Tuesday 21 January
We caught the 09.06, having walked through frosty Andover, heading for Stansted via Clapham, Vauxhall, and Tottenham Hale to the Ryanair flight at 14.40 to Nantes. A slow but easy journey; and we were early. This is a WSET fact-finding visit for David, and as a passenger, something of a holiday for me.
Christine Marsiglio MW is in charge, and expecting a third child in April. Ollie Ford makes up the party from exams; he’s the deputy head examiner and, incidentally, the holder of every WSET qualification.
We assembled in Nantes airport’s Arrivals, headed to car-hire (Budget) with David and Ollie as drivers. Tea-time traffic meant a slow journey into Nantes, formerly a major port, now overtaken by St Nazaire, nearer the mouth of the Loire, but still a large industrial and cultural centre. It was light til 18.00, and cold.
Hôtel Maisons du Monde, 2 Rue Santeuil in Nantes was our destination, once the car was very cautiously stowed by Ollie in the busy and tight Médiatheque underground carpark, off the Quay. Christine’s proficiency with Google maps was indispensable. Supper was already booked at La Poissonnerie at 4 rue Léon Maître, for the first of several formule menus which are such a feature of France.
Having completed her Chemistry degree in native Canada, Christine studied for an MSc in Enology in 2010 at Angers, and her knowledge of the region and its wines is formidable. (Actually Christine is formidable – in every respect – she ran a marathon during her second maternity leave!) Having an Irish parent qualifies her for an Irish and thus EU passport – something most of us covet now, as Mr Johnson plans to sign the withdrawal agreement this week.
The hotel is terribly modish – ie a uniform of white shirts, braces and denim jeans for the helpful young staff, very efficient portable ipad check-in, (though less so the next time, in the hands of a newbie staff member) and breakfast as if at home with guest access to all the kitchen equipment. Black dominates; full of quirky bric á brac, and elaborate lighting (like low-flying, slightly hazardous mobiles) to alleviate the gloom.
Wednesday 22 January : Muscadet
Still dark at 8.30 and still cold, we hauled our luggage back to the car and drove to meet Vincent Caillé of Domaine Le Fay d’Homme in les Côteaux in Monnières. He was hugely informative, passionately bio-dynamic, and of course organic, which in maritime conditions create serious challenges with disease. So much of the Loire embraces this challenge – made ever more complex by the extraordinary climatic variations.
Take for example the recent mild winters, giving early budding, followed by April frosts, which reduce the yields dramatically. The increasingly hot and drought-like summers then produce fabulous if small volume vintages, unless it’s 2018 – when it was so bountiful that cellar capacity became the potentially limiting factor. Never dull!
We began with the first of several bitterly cold vineyard visits, hazy light and freezing wind. Fascinating introduction by Vincent to the viticulture issues: soils, training, diseases, pruning and rediscovery of survival tactics. We could have done with gloves and hats. Christine, ever organised, had hers..
After a very comprehensive tasting, when the sun began to break through the haze
We headed for lunch at the Auberge la Gaillotière at Château-Thébaud. This extraordinary establishment, in what felt to be a remote spot was heaving with mature french locals, and after some characteristic french posturing having expected only three of us, just squeezed us in. David had the St Jacques menu…
We moved on, replete, to Domaines Chéreau Carré at Château de Chasseloir, in St Fiacre Sur Maine
This was a real contrast of style with the morning’s visit. M. Chéreau greeted us in well-fitting smart (and expensive) casual wear topped by a leather jacket which looked lead-heavy and clearly protected him from the biting cold as we stood once again examining the terroir and proximity to the Maine tributary of the great Loire, and learned about the particular contribution of the geology and micro-climate.
The medieval château de Chasseloir was destroyed in 1811. We viewed the remaining outbuildings and barn (now used as a cellar) with its curious original corbels representing virtues and vices, and crude stained glass biblical scenes (including the drunkenness of Noah). We finally achieved the tasting room, greeted by a huge fire of both oak and vine wood burning in the fireplace that once had housed the main kitchen stoves. Louise Chéreau joined us for the tasting.
We had driven through St Fiacre twice, each time struck by the eccentric, dramatic and possibly oriental architecture of the church itself. Turned out to be quirky late nineteenth century!
The region is dominated by the Loire as it flows west to the sea, and the main auto routes follow its valley, with subsidiary roads travelling along the many tributaries to both north and south. The small rivers from the south carry water from the Massif Centrale, and give the sub-regions their names: Lois, Maine, Indre, Layon. Along with the various limestones, clays, granite, quartz and schistes these smaller rivers create the special microclimates and unique terroirs of the Loire.
We drove in the weak afternoon sun to Angers’ central square, Place du Railliement, and the Hôtel Saint-Julien, eventually finding the entrance to the vast underground car park beneath, over which the trams run, right past the very grand Opera House.
The first photo is the view from the hotel; spot the tram in the second shot.
We ate at La Soufflerie, 9 Place du Pilori, one of Christine’s old university haunts. Fascinating to see a whole restaurant producing only soufflés or crepes, both savoury and sweet.
Thursday 23 January
Another cold but dry early morning start to visit Domaine aux Moines, on the Chemin de la Roche aux Moines, in Savennières. Two large dogs greeted us from the front garden of the old and rather overgrown chateau, in which, we learned later, both Tessa’s elderly and very frail parents still lived. Outside workmen repaired the facings of the gate, using a handsaw to cut blocks of tuffeau, locally quarried, soft limestone
Tessa is a fiercely independent woman who has been making wine there all her life, following the example of her wine-making mother. She is very particular about distinguishing her wines which are made under the appellation of La Roche aux Moines from those found in the wider appellation of Savennières which in her view tolerates a wide range of quality and whose rules allow much higher yields.
She made us very welcome, and showed us round the château gardens, planted formally by her mother with roses and box hedging, now lying dormant and awaiting pruning and the coming of spring. We learned that frogs – or rather fogs – are the most pervasive enemy, and admired not only the parterre but also the ‘fairy ring’ (le berceau des fées) of trees which serve as the inspiration of a fine bottle label
On to Domaine Menard within the Côteaux du Layon appellation, near Faye d’Anjou.
Here we met one of Christine’s fellow students of ten years earlier – Pierre – who greeted us warmly and drove us from his parents’ house (where he makes his wines in their garage), to the vineyard itself, high up on a ridge.
Another cold but informative half hour in the sharp wind with views of the Layon beneath our slopes, and a better understanding of local climate, soils and humidity.
We were running late, and drove quickly into Saumur, and along the river’s promenade to a convenient parking space close by Le Boeuf Noisette, 29 Rue Molière. As David parked Ollie ran ahead, arriving just before 14.00. A contemporary bar with a few set piece lunch dishes; including beautifully cooked rare beef and for three of us, lapin terrine… More of the lapin later….
From two small producers we went to the huge Ackerman, on Rue Léopold Palustre, Saint Hilaire, in Saint Florent. The company is still based there, and use their historic cellars, reminiscent of Epernay’s vast caves, as a museum and tourist attraction, alongside a cavernous tasting and sales area. A very competent agronomist talked us through their approach, and left us in the care of the tasting room staff to sample their wares.
It was at this point that Ollie began to feel unwell. He suffered a very uncomfortable journey to Angers as we hurtled back along the motorway, unable to stop suddenly or briefly, even to open the windows. Only three of us made it to dinner at Autour d’un Cep, At 9, Rue Baudrière that night…
Friday 24 January
I woke at six feeling very peculiar; David woke a little later and was immediately sick. Text exchanges confirmed that three of us were now unfit for travel, and only Christine was in one piece and functioning, thank goodness. The rabbit terrine of yesterday’s lunch attracted most opprobrium. We lay low for a few hours, close to bedrooms (and loos) while Christine went successfully in pursuit of some special butter and cheeses to take home.
The planned programme was abandoned, and instead we visited Château Soucherie to the south of Angers where a charming Charlotte showed us around a beautifully manicured estate as the sun briefly shone in the late afternoon, and talked us through their range of wines. A proximate bathroom was still a great boon, but the drama was receding, and Ollie’s colour had returned.
We set off for a longer journey back to the Nantes to the Maison du Monde hotel, arriving at dusk and without incident. These underground carparks do take a lot of finding, and so might the vehicles in them without the odd aide-memoire…
Saturday 25 January
It was a simple journey to Nantes airport from where the 10.25 Easyjet to Gatwick left on time, and we arrived in the north terminal at 10.45 (!) with several hours’ grace to negotiate passport control (arrivals), passport control (departures) and security – again – before lunch in a Lebanese restaurant, en route to the gate for the 13.50 Easyjet departure to Turin…
Grandi Langhe beckons!