Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Red Zone of the Loire

The Red Zone of the Loire
Underground in Chinon.
Read more about my 3 weeks in the Loire Valley here
Let me take you to the red zone of the Loire Valley. Let us start in Chinon, just west of Tours. Chinon (population c.16,000) is a lovely old town, full of history (Jean d’Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Rabelais, etc…) and surrounded by vineyards, and is the heart of the appellation of the same name.

The appellation is situated mainly in the triangle formed as the Vienne and Loire rivers meet and also includes some communes to the south of the Vienne. And I’ve read in the latest Wine Atlas of the World (a terrific book) that some seven communes to the west of the Vienne are soon to be included.

Immediately north of the confluence of the two rivers you come to Bourgueil and appellations named after that town and its close neighbour St Nicolas. Wine is so important here that there is a huge wine bottle outside the church in St Nicolas and a huge bunch of grapes is a centrepoint on at least one roundabout..

The communes to the west of the Chinon appellation come under the general Touraine label and I’m sure that the seven mentioned in the Wine Atlas would jump at the chance to join up. Hopefully, Chateau du Petit Thouars will be included as they make some great wines from their Cabernet Franc, the red grape for both neighbouring Chinon and Bourgueil.

Domaine du Raifault, Clos du Villy, Chinon 2009, 12.5%, €7.60 at Caves de Montplaisir
Okay, let’s start at the heart of it, in Chinon itself. Along the bank of the Vienne on the road to the west, you’ll find the unusual wine cellar called Caves de Montplaisir.  The cellar, “unique in the Loire Valley, is a former underground quarry of over 2,500 square metres”. The tufa (a type of limestone) extracted was used to build many castles and manor houses in the region.

It is a pretty cool place in more senses than one! Indeed, there was one area where you need a brolly as the water drips through from the top of the town, many metres above. They were busy at reception when we arrived so we had our own little tour among the damp and mould inducing  “chambers”, passing much wine in storage including some 1977 Chinon and small lots dating back to 1947, 1921 and 1893.

But when it came to tasting and buying (they represent three growers), we came much more up to date and included this 2009 in our lot. It has excellent fruit flavours (with an almost silky mouthfeel) and well matched by a refreshing acidity, then a good long finish and overall is pretty typical of the Chinon reds. I've really gotten to like this grape and what they do with it where the Vienne and Loire meet.
Chateau du Petit Thouars, Selection 2009, Touraine, 12.5%, €5.00 at Chateau

This vineyard, situated in the area of St Germain sur Vienne, is outside the Chinon and Bourgueil appellations. It is owned by Sebastien du Petit Thouars - his winemaker is the experienced Michael Pinard - and is regularly regarded as a top producer (see High Johnson handbook 2014 for example).

This 2009 is quite aromatic, notes of red fruit evident. It has a lively refreshing palate with soft tannins and shows the ripe Cabernet Franc (in another good year here) at its best. And, at its best, it is a memorable glass indeed.

Domaine Thibault, Bourgueil 2005, 12%, €6.80 at Syndicat des Vins de Bourgueil.
After one of the quickest ever tasting sessions (about three minutes flat for six wines), we bought this Thibault at the local syndicate. From a good year, it is really smooth and velvety on the palate. Colour is light red and the nose is fruity with some spice. 
The domaine is certified biologique since the early 90s but organics have been in practice here since 1974. There are two types of soil in the area, one tuffeau (rocky), the other graviers (gravelly). This one comes from the rocky area but sometimes even locals find it hard to spot the difference in a blind tasting.

Domaine de la Closerie, Vielles Vignes, Bourgueil 2005, 13%, €8.00 at Syndicat des Vins de Bourgueil.
This was another purchase from the syndicat and another where the grapes were grown on the tuffeau. Another excellent buy, even if I say so myself! It is a "traditional wine of the estate, this is a very nice open nose and palate with aromas of red fruits". All that and more, underlining again the quality available in Bourgueil and neighbouring St Nicolas.

Not sure you’ll be able to find these exact wines in Ireland but Loire wines are widely available, more whites than reds admittedly. Still, my recent check revealed that Curious Wines, Karwig Wines, and Ballymaloe (at Brown Thomas), sell Chinon red.

* Read more about my 3 weeks in the Loire Valley here

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