Diversity and quality at the Bergerie

May 21, 2008

Domaine de la Bergerie between the pretty villages of Rabelais and Champ-sur-Layon is the home and winery of Marie-Annick et Yves Guégniard. From 36 hectares of Coteaux-du-Layon vines (Cabernet Sauvingon, Franc and Chenin…) you expect a wide range of wines but the big surprise here is the quality and character of each of his wines. Each wine expresses its personality – heady, luscious Quart de Chaume, aromatic and crisp Savennières, an Anjou Villages with incredible concentration of fruit and oak… Definitely worth seeking out.

Domaine de la Bergerie Anjou Villages ‘Evanescence’ 2005 – Powerful nose with an intense core of sweet, ripe red raspberries with a very fine oak expressing pepper and vanilla. A very pleasant palate where the fruit mixes with cinnamon and clove on a long finish. Try it with a saddle of wild hare.


Lark’s song at Pouilly-sur-Loire

May 15, 2008
Pouilly-sur-Loire is possibly the nearest major vineyard to the centre of mainland France. It’s nearer, geographically and oenologically, to Burgundy than to the vineyards of the lower Loire. The village sits on a sloping côteau of the right bank of the great river and at its centre are the family home, winery and cellars of Jean-Pierre Chamoux: vigneron here since the early 1970s. Jean-Pierre and his wife Sylvie are generous, hospitable and above all down-to-earth people. Don’t expect grandeur from a visit to this property; on his days off Jean-Pierre is more likely to greet you in his carpet slippers than in his vineyard attire. Airs are joyfully cast aside; graces are confined to easy, pleasant conversation. The couple have acquired an adjoining building, originally a lawyer’s house, which they are restoring to extend their chambres d’hôte accommodation. Recycled materials have been used to convert the original grenier above the property. No skylight windows for Jean-Pierre: he has used locally cut limestone to add two new dormers at either side of (and matched to) the original central mansard window. Guests who stay chez Chamoux eat with the family. Keen cooks, Jean-Pierre and Sylvie provide delicious classic and modern cuisine to match their zesty, bone-dry Pouilly-Fumé wines. The 2007 Les Chantalouettes is a great accompaniment to oysters with its aromas of lemon and pineapple. From older vines on higher slopes, Les Arables, has more minerality coupled with a hint of pear and what the French call bonbons anglais. Both wines are fermented and matured in stainless-steel vats beneath the main house. I love the way that normal folk in France talk passionately and with authority about food and wine. When I ask Jean Pierre what classic fish dish he recommends with Les Arables he says casually, “oh, you know, just some pétoncles (baby queen scallops) marinated in orange juice and some finely chopped peppers then sautéed in a little local hazelnut oil.”
Jean-Pierre Chamoux, Pouilly-sur-Loire 03 86 39 15 58


Ghostly Knight and Super Fizz

May 10, 2008
Eyes adjusting to the low light in the cellar you perceive the ghostly figure of a night in armour seemingly raising a toast to your arrival. Before long Pierre-Antoine will be doing just that during the tasting in his tidy little cave next to Domaine de la Viaudière in the Côteaux du Layon. Pierre-Antoine Giovannoni (whose father is Corsican) is the beau-fils of the Gelineau family who have been here for four centuries. The estate produces over a dozen different wines: red, white, sparkling and sweet. Work in the vineyard and in the winery conform to the guidelines of Terra Vitis – a national federation set up ten years ago which aims to promote Eco-friendly winemaking. The family has annexed a part of the main house for use as a gîte that can accommodate large groups. It’s an ideal for two families to get together for a week’s holiday – and there’s no danger of running out of wine! Try not to get hooked on the fizzy Crémant de Loire with its warm brioche and citrus fruit aromas or, like Winston Churchill, you’ll be drinking it with all meals and in the intervals between them… 
Domaine de la Viaudière, Champ sur Layon

Sancerre at the Ancient Priory

May 10, 2008
Reigny is one of those sleepy little villages folded into the manicured French countryside that you see in adverts for fizzy lager or Claude Berri films. Thanks in part to the healthy business of producing top-notch Sancerre wines, Reigny is thriving and luckily the film companies haven’t discovered it yet. Spread about the village are the ancient buildings of the Domaine des Caves du Prieuré, home to three generations of the Guillerault family. Pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela once stopped here – a fitting place therefore for a modern-day chambre d’hôte. The family home is a hundred metres or so from the cellars, which are also disconnected from the old Priory buildings that give the domaine its name. For those staying at the Priory this means walking to breakfast along the winding village lanes – what better way to begin a day? In the main house Geneviève has converted two more bedrooms above the dining room where breakfast and dinner are served. Here you eat with your hosts beneath a huge arched window – did I detect the typical aroma of agrumes on the nose of the Sancerre blanc or was it the scent of lemons growing in the little courtyard outside? For a more studious tasting, Geneviève shows her guests to the cellars and tasting room where she serves a taste the green-gold wines at a wide zinc-topped bar. A large scallop shell adorns the wine label – not a handy hint for matching these wines to suitable seafood dishes but a reference to the property’s links to the old pilgrims’ way. The whites, however, do go very well with seafood: the citrusy Sancerre ‘classique’ with fruits de mer or oysters, the complex Chassenoys with cooked white fish is a fine sauce, the oak aged Facétie with lobster… The Guilleraults also produce a very pretty red Sancerre which Madame suggests drinking with the local Crottin de Chavignol goat’s cheese or the classic Burgundy poached egg dish oeufs en meurette. “That’s what the posh Burgundian’s call it”, she tells me. “We just call it couilles d’âne!” Well, I’m afraid to say that I knew already that this translates as ‘donkey’s balls’.
Moulin de Reigny, Domaine des Caves du Prieuré, Reigny, Crézancy-en-Sancerre




The Moon is Full

May 8, 2008


Bourges is a great little city and Xavier (ex-comedian/entertainer) has just opened this new bistrot/bar-a-vins on rue Porte Jaune.  Two women are in the kitchen working like galley-slaves; Le Patron when he’s not out front kissing the clientele is slicing charcuterie and serving the best regional wines. It’s great to see everyone with a glass of real wine in his or her hand. These young, attractive Bourgeois certainly know their Quincy from their Menetou-Salon – it’s inspiring. There are pickles in jars on the tables, piles of different cheeses on the zinc counter and saucissons secs dangling from doorframes. One chap, leaning against a huge saucisson, turned around to reveal a floury imprint right across the back of his suede coat. No one seemed to mind, least of all him. The food?  Charcuterie, home-made rillettes, terrines, salads – great bistro food – and wonderful home-made desserts.  Everyone kisses each other and they’re all so happy; it’s like some kind of 1960s love-in. I speak French but I don’t really understand these people – what makes them so joyful? The 35-hour week perhaps. Love the laid-back, friendly atmosphere – you keep hearing ‘yes’ and ‘cool’ and always the ‘tu’. I was on first-name tutoyant terms with half a dozen people by the time I left. This is the sort of place where the patron says, “you site THERE!” and “you eat THAT!” and nobody finds it rude. Getting out of the door wasn’t easy as by 10.30 the place was packed. Getting out of Bourges through it’s labyrinth of Kafkaesque cobbled streets was no easier. Still, as the Terminator always says, “I’ll be back.”

Bistrot La Pleine Lune, 12 Rue Porte Jaune 18000 Bourges

Wonderland in the Touraine

May 7, 2008


At the end of a long, leafy avenue of plane trees you arrive at the little Château de Pintray and immediately you’re drawn to the charming peculiarities of the place. There’s a skeletal sail-less windmill in the courtyard, a chapel and its twin lodge on the lawn, and an ancient rustic cottage tacked onto the formal blue-shuttered façade of the château. Inside the house and it’s all very Lewis Carroll. You’ll find antique nursery pieces (a hobbyhorse tricycle here, a Guignol puppet theatre there) juxtaposed with the items from the adult world like the billiards table in the dining room. Curiouser and curiouser! It’s hugely gratifying to arrive at a place that so immediately shows its personality. However, this is no museum-piece château: Maryvonne Rault runs a very busy chambres d’hôtes business in the main house and her husband Marius has transformed the vineyards which now produce some of the region’s best dry and sweet white wines. I was here at the end of April and the place was full. At busy times like these Madame is constant motion: one moment she’s serving a splendid breakfast to over a dozen people around the huge dining table, the next she’s dashing hither and yon with a phone in one hand, and a wad of wine receipts in the other. She speaks good English; did I imagine it or did she mutter “Oh, my ears and whiskers!” as she rushed off to take another phone call? The rooms here are stuffed full of character too: big comfy beds, real family portraits, antique wallpaper, huge roll-top baths. The accommodation is real and sometimes quirky; what’s that bright light shining through the cracks in the wardrobe door? There’s a window in the wardrobe of course! What better way to choose the colour of you shirt in the morning?
Crossing the walled courtyard you enter Monsieur’s domain: the winery and cave. He’ll give you a tour of the vines, show you the production process and talk at length about wine and cuisine – two things that are inseparable according to Marius. The château’s Montlouis wines are superb. Bone dry, medium sweet and syrupy sweet dessert wines which all have one thing common – a delicious acidity that makes them lip-smackingly good accompaniments to a wide range of classic European and Far-Eastern dishes. I particularly enjoy the Cuvée des Armoires 2002 with its aromas of litchi, mango and pineapple that would be great with porc laqué. Another that to me says, “drink me!” on the label, is the 2006 demi-sec with its smooth palate of apricots and exotic fruit. You should try this with honey-glazed chicken Tajine with figs and apricots – yum, yum. Before leaving I take a quick stroll in the gardens and ponder the Alice theme further: if it weren’t for the fountains in the middle of the lawn this would be the perfect place for a game of croquet!
Château de Pintray, Lussault-sur-Loire 02 47 23 22 84

Cave du Côteau de Sonnay

May 6, 2008
The villages and vineyards by the banks of the river Vienne near Chinon have been home to generations of the Baudry family – a parchment attests that Domaine de la Perrière was entrusted to one of the Baudry ancestors in 1398. Latest of his line, Christophe Baudry is continuing the wine-family tradition in partnership with Jean-Martin Dutour who together own over 80 hectares of Chinon vines. Christophe’s time is divided between his commercial activities and his mayoral obligations since he was voted in as mayor of Cravant-les-Côteaux in the recent elections. Not surprisingly it’s the previous generation who manage the visitor side of the business; Jean and Marie-Claire give tours and tastings, sell the property’s excellent Chinon wines to eager buyers and run a couple of charming gîtes in the property at Sonnay. Like many wineries in the central Loire valley, the property at Sonnay is built from, and into, the limestone rock known as tuffeau. I often wonder if J.R.R. Tolkien ever travelled in these parts – it might explain where the inspiration for his hobbit-hole ridden Shire came from; beneath the house there is an original Troglodyte cave where tastings are given in the warmer months (the cave dwellers having long since departed). The cellars too are cut deep into the stone hillside and house many thousands of bottles. One aisle was cut relatively recently for stone to build a new house – in fact most of these underground caves were originally quarries. Also made from the same soft, pale stone are the Baudry’s two gîtes. The smaller of the two is a diminutive house perched on top of the côteau looking down across Jean’s potager and the vineyards below it. The larger gîte is an impressive building with an immense airily light dining room that can seat 30 for dinner. Most guests take the opportunity to taste the domaine’s wine. Marie-Claire began our tasting with a rare Chinon blanc that produces a floral bouquet reminiscent of elderflowers. Next, and also little known, a Chinon rosé which is produced par saignée – by ‘bleeding’ the whole red grapes of their first juice which has only the palest hint of pink from the grape skins. The famous red wines of the property followed including the Côteau des Chenanceaux 2005 which is concentrated and dark with aromas of black fruit, tobacco and a hint of liquorice. From here you can go chateau hopping along the Loire valley, follow the wine route for hours (with a nominated driver, of course) or spend time shopping in Chinon or fishing the local rivers and lakes according to your bent.

Cave du Côteau de Sonnay, Cravant-les-Côteaux