Loire Valley: Part the First - Paris to Chinon

This past May, Emma and I took our first, dedicated wine tasting trip abroad. To France. More specifically, to the Loire Valley.

The trip itself kind of happened by accident. Emma was going to be in Paris for work (I know, right? I hate her, too) and I was all, “I’ll meet you in Paris and we’ll drive out and taste all of the wine!!” And she was all, “Yes, we will most certainly do that, I will rent a car right now!” Etc. Etc. With Enthusiasm. And so began the wine tasting trip that turned into more of a Wine Tasting Odyssey, In Which We Were Wholly Unprepared To Deal With the French Countryside. And also the French.

[Parenthetical: Rachel was wholly unprepared to deal with the French. Emma, being European, was obviously familiar with weird and completely idiosyncratic way in which the French comport themselves. But, even she was a little taken aback by just how … French … the French countryside can become.]

Anyway, so after a long, (long) trip to Paris, (in which I flew the Russian airline, Aeroflot, and connected through Moscow because, cheap! But seriously, BE YE NOT SO STUPID. I know $850 for a roundtrip to Paris seems like a good deal but DO NOT BE FOOLED. You will save your dollar bills but pay for it instead with your comfort, the integrity of your clothing after someone pukes on you and you wear that puke for the next five hours, and with your emotional and psychological well-being.)

(I swear that’s the end of the random tangent parentheticals.)

(Maybe.)

ANYWAY. Paris. We got there, we rented a car, and then we realized neither of us could drive stick shift particularly well. Rachel – really bad. Emma – moderately bad. So, obviously, Emma drove. In the end, she did spectacularly well, although it took her a few moments to gather herself. Within five minutes in the car we had almost side swiped a bus and blocked an ambulance. After that we were fine. (Until we almost hit a horse, but more on that later.)

So after a slightly terrifying ride out of Paris, we arrived in the Loire Valley.

A bit about the Loire. It’s located in Central France and situated on the Loire River; it’s France’s oldest wine region; it has a ton of sub-regions. You may have heard of some of it’s more famous regions: Sancerre, Muscadet, Chinon or Touraine. The Loire is the “garden of France.” It’s the heart of France’s agricultural regions, which gives its wines a rustic, straightforward, no nonsense character. The wine, like the people, is no bullsh*t. And for good reason – they’ve been growing wine in the Loire Valley for hundreds of years. Back when the English owned the French, Henry II had his court in Agincourt and Loire Valley wine was a staple. Loire Valley wines are still a staple of Paris cafes; the agricultural character of the wine make them parfait for pairing with food. And they are also just really, really good wines.

Our first stop in the Loire was Chinon, a totally gorgeous medieval town along the banks of the Loire River.

After driving up some terrifyingly narrow roads buttressed by 9-foot walls on either side, we arrived at Domaine de la Noblaie, a little vineyard I had read about in a book somewhere and popped onto our list. It was, obviously, closed. Because it was lunch time. And everything outside of Paris shuts down like clockwork from 12-2p during the work week. Too bad for you if you’re trying to taste the wine, you’ve been in the car for three hours, there is nowhere else to go because it’s a small town, and you have nothing else to do.

After biding our time wandering around a fortress, we finally got to taste some wine at Domaine de la Noblaie. It was totally worth the wait. Jerome Billard is the vigneron, and runs the winery with his family, which has been growing wine on the property since the 1600s. (Or, at least that’s the oldest map they can find.) In fact, Noblaie still has the original limestone vat where wine was pressed and aged all those centuries ago. (I mean, they can’t really get rid of it; it’s built into the wall.) The way Jerome tells it, the growers used to harvest the grapes and drop them into the vat through a hole in the ceiling. From there, gravity would do the rest, putting enough pressure on the grapes that the juice would leak out a well positioned hole in the bottom of the vat. And, voila. Wine.

The limestone character in the soil of the Chinon is intense, and gives the wines a distinct taste of iron. It ends up on the palate like a cooked spinach or broccoli; it’s a quality unique to the wines of Chinon that I’ve never tasted elsewhere.

Domaine de la Noblaie focuses on red wines, as does the majority of the Chinon growing region. Of all the wines we tasted, I will highlight a few:

2012 Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc is the pride of the Chinon. The grape absolutely blossoms in this region of the Loire and shows itself to be a true stunner. Domaine de la Noblaie’s 2012 is a blend of the entire vineyard, and aged in steel. The nose was fresh and springy, with a scent of strawberry. The strawberry followed through to the mouth, where things got nicely complex: cherry, fennel, basil and earth followed by a nice dark chocolate finish. (I’m told the dark chocolate flavor is another character of the limestone, but at that point I was all MMM CHOCOLATE MOARRR CHOCOLATE!!)

2012 Cabernet Franc, Les Blanc Manteaux. These 65-year old vines grow grapes in a single block, on pure limestone. The wine is aged in big barrels of neutral oak. The nose was all earth and herbs, with that limestone-iron-cooked-spinach note coming through like a freight train. On the mouth, the Cab landed with a punch. This is a powerful wine, with flavors that call up lush, raw mineral earth, chocolate, and dark bitter olives. This is Cab Franc at its purest, and it is a quite a sensation to behold.

2012 Les Chiens Chiens.  Yes, chiens means “dogs” in French. I actually don’t know why this wine is called dog-dog. I probably should have asked. But I was too overwhelmed with the whole, “drinking wine in the vineyard in France” situation to have my head totally about me. The fact that I took legible notes is a small miracle. Anyway. The Chiens Chiens is also 100 percent Cabernet Franc, grown on a plateau of clay. The nose was lovely – lavender, raspberry, plum, and a tiny bit of earth. The mouth was a bouquet of the same with silky tannins and a smooth finish. This wine went down nice and easy.

Our first tasting in France was that kind of unreal, ethereal experience that I think everyone expects that tasting wine in France would be. It was honestly amazing, for a couple of reasons. The setting was beyond beautiful, the wine was amazing, and the vigneron, Jerome, was a doll. He was extremely friendly, spoke English extremely well (he had done some training in Napa), and so happy to see us.  All things we found out later would be the exception, rather than the rule.

But, we’ll get to that later.