A Sommelier's Tour of France's Loire Valley
"I know it is here somewhere," Jacques Thorel says, clicking through photos on his computer screen. We're huddled around a desk on the third floor of the chef's house, surrounded by his vast library of antiquarian cookbooks; anyone wanting a 17th-century edition of La Varenne's Le Cuisinier François or a 1935 menu from La Pyramide signed by Fernand Point will find it here. But that's not what we're looking for. "Ah!" he says, pointing. The photo is a 14-year-old snapshot, now digitized, of a young woman in a suit, dark hair pulled back, black glasses, somehow smiling and looking serious at the same time. Her name is Pascaline Lepeltier. "We're very happy for her," says madame Solange Thorel. "And very proud."
Lepeltier, who's standing next to me, also studying this photo of herself, responds with a sort of Gallic pff, waving the praise away. But she looks pleased.
There's plenty to be proud of. In 2018, Lepeltier was the first woman ever to receive the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (MOF) recognition as a sommelier, an extraordinary honor. That year she also won the title of Best Sommelier de France at the Union de la Sommellerie despite living in New York City, where she runs a world-class wine program at Racines restaurant. And she's a Master Sommelier, a degree held by only 256 people in the world. But at the time of that photo on chef Thorel's computer, she'd only just started working in restaurants. To him she says, "That was on my first trip ever to Bordeaux. You took me—it was at Château d'Yquem. We had lobster with carrots."
"Lobster with carrots and spring peas cooked in Yquem!" Thorel leans back and mimes pouring a magnum of Yquem—a wine that costs hundreds of dollars a bottle—directly into a pot. "Glug glug glug! It's true!"
Out the third-floor windows the night is dark, but there's a shimmer through the trees of the waters of the Loire. We're near the river's mouth, where it rolls into the gray Atlantic. Here, the Loire, is where Lepeltier was born.
Traveling through the Loire with Pascaline Lepeltier is an education in wine, but even more than that, it's an education in people: her people, specifically—the vignerons she has known for years. After dinner at the Thorels', the next morning found us standing amidst a stubby forest of clay amphorae in the cellar at Domaine de l'Ecu, in Muscadet. Nine a.m. on a rainy Tuesday. Lepeltier has long been a proponent of natural wines, and L'Ecu's owners, Fred and Claire Niger, whom she's known for over a decade, work in that mode: organic viticulture, no additions of any kind in the cellar, no chemicals, no sulfites, and, lately, lots of experimentation with the ancient approach of making wine in big clay urns. Since Fred was in Germany at a trade show, Claire guided us through the wines. Among them was a Chenin Blanc—not a grape the region is known for—from a tiny plot the Nigers refer to as "Pascaline's parcel." As Lepeltier swished the wine in her mouth, Claire joked, "No pressure for us!" and mimed talking on her phone: "Oh, Fred? She didn't like it. Cancel the order for amphorae; we're throwing the Chenin away!"
"How many amphorae?" Lepeltier asked.
"You've got three, darling."
Lepeltier gave a double thumbs-up and raised her arms in triumph.
At Les Chants d'Avril, a tiny bistro opposite a school in central Nantes that's a favorite of the Nigers, cold rain sheeted the windows, but the bric-a-brac-filled room was warm and cozy, and chef Christophe François' cooking was sublime. A richly caramelized mango and apple tarte Tatin somehow summoned the sun before we left. "Tarte Tatin was invented in the Loire," Lepeltier noted casually as we headed out of Nantes. "By the Tatin sisters. Near Cour-Cheverny."
The Loire Valley, I was learning, is—in addition to being the original source for apple tarts—vast. From the area around Nantes, where Muscadet comes from, it's more than 250 miles to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the Loire's most east-lying major appellations. Angers, where Lepeltier grew up, is in between. Grape vines are everywhere, 185,000 acres of them, stretching across 87 appellations. So are orchards—apple, pear, and cherry—and fields of artichokes and sunflowers. "People call the Loire the garden of France," Lepeltier said as we turned into the nondescript driveway at Domaine des Roches Neuves in Saumur-Champigny.
Thierry Germain, the proprietor, greeted Lepeltier as though she were a much-loved family member just returned from an ocean voyage of many years—basically, the same way everyone we met greeted her. Within moments of our arrival, we were bouncing along in his Jeep as he and Lepeltier animatedly discussed alcohol levels (Germain: "Cabernet Franc after 14 degrees alcohol is no good; the terroir is gone"), the geology of Saumur (Lepeltier: "The ground under Saumur is like a honeycomb, full of galleries, from all the limestone quarrying"), and the evils of sulfur additions (Germain: "Added sulfur is what keeps conventional wines alive; minerality and acidity are what keep real wines alive"). We walked through Germain's 100-plus-year-old Les Mémoires vineyard, the ancient Cabernet Franc vines knotted and gnarled, a fresh wind biting at us. Later, tasting the wine, the immense personality of the place came through: a coiled intensity, layers of flavor.
Talking about biodynamics and its founder Rudolf Steiner, Germain said, "For me, his main thrust is really inspired by The Metamorphosis of Plants by Goethe. Goethe really makes things concrete; I want people who come to this estate to understand that biodynamics is concrete." I was reminded that prior to going into wine, Lepeltier received a master's in philosophy at the University of Nantes. I'd find again and again on this trip that she, and many of the winemakers she loves best, have a fiercely intellectual relationship with wine.
I pondered this a bit further over a plate of Loire eel at La Route du Sel, where chef Marie Monmousseau roasts them over hay, a traditional preparation. A bite proved smoky, faintly grassy, a little chewy, sweet-fleshed; not particularly enlightening in regard to Goethe, but perhaps that's too much to ask. Loire eels, Lepeltier explained as we ate, are born in the Sargasso Sea, cross the Atlantic to grow up in the Loire, then return to the Sargasso to spawn—unless, of course, they become lunch. I considered my eel with newfound respect. But even so, I preferred chef Monmousseau's gorgeous Saumurois tart topped with glistening dark cherries. And Lepeltier skipped the eel entirely and had a salad.
The lazy afternoon sun sparkled on the water as we drove westward along the riverbank back toward Savennières and Domaine aux Moines, its 18th-century château surrounded by the great Roche aux Moines vineyard. Winemaker Tessa Laroche came out to meet us, preceded by two absurd big black dogs, Nelson and Nestor. The dogs growled fiercely for about 20 seconds then flopped over in the driveway and started to scratch, clearly satisfied they had scared us silly. Between vineyard rows, Laroche and Lepeltier talked geology, Laroche picking up a 10-pound chunk of schist and demonstrating how easily it would split into layers: She pulled off palm-size chips as easily as one might pull apart an orange. Later, in the cellar, tasting Domaine aux Moine's 2017 Savennières, Lepeltier made a fist: "Such a great, powerful wine ... 2017 was no crop, super dense, and hot. It's not possible to make a light wine in '17." Laroche remarked dryly that she'd been lucky to make wine at all: "We lost 70% of our grapes in 2017 to frost."
Frost, mildew, frost again—making wine in the Loire is never simple. But the wines can be glorious. And for all her erudition and the seriousness with which she takes her job, that's what you get, tasting with Lepeltier: When a wine is great, her exuberance bursts out. The reaction is visceral, filled with a kind of punching-the-air joy at both the pleasure of the wine and happiness for the friend who made it. I saw that at La Grange Tiphaine, watching her taste Damien Delecheneau's terrific 2018s from the barrels with kid-in-a-candy-store delight. Her reactions to people can be equally heartfelt. About Vincent Gaudry in Sancerre, she said, "He's not tattooed, he's not a wild man, and he's so shy, so he's never been the sommelier flavor of the day, but he's absolutely brilliant."
Our trip came to an end at Momento, a sparkling new restaurant in the tiny town of Bué owned by Mariana Mateos Jacquet and Thomas Jacquet, who worked with Lepeltier at Racines back in New York. As we lunched on Mariana's absurdly tender confit lamb shoulder, three young winemakers who'd heard Lepeltier was in town appeared out of nowhere and semi-apologetically asked if we might mind tasting a bottle or two. We said of course. Bottles began appearing, and "a bottle or two" quickly became about 15. Was I surprised? No.
In the end, no wine anywhere, not one single bottle, would exist without people; there's no extricating one from the other. So the moment on our journey that most captured what being with Lepeltier in the Loire was like isn't a specific bottle or a distinctive taste. We were at Domaine de la Chevalerie in Bourgueil, walking down into the estate's 11th-century limestone cellars with Stéphanie Caslot, whose family has owned the property since 1640. "It's like a birthday party," Caslot was saying. "We see each other once a year. We're like sisters."
"But you're from Touraine, and I'm from Anjou. It's like New Jersey and New York," Lepeltier said.
"You watch out, Pascaline!" Caslot replied with a laugh.
We ventured deeper and deeper into the cellar, opening older and older bottles at each stop. Soon we were sitting on rocks in the limestone heart of the place, 150 feet below the surface, our glasses filled with 30-year-old Loire Cabernet Franc. "Wait—I used to do this as a child," Caslot said. She got up and switched off the lights. Utter, absolute, pitch-black darkness. We sat there not speaking, sipping glasses of a wine that smelled of the earth and of green plants grasping dirt, until, unprovoked, because this is what being home and seeing people you love and drinking wine does to you, Caslot and Lepeltier couldn't help but start laughing, just as other friends must have done here hundreds of years before.
Pascaline's Wine Picks
2018 Domaine De L'ecu Orthogneiss Muscadet Sèvre Et Maine ($24)
"Salty aromatics!" Lepeltier said, tasting this benchmark Muscadet. After the tough 2017 vintage, 2018 was a reprieve: Perfect weather led to a great harvest.
2017 Domaine Des Roches Neuves Clos Romans ($90)
"We agree that Chenin is the greatest grape variety in the world," winemaker Thierry Germain noted when tasting this with Lepeltier. Fair enough. This ginger-scented, vividly tart white prompted a high five between the two of them.
2017 Domaine Aux Moines Savennières Roche Aux Moines ($40)
There's not much of this wine around, thanks to hail during flowering in 2017, but hunt for what there is. It's intensely flavorful, with fresh citrus and green apple fruit ending on a flinty note.
2017 Domaine La Grange Tiphaine Clef De Sol Blanc ($30)
Flowers and a faint honey note on the nose, then textural richness and "lots of kumquat," as Lepeltier said, describe this Chenin-based white from one of the natural wine world's best producers.
2018 Vincent Gaudry Constellation Du Scorpion Sancerre ($29)
Thrillingly fragrant, this crystalline white with its bright citrus and melon notes is an antidote to the surplus of dull, large-production Sancerres often on store shelves.
2014 Domaine De La Chevalerie Galichets Bourgueil ($27)
Cassis and tobacco, earth and spice—this Cabernet Franc from a single section of Chevalerie's vineyards is fresh and inviting. It tastes like history: The Caslot family has farmed this estate for 14 generations.
4 Loire Valley Restaurants
Les Chants D'Avril
Ultra-local ingredients from chef Christophe François in the heart of Nantes. leschantsdavril.fr
In addition to her confit lamb shoulder (below), don't miss chef Mariana Mateos Jacquet's superb desserts. facebook.com/momento.sancerre
A Presqu' Î Le
Chef Gérard Bossé will reopen his one-star Michelin restaurant, Une Île, in a new, more casual format this month. une-ile.fr
La Route Du Sel
Fresh fish and, yes, local eel served in a charming old house by the banks of the Loire River. authoureil.fr