut.
  2. AOC Pouilly Fumé 2009 (Domaine Barillot) - The Pouilly Fumé appellation is 100% Sauvignon Blanc, when white; reds are Pinot Noir. Anyway, this white had a floral nose, with slight metallic notes. The taste was floral and mineral, with a background of citrus.
  3. AOC Pouilly Fumé 2009 (Nicolas Gaudry) - On the nose, a more elegant wine with floral and herbaceous notes. The flavours on the palate were similarly subtle - herbaceous, floral, maybe white peach, giving a round impression.
  4. AOC Pouilly Fumé 2009 (Domaine Champeau) - This wine was herbaceous, but also vegetal on the nose, asparagus maybe?? But, compared to the nose, the taste was fruity citrus-grapefruit, elderflower, with tremendous acidity and length.
For 3 wines from the same appellation, they were very different, a characteristic of the wines from the Central-Loire region (I refer to the 'Centre' of France, but on the 'Loire', not the mid point of the river.) They have an interesting and complex geology, which I was to learn more of when I reached Sancerre.
Sancerre sits atop a hill overlooking the Loire valley and its vineyards below. The town itself is utterly charming..... I was completely entranced by it. I made my way to 'Maison des Sancerre', another centre explaining the wine and its production from the immediate area... Once again, I was enthralled. To begin, a very fascinating explanation of the geology of the area and how the differing soil types give Sancerre wines their characteristic aromas and taste.

Unfortunately my flash negated the impressive light show!
Then a salon of films with commentary from the local wine producers.... My word, how absolutely brilliant... Their passion, their pride, their talent.... all came through. The struggle to make the Sancerre wines known; it was so fascinating... I was transfixed in front of each of the little films.
I have to say that I have been absolutely and unequivocably impressed, awed by the winemakers of this area. Their attitude is so refreshing, so embracing of nature, so humble..... And yet the presentations, though not glossy in a shallow way, were executed excellently with integrity and style.
The little museum tour ended with a garden with panoramic views....

... before the tasting! They would not give me the name of the wine as they didn't want to show favouritism... just another reason to earn my respect, but they did tell me the area from which it hailed:
AOC Sancerre 2009 (from Amigny) - On the nose, herbaceous, floral and citrussy. To taste, grapefruit, herbaceous with notes of nuttiness.

As I thanked the lady who had offered me the tasting, she gave me the tasting glass, engraved with Sancerre... This is not normal, just a gift on her part which was very kind... I have found the people of this area to be wonderfully welcoming and friendly; this was just one small example.
Anyway, I was delighted... chuffed to bits, truth be told, so I was concerned that I shouldn't break my glass.... so while I wandered about for the rest of the day, I decided to keep my glass in the little compartment between the seats of the car....
As I closed the compartment, I had a little flash of memory... James Bond opening a compartment between the seats of his (probably Aston Martin) car.... Well, now I'm doubly chuffed..... all I need is a second glass and I can seduce unsuspecting french men in my little sports car! I even have champagne! Though not chilled (I'll have to have a think about how to fashion some sort of vacuum sleeve to keep ice....hmmm..... well, I have plenty of red wine till I think of something!)
I left Sancerre and drove on to Menetou-Salon

where I visited the Château de Menetou-Salon. This is the ancestral home of the Princes of Arenberg (still kept as a summer and hunting retreat, though open to the public). This was a proper château, stunningly beautiful, sumptuously furnished and with an interesting history - the Prince Auguste was the political force behind the building of the Suez Canal. It was described as Proustian (à la Marcel Proust).... While a serious writer and social commentator, now all I can think of is the part played by Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine, as the (2nd!!) foremost authority on Proust ;-)
Anyway, as still a family home, we were allowed to take a photo from only one point on the tour:
This doesn't do either the house or grounds justice.... and as I've said before, I'm not one for wandering round old houses, but this family does have quite an interesting past.... and to boot were quite the collectors of vintage cars which are also displayed... Real beauties - Rolls Royce Phantom 3, Hispano-Suiza, and other wonders.
The visit finished with a tasting of the white made in the château's vineyards:
AOC Menetou-Salon 2008 - Prince et Duc d'Arenberg - A fruity, grapefruit, maybe gooseberry nose.... and on the palate - gooseberry, floral and a hint of grapefruit and spice.
By now, it was getting quite late, so I made my way to the hotel for the evening. The area is also known for its goats cheese, so this seemed the perfect salad to eat with a half-bottle of Sancerre:
AOC Sancerre 2009 - Raimbault-Cherbec - Again, the mineral, floral, herbaceous blend of aromas on the nose, with a blossomy, grassy, flinty flavour on the palate.
Today was a long day..... and tomorrow will be similar, but I'm excited after such an interesting day today!

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Day 28 - Tonnerre and Noyers-sur-Serein

No prize for guessing the name of the church I attended this morning in Tonnerre....
Though there is another church, St. Peter's, overlooking the city, but I wasn't sure of the times of service:

After church, I walked the 5 or 10 minute route round to one of Tonnerre's main sights, the 'Fosse Dionne'.
This a natural source of water that through the ages has been variously attributed magical powers, celtic mythology, and religious significance. It sits right in the heart of Tonnerre, off a back street, and while obviously of significance to the locals, hasn't really been cared for.

It's the same with the city itself..... there are some lovely parts, but it seems to have been neglected, houses are a little grubby, needing sprucing up. And a lot of young people just hanging about, stray cats..... one of the few places where I've been very aware of keeping my bag close, watching where I walk, etc. Don't get me wrong, it's not dangerous, but after the delight of many of the places I've visited, Tonnerre is an example of what happens when one of these pretty places is forgotten about.
It was lunchtime, so while I wanted to visit the Hôtel Dieu, it wouldn't be open again till 2, so I drove the 20km or so to one of the Chablis villages, Noyers-sur Serein, one of the 'most beautiful villages in France'.

I had read about a museum of naïve art in the village, but I really wasn't prepared for what I found.
It was a collection so diverse, so surprising...... from wax body parts, renaissance paintings, several Christ on the Cross in a bottle, Greek sculptures, a room with cases of tiny grotesque figurines all around the walls and in the centre about 12 bathroom cabinet sized and similarly functioning wooden boxes. Some had their doors open, some not, but within each were paintings or sculptures of the back view of standing women with voluptuous bottoms, naked. On the top floor, one was greeted by masks and head dresses created from real bird feathers..... (there were feathers on every bannister of every staircase in the building)..... then there were human forms with bird heads guarding various sculptures, then lots of very colourful 'pretty' pictures of scenes from the 2nd world war. Photos were prohibited and I'm frustrated I cannot convey the surreal nature of this place..... It was truly bizarre, but strangely hypnotic, addictive even....... I wanted to see what I would be exposed to next - tapestries of religious scenes, or the intricate pencil drawings of an enormous glass dome with signs of the zodiac designed for a building in Auxerre..... And when I had seen all it had to offer, I was disappointed there wasn't more..... It truly did provoke a response, which is what they say 'art' should do.

I took a brief walk along the ramparts beside the river, pondering the sights, before heading back to Tonnerre.
Back to Tonnerre and the Hôtel Dieu, which was erected by Marguerite Bourgogne at the very end of the 13th century.

This great hall was filled with the sick who Marguerite, though the countess of the area and sister to the King nursed herself. It remained a hospital for centuries, but now houses Marguerite's tomb and various other pieces of religious art.

This hall hosts an annual wine celbration every Easter as well.

However, I was intrigued to discover it also had its own Meridian line carved into the floor:

In the upper rooms, some further artefacts from the building's life in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, as well as a hospital ward from the last century:
There was more to this building than I had anticipated, and I came away wondering what had happened to Tonnerre that it had obviously dropped from favour, as it has such potential... nothing a little TLC wouldn't fix!

Tomorrow the Loire Valley....

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Day 27 - Back to Burgundy...

I couldn't take a wine tour of France and claim to have 'done' Burgundy without going to Chablis..... So this morning I drove almost directly south from Épernay to Chablis. The rough plan was just to take today as a travelling day.... get there late in the afternoon, settle into the night's accommodation and explore Chablis tomorrow. But, I awoke very early this morning, so just decided to head off immediately and was in Chablis by lunchtime. Chablis is just a village.... and its Appellation is a small, strictly enforced area, but the village itself has retained its charm.
I stopped off for lunch and a little glass of the local:
AOC Chablis Premier Cru 2007 - Domaine de Chaude Ecuelle, Montmains - On the nose - mineral and citrus, and to taste, mineral, grapefruit and a little blossom.
I took a wander through the village and ended up at La Chablisienne, a co-operative, yes, but one retaining the very highest standards of the Chablis legacy.
Not only was I treated to a very informative and educational visit, but also to 7 tastings, all of which 100% Chardonnay and characterised by excellent acidity and long length:
  1. AOC Petit Chablis 2007 "vibrant" - These are vines surrounding the village, but not quite within the AOC Chablis. The nose was buttery, mineraly and grapefruity..... And so was the taste, though more fruit than mineral.
  2. AOC Chablis 2006 "le finage" - The nose was very fruity - pink grapefruit and sweet citrus... and on the palate, sweet apple and citrus.
  3. AOC Chablis 2007 "les vénérables" - vielles vignes (30+ year old vines) - On the nose, a little more blossom and more pear, than sweet apple. On the palate, sweet apples, but with a citrus bite.
  4. AOC Chablis Premier Cru 2007 "Côte de Léchet" - this from the left bank of the Serein river, facing the Grand Cru hills. The nose was buttery, floral and, of course, smelled of grapefruit with a very fruity grapefruit and buttery taste.
  5. AOC Chablis Premier Cru 2007 "Mont de Milieu" - the aromas from this right bank wine were more defined... floral, herbaceous even, with a slight tropicality to the fruit. And on the palate, the same slight tropicality to the fruit... passionfruit, pear, but still the underlying citrus denying any sweetness. A persistent and intense flavour.
  6. AOC Chablis Grand Cru 2007 "Les Preuses" - one of the few small parcels of land, directly across the river from the village, designated as Grand Cru, and perceived to be the 'true' Chablis. The nose was all mineral with a hint of citrus..... imagine the smell of stones having just been rained on after a hot spell. On the palate, the same characteristic minerality with the addition of grapefruit and green apples. A rich, round wine with excellent acidity.
  7. AOC Chablis Grand Cru - Château Grenouilles 2006 - The only château in the prestigious area has produced a wine with a perfect balance of aromas between mineral, floral and citrus-grapefruit. And to drink.... a clean round wine with grapefruit, but the characteristic minerality of the Chablis area.
While fresh and bright right now, these wines can be kept from 8-10 years for the Premier Crus and up to 12 for the Grand Crus.

The very helpful gentleman who had walked me through these wines told me of a little trail up through the Grand Cru vineyards which had a wonderful aspect over the village. I duly negotiated the rather narrow trail, but was rewarded with a terrific view..... not nearly accurately representd in the photos:

Shortly after 3, I made my way the 10km to my lodging for the night in nearby Tonnerre. While I hope to explore Tonnerre tomorrow, I ended up popping into the city to do a spot of washing..... the clothes are getting a bit low, and while smalls are easily washed by hand in the bathroom, I needed a couple of larger items washed. The hotel didn't provide a laundry service, hence the need for a launderette, so hopefully the next place will have an iron!
Back for dinner..... and a cheeky glass to accompany, since I wasn't driving:
AOC Chablis Premier Cru - Montée de Tonnerre 2008 (Domaine Vocoret et Fils) - A much more floral/blossom nose with citrus/grapefruit and blossom flavours. Quite mild minerality.
And so to bed.

Day 26 – More Champagne!

This morning I drove across to Épernay to visit two of the big name Champagne houses, situated on the Avenue de Champagne, aptly enough!

My first stop of the day was at Mercier, founded by Eugène Mercier in 1858. I was under no illusions that these visits this morning would be very polished, but were these famous houses underpinned by a love of champagne?

Well, M. Mercier’s philosophy was that Champagne should be available to the common people and he set up his house from nothing to facilitate that. Not only was he very forward thinking in that respect, but he was an incredible innovator.
Carved in the walls of the cellar!
His 30km of cellars were built at double height to allow better working conditions for his employees; he built his house on a site on the main Paris to Strasbourg trainline, so it still has its own station!

For the World Exhibition in Paris in 1889, he decorated a huge barrel to be drawn by horses all the way from Épernay. He even bought buildings on the way, so he could demolish them to allow this huge convoy to pass....... It only won 2nd prize...... The Eiffel Tower came 1st!

At the 1900 World Exhibition, he came up with the idea of offering visitors a hot air balloon ride with a glass of champagne over the roofs of Paris...

So while the 30m descent by glass lift into the cellars today was a bit of a spectacle, I felt it was very in keeping with the spirit of the founder of the house.
Manual riddling
The tour itself was interesting and informative.... and at the end, a taste of 3 champagnes was offered:

1. Cuvée Eugène Mercier (Brut) – Every year a certain quantity of wine is reserved after the 1st fermentation and kept by all houses. 30% of this champagne is made up of the reserve wines which give it extra maturity. This blend is 55/35/10 Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier/Chardonnay. The nose was toastie and strawberry in aroma, and the taste was again toast, strawberry and a bit of butter.

2. Vendange 2005 – A vintage champagne with a 30/40/40 blend of Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier/Chardonnay. This was much more citrus on the nose with hints of toast and on the palate – yellow grapefruit, a little toast and a little strawberry.

3. Brut Rosé – The pink champagnes are made in 1 of 2 ways: ‘Saignée’ – this is where a little more pressure is applied to the Pinot grapes so that the skins ‘bleed’ a little red colour into the wine – this is the method used by M. Charbaut. However, Mercier opt for a mixing of red and white wines, so a red wine is produced from Pinot Noir and for this particular champagne, this makes up 18% of the volume of the wine blend, the rest is white. The nose of this champagne was all strawberries and the taste was strawberry, butter and a hint of blackberry.

So, immediately I wandered along the avenue to Moёt & Chandon, who sell more champagne than any of the other houses and are one of the oldest houses.
Moёt & Chandon gardens 
They, like Mercier, now belong to the LVMH brand, but seem to have embraced the brand little more – it appeared to be more high fashion than viticultural excellence. But, it obviously works..... I had to wait almost an hour for the next available timeslot, so I used my time to wander along the avenue and explore the centre of Épernay.

Dom Perignon - also produced by Moёt & Chandon

At high noon, we were greeted by our English-speaking guide (in the loosest possible terms – a Japanese lady, who was delighted very few questions were asked, though I fear this was because no-one really believed she would understand them, or even if she did, would be in a position to provide an intelligible answer!) That may sound harsh, but at €27 a pop, I would expect a decent English-speaking guide...... Heck, I could have done a better job at explaining the process. (I should add that the English speaking guide in Mercier was excellent – obviously French, but terrific at her job.)

After a rather glossy film which very tenuously linked the blending of champagne to the mixing of colours on an artist’s palette...... good analogy, poorly executed, we walked down to the cellars where we learned that the label ‘Brut Impérial’ on most M&C bottles is in homage to the Emperor Napoléon...... A lot was made of the friendship between him and M. Jean-Remy Moёt...... and a lot was made of famous visitors........
Manual riddling in low ceilinged cellars
Gift from Napoleon
You can tell I was really getting turned off by the shallowness of this place...... And such a shame, because for many, many years now, (at least 20), I’ve wanted to come to Moёt & Chandon in Épernay to taste the champagne...... Why? Very sadly because they have dots over the ‘e’ like in Zoё, so I felt a kind of affinity with them....... That has now disappeared. The illusion is destroyed. They say never meet your heroes.... and this seems to fall into the same category. Ooh, on the subject of heroes..... And before I return to the point..... cracking advert on French TV for L’Orèal Men’s deodorant starring the immaculate M. Eric Cantona – wonderful..... Now he really is worth it!
Jeroboams of Dom Perignon
Anyway, at the end of the tour, I tasted two vintage champagnes:

1. Grand Vintage 2003 Brut – this 43% Pinot Meunier vs Chardonnay blend champagne had subtle aromas of butter, toast, citrus and strawberry, with a taste of apples, butter and slight strawberry. The bubbles were quite prickly on the tongue.

2. Grand Vintage 2003 Brut Rosé – this 48% Pinot Noir vs Chardonnay blend, made by mixing red and white wines had a subtle red fruit nose and a red fruit taste.

What can I say? I haven’t tasted M&C in a very long time and quite frankly, I won’t be doing so again of my own volition...... Maybe their success is due to the inoffensive subtlety of the flavours....... but I very much prefer the distinctive flavours that express the blends, the methods and inherently the skill of the champagne producer.

A spot of lunch and off southwards to explore the Côte des Blancs...... Just outside Épernay, I stopped off at the Château de Pierry.

There are very few châteaux and other beautiful buildings in Champagne, as in the main, they were destroyed during the two World Wars, so I took the opportunity to view this example. The tour started with a film on Champagne..... obviously made in the 80s, filled with the beautiful people, but not unpleasant; it was almost a spoof, like Ashes to Ashes or something like that. The tour of the château itself was quite interesting, the décor, the beautiful gardens...

and the wine cellar and press – it wasn’t so big as to become monotonous...

I’m not one for big houses unless they have a particular interest to them, but this was a pleasant start to the afternoon.

I then drove all the way to Mont Aimé, the southern end of the Côte des Blancs, from which the views were wonderful..... before I meandered my way back.
View from Mont Aimé
I’m not one for stopping at places of interest, unless they actually interest me.... and I, like everyone, have my own unique take on what is interesting, but my interest was piqued by a wedding museum, set in the tiny village of Oger in the middle of Champagne..... I had to stop and investigate. When I arrived, there was another couple there to see the museum, and the owner let the 3 of us in..... I have to say, I’m so very glad they were there, for had I gone in on my own, (and by the way, we were locked in), I would have been quite scared.
It started with a collection of glass bell jars with flowers given to brides – but they had died, so they were just dead flowers, some with cuts of human hair (a tradition in France) in a bowl??? And there were at least 100 of them..... It was like being locked in Miss Haversham’s room.... Very creepy...... Then there were mannequins in old-fashioned wedding dress...... again, add a bit of creepy music and I definitely would have been ready for some sort of horror movie massacre.... eugh!

However, the next room redeemed itself with the special champagne bottle labels made for marriages and other special events..... One for Broad Street in London! And some glasses from the ceremonies.

After that, the owner returned and invited us to view his cellar...... Were we safe????...... before a tasting.

It has to be said that the owner was quite the jolly fellow, not at all scary and he explained that his mother had put together a small collection of marriage memorabilia many years ago after finding some things of her mother’s and then people heard of it and brought her more and more things. He then offered us his champagnes, all ‘Blanc de Blancs’ (100% Chardonnay), so I wasn’t sure how I’d like them.

1. Grand Cru Carte Noire – 2004 and 2006 blend, aged 3 years – On the nose – lemon and sweet apple and to taste, elegant flavours of grapefruit and sweet apples, with deliciously delicate bubbles.

2. Grand Cru Sélection – Blend of 2000, 2001 and 2002; aged 5 years. On the nose, lemon and blossom and to taste, a subtler riper lemon flavour with a little yeast.

3. Grand Cru Amoureux – Blend of 1999 and 2006; aged 3 years. On both the nose and palette, this reminded me of pink grapefruit, with brown sugar sprinkled on top and then grilled – the smell was the same and the taste was the marriage of the sweet cooked top layer balanced by the more acidic bottom fruit that hasn’t been cooked, with a little yeast – it was a lovely marriage (get it) of the fruit from the ’99 vintage with the acidity of the ’06.

4. Grand Cru Louis Millésimé – This vintage 2002 champagne has been aged 8 years to give a nose of sweet confit lemons and a taste of sweet pink grapefruit with sweet bread and almonds. And again delicate bubbles.

Well, you can probably tell from the commentary that I have had my mind changed on the Blanc de Blancs front...... By speaking with Pascal Henry the owner, I think I have been tasting the Blanc de Blancs too young, when they are too acidic and the acidity and yeast flavours haven’t fully integrated – these were a little more mature and just beautifully balanced...... He has won a real convert.

Back to Mareuil-sur-Aÿ for the Champagne dinner...... cancelled again, which was a real shame as I was really looking forward to it, but these things happen!