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A Wine Tour of Château Country

Lettie Teague, besotted with a certain Vouvray, travels to its source in France and discovers a range of unfamiliar bottles, excellent countryside restaurants (plus one dud) and historic castles.

While the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, according to a certain Chinese philosopher (and quite a few inspirational cards), my most recent odyssey began with a single bottle of Vouvray and led to four days in the Loire valley of France.

The wine that inspired my voyage came from the producer Domaine Huet. The Huet name is legendary among certain wine connoisseurs: It’s the Romanée-Conti, the Lafite, the Harlan Estate of the Loire. And yet because Huet makes wine in the unfashionable subregion of Vouvray, from the unfashionable grape Chenin Blanc, its bottlings don’t get much attention—nor, for that matter, do they carry very big price tags. Indeed, many Huet wines cost around $30 a bottle. As is true with Loire valley wines in general, they’re some of the best values in France.

"Great value isn’t what I look for in a wine," said my friend Scott Manlin, a Chicago-based collector, when I mentioned this as a reason why I like Loire wines. "In fact," he added, "I don’t have any Loire wines in my cellar at all."

"But there are some terrific Loire wines," I protested. "Not just Vouvray but Savennières and Sancerre. There are even good values in sparkling Saumur." The Loire has such an incredible diversity in wine, no wonder it’s called "the garden of France." And then there are all those châteaus, some of the most beautiful in France! (My guidebook said so.) There is the tallest château (Château de Brissac) and the château that inspired the author of Sleeping Beauty (Château d’Ussé).

Scott listened patiently. "The only châteaus I like are first-growth Bordeaux," he replied.

And yet it was Scott who gave me my first case of Huet, after a certain Manhattan wine merchant refused to sell it to me. This was about a year after that first transcendent Huet bottling, the 2002 Le Mont, from what is considered the greatest of the domaine’s three vineyards. It had such depth and precision, such a gorgeous balance of minerality and fruit. "What do you plan to do with the wines?" the merchant had replied when I asked to buy a case of the 2004s. Was this a trick question?

"I guess I’ll drink a few bottles and save some for later," I offered, thinking it best to cover both bases. "Then I’m not selling you the wines," the merchant said. "Not unless you promise not to drink them. You have to cellar them." I knew that Huet wines only improve with time (a great Chenin Blanc can age for decades), but how would the merchant know when I drank them? Would he watch my house? Or was this a joke? It was not, he assured me. I told him I couldn’t make any promises. He hung up on me.

I recounted my story to Scott some months later. "That’s ridiculous," he said. "I can get those wines." I doubted it; I’d tried several merchants without luck. (Huet’s importer is a prickly fellow who only sells to restaurants and stores he deems worthy.) True to his word, Scott sent me a case of Huet the very next day. Clearly, the only way to repay him was to take him along on my Loire valley tour. "All right," Scott replied. "But I’m not visiting any châteaus."

The Loire valley looks a lot like Iowa," I observed, as Scott and I drove west from Tours toward the town of Angers and the province of Anjou. We’d arrived by fast train from Paris (one hour) and rented a car. The soft, sloping fields were a pale, welcoming green, filled with grazing brown cows. Grapevines were planted here and there—all in all, a lovely pastoral view. Though perhaps not to Scott. "Have you ever been to Iowa?" he replied in a challenging tone. I admitted I hadn’t: "But I’ve been to Ohio. I’ve lived in Ohio. I like Ohio, and it looks a lot like Ohio to me."

Anjou is one of the most important of the Loire’s 68 subregions. It’s home to a wide array of wines—white, red and sparkling, both dry and sweet—though its most famous are the dry and sweet white wines of Savennières and the red wines of Saumur.

Part of the reason for the Loire’s tremendous diversity is its size: The Loire River, at 630 miles, is the longest in France, and the Loire wine region is the country’s third largest. I decided to concentrate on just a few subregions. The plan was to visit a few wineries in Savennières and Saumur, then drive back to Tours and Vouvray. I’d found what seemed like an ideal hotel, a castle near Angers. Château de l’Epinay seemed perfect in every way but one: We couldn’t find it. And no one seemed to know where it was. We asked a woman at the post office, a bartender and a car full of policemen before a farmer showed us the way.

Patrice and Valérie Montuoro bought Château de l’Epinay a few years ago and transformed it into a comfortable (puffy sofas, chaise lounges) if somewhat drafty six-room guest house. Work on the property is ongoing, said Patrice, particularly in the wine cellar. It held just a few bottles and no Loire wines at all, except for a few Chinon reds (Chinon is a Loire appellation that produces fairly simple reds and whites). There were, however, lots of sprouting potatoes on the cellar floor.

"You don’t have any Vouvray?" I asked the chatty Patrice in disbelief. "I don’t really like white wine," he admitted. "I’m a Bordeaux drinker. But I do have two whites," he added, offering a 1989 St-Véran—a very simple white Burgundy, best consumed young. Would we like it? Scott and I looked at one another. We took the Chinon.

The first two wineries we visited the next day were in Saumur-Champigny, just outside the city of Saumur on the opposite side of the river from Savennières. That’s a key fact of Loire travel—it’s necessary to cross the river several times. (Scott and I crossed it often, sometimes on purpose, frequently not.)

Saumur is a prosperous place, the headquarters of the French national riding academy and its famous Le Cadre Noir. Scott didn’t seem interested in such things. "I’ve never had a wine from Saumur," he mused aloud.

The wines of Saumur, particularly the Cabernet Franc-based reds from Saumur-Champigny, are popular in the bistros of Paris, mostly because they’re light-bodied and high in acidity; they’re unpopular with Americans for the very same reasons. That and the "green" notes they can have—Cabernet Franc can be hard to get ripe.

Saumur whites, on the other hand, are more popular, especially the sparkling kind. Made from Chenin Blanc, they tend to be fairly light-bodied with high acidity. They’re also pretty good deals. My favorite sparkling Saumur is made by Gratien & Meyer and only costs about $12 a bottle. "What’s a sparkling Saumur?" Scott asked.

"It’s very difficult to explain Saumur to Americans," lamented Fredrik Filliatreau to us. Presumably Filliatreau has at least had some practice, as he is the president of the Saumur-Champigny producers association. "But Saumur is very well known in France," he added.

We tasted several of Filliatreau’s reds—all light and astringent, though his 2003 Cuvée des 12 Fûts was made in a riper style. "This Saumur will appeal to Americans," I told Scott. He appeared uncompelled. Didn’t he like Cabernet Franc? "I like Cabernet Franc," Scott replied. "I like Cheval Blanc." (Cheval Blanc, the legendary St-Émilion, is made predominantly from Cabernet Franc and can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.)

Scott found more to his liking at Domaine des Roches Neuves, our second Saumur-Champigny stop. I’d been a fan of Roches Neuves wines for a while, particularly L’Insolite, an old-vine Chenin Blanc with a beautifully pure minerality. In a great vintage like 2005, it tasted like a grand cru Chablis—for less than a quarter of the price.

Thierry Germain, the proprietor and winemaker of Roches Neuves, left Bordeaux for the challenge of the Loire valley. "The Loire is where Bordeaux was 100 years ago," said Germain, an energetic, fast-talking 39-year-old. "We’re still in the process of discovery." Germain makes atypical Saumur wines; his reds, for example, are fully ripe, lacking any green flavors. In addition to L’Insolite, Scott and I both liked the 2004 Marginale, a rich and intense Cabernet Franc.

As much as Scott enjoyed Germain’s wines, he liked Germain even more, especially after he took us to an excellent Saumur restaurant, L’Escargot. The food was good (in particular the seafood) and the wine list fairly priced, with extensive local offerings—each listing accompanied by the winery’s address.

"People in the Loire valley are so friendly," Scott observed after Germain drove us, postlunch, to the local supermarket, E. Leclerc, to show us its impressive wine selection. In fact, this was true of most of the people we met in the Loire. "The Loire looks like the American Midwest, and the people act like Midwesterners too," I said.

Even nobles, like the Vicomtesse de Pontbriand Evelyne de Jessey of Domaine du Closel, were easygoing and warm. The Vicomtesse was particularly taken with Scott. "You are the perfect American in France," she said admiringly after Scott told her that he spent all his free time searching for great food and wine. Never mind that Scott hadn’t tried Domaine du Closel’s wines before, while I’d been a fan for years—particularly of the 2002 Savennières, a gorgeously austere wine from the famous Clos du Papillon vineyard.

Certainly Scott and I liked the Closel wines more than we did those of Nicolas Joly. Joly makes some of the most sought-after and expensive wines in Savennières, notably Coulée de Serrant. But Joly’s philosophy—a fanatical adherence to biodynamic principles that include planting by phases of the moon—can get in the way of the wines. The 2005 Coulée de Serrant at our tasting had been open for "at least" four days. It seemed tired and a bit oxidized.

Was this really the way Monsieur Joly wanted to show his wines? I asked his assistant, over the barking of the fierce winery dog. Indeed, the assistant assured us, it was exactly as he wanted. Joly (in California during our visit) believed his wines were at their best when the bottles were open for many days. "I wish we could taste a bottle that was just opened; I bet it tastes a lot different," Scott said. "Better." I agreed.

Although Scott didn’t want to visit any famous châteaus ("I’m not a château chaser"), I was determined to see at least one. That turned out to be Château de Brissac, the tallest château in France (seven stories, 204 rooms). Built in the 15th century (and still inhabited by the 13th Duke of Brissac), the grand limestone château featured an "ancient wine cellar," according to my brochure. Were there sprouting potatoes there, too?

Alas, I’d never know. It was Tuesday; Château de Brissac was closed. But the vast gardens and park were open, so I took a walk. I considered the disconnect between the architectural splendor and the simplicity of most Loire wines—unlike, say, in Bordeaux, where impressive architecture and vinous ambition are usually aligned.

But then, Huet was still ahead. And there was one more château: Château Belmont, home of Jean Bardet restaurant and our hotel. Although Jean Bardet had both his Michelin stars suspended some years ago, his restaurant is still the Loire’s most famous, which is why I was surprised by its appearance: The carpeting was frayed, the furnishings dated. The food was old-fashioned (lots of cream sauces) and the wine list was oddly focused on old, expensive Chinon Blanc. A bottle of the 1900 Famille Moreau Chinon Blanc, for instance, cost $760.

When I asked Bardet’s sommelier, David Charles, why the wine list was so Chinon-heavy, he looked pained. "Monsieur Bardet likes the wines of Chinon," he replied very politely but visibly nervous. But not Vouvray? Or Savennières or Saumur? For example, the wines of Thierry Germain? David liked Germain’s wines, but Monsieur Bardet, he said, looking over his shoulder, did not.

When asked to recommend a wine to accompany our suprême de pintadeau (young guinea fowl), David was quite decisive: Chinon, he said, the 2003 red from Pascal Lambert. When David went off to fetch the bottle, which turned out to be a good if somewhat overoaked wine, Scott gestured to a table nearby. "Look at that," he said, pointing. "Chinon. And over there. More Chinon."

Philippe Foreau of Domaine du Clos Naudin revealed the secret of Bardet’s dwindling wine list. Foreau’s winery, Clos Naudin, was our first visit in Vouvray. "Bardet wants to sell his restaurant," said Foreau. "He’s not buying any wine. He’s just letting his inventory run out."

There had been no Foreau wines on Bardet’s list; Clos Naudin wines are hard to find in the States as well. But if there is one Vouvray producer whose wines rival those of Huet, it is Foreau. Indeed, the two wineries produce Vouvrays with many stylistic similarities: tremendous, penetrating minerality and a balance between fruit and acidity, even in a ripe vintage like 2005.

Philippe Foreau, like most of the Loire producers, regarded the 2005 vintage as close to ideal. And Foreau, in jeans and a frayed crewneck sweater, was clearly a man who wasted as little time on superlatives as he did on fashionable attire. Or, for that matter, false praise. He could name only one other Vouvray producer whose wines he admired: Domaine Huet.

"Foreau likes my wines?" Noël Pinguet, the winemaker of Domaine Huet, responded with a quizzical smile when I told him of Foreau’s praise. (Where Foreau was graduate-student casual, Pinguet, with his carefully groomed beard and tweedy brown jacket, was pure professor.)

"We tasted a spectacular ’95," offered Scott. "And the last wine we tasted was a ’47 Moelleux [a sweet wine] that was still incredibly vibrant." Pinguet nodded: The 1947 vintage was a legendary one in the Loire.

Pinguet talked about the challenges of selling Vouvray. "The wine is too cheap. In fact, the reputation of the Loire is ’cheap wine,’ " he said. "French people do not accept that a Vouvray could cost $53. It is easier in America; people understand our wines." Certainly selling your wine must be easier than buying it, I said to Pinguet and recounted the sad story of my inability to buy Huet in New York.

Pinguet left us in the tasting room while he searched for some bottles. "I can’t believe we are actually here!" I whispered to Scott. "I wonder if he will give us a wine older than the one Foreau did," Scott replied.

Pinguet returned with 2004 and 2005 wines, including the 2004 Le Mont and the 2005 Le Clos du Bourg. Of the latter, Pinguet said, "This one won’t be ready to drink for a while—at least 10 years." He then produced another bottle but didn’t show us the label. Unlike the other two wines, which were both bright, with fresh acidity, this was more honeyed. The 1995 Le Mont Sec, said Pinguet, a vintage much like 2005, was drinking perfectly now. "So that wine merchant in New York was right," Scott said to me. "If you’re patient, your Huets will taste like this."

Pinguet poured a final wine. "Guess the vintage," he said. With its amberish gold, it was clearly a bottle with age. But how much age? The acidity was still bright and well defined. Everything about this wine was perfect in a completely subtle way: its notes of pear and dried apricot, honey and stone, a finish that went on and on and on. It was glorious. But was it ready to drink? "Maybe," said Pinguet. "It’s only 1959."

After I returned from France, I called the Manhattan wine store. This time I got someone new on the phone. Could I buy a case of the 2005 Huet? "Of course," said the man. "Don’t you want to know what I’ll do with it?" I asked. "No," the man replied, though he added, "Please don’t write about it. We wouldn’t want the word to get out."

Comments? Email Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published May 2007
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