Le Tasting Room

Yesterday, I went on an adventure. I was up early and back home late. It was a wine tasting / exploring adventure in the Loire valley.

I set my alarm go be able to get to Gare Montparnasse in time for a 7h49 departure. The most direct route would have been the Metro 4, but the Montparnasse station on 4 is closed until the end of May. So, it was Metro 7 to Palais Royal, thence Metro 1 to Champs-Élysées, and finally Metro 13 to Montparnasse. I took the TGV to Angers, which is in the heart of the Loire valley wine country. The TGV did not appear to be going super fast, but the trip only took one hour and thirty-five minutes. There were no intermediate stops.

I was met at the Angers station by Cathy and Nigel Henton, who own and operate Le Tasting Room. They are Brits who were involved in the wine business in England, but decided to move to France to do a wine-oriented business there. They found a country house and have worked to “spruce it up”, also adding special space for the groups they host.

The opening picture and the below are from their courtyard. The house is the typical limestone construction of the area.

The group was a group of four. There was a couple vacationing in Paris who came down on the same train I used (although we were in different carriages in both directions). Both were doctors – one an OB/GYN and the other a general surgeon. They will be living in Providence, RI. The other was a lawyer from Salt Lake City, UT. He was in France to sign the contract for and oversee the construction launch of a 47′ catamaran. His plan is to get it to Martinique and use it for charter there when he himself is not using it. Sounds similar to the story of the Ailuk.

Through the glass door is an anteroom and a tasting room. We started with a hot beverage (it was a chilly day). I had tea, others had coffee. Cathy then commenced her lecturing about the Loire valley. The learned about the three official categorizations of French wine: Vin de France (French wine), Vin de Pays (Country wine), and Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC, carefully controlled small region). The rules for AOC is very complicated. Not only the kind of grape allowed, but how you prune your vines and how many buds are allowed on a vine shoot. And how close together the vines are. And that you cannot have over a certain percentage missing. And many more things.

Those complex and controlling AOC rules mean there is a lot of Vin de France or Vin de Pays that is every bit as good as AOC, but did not meet some criteria. Of course, most of it stays local, at least to France if not to the region. And, of course, you have to know what is what to find the really good ones.

The Loire has four general areas. I’m not going to remember all of the information. It was quite an overload.

What I do remember is that Cathy considers €10 or so what will buy a bottle of really quality wine. That’s about $11. I would not consider most $11 bottles of wine as really good quality – drinkable, but… She is quite fond of the Loire wines (no surprise) and says that other regions, notably Bordeaux, have great wines, but only at great prices. The Bordeaux specifically has caught the tourist trade and can charge whatever they want to the bus loads that arrive.

We tasted three white wines and the three red wines. I had to be sure I was only tasting and not drinking as six glasses of wine in the morning would be a bit much. Then we had a sparkling wine. Their sparkling wines are done in the traditional method, but cannot be called champagne – only the Champagne region gets to do that. The general name outside of Champagne is Crémant.

With our heads fully loaded with information, next was lunch. It was in a cave under their house.

They lit the cave mostly with candles and they had some space heaters to try to take the chill off things. In the picture you can see my tasting companions.

During most of the morning, Cathy was talking and Nigel came in from time to time with the next bottle already open and ready to pour. One of the reds they had opened the previous day. It was Nigel in the kitchen preparing lunch behind the scenes. Very nice roasted pork, lightly sauced, with some potatoes and green beans. All of the remains of all of the bottles we had tasted were on the table for general consumption at lunch. Nigel said he loved to cook, but did not do desserts – the dessert was made by Cathy. It was a very dark chocolate creme. It was certainly not too sweet.

Note: During the morning we talked about tasting sweetness as well as other things. Cathy said part of more formal training is to taste pure water with increasing amounts of sugar in it until you can actually taste something. That is, finding your threshold for recognition. Anything below ten grams per liter is “dry”, although very dry gets to one or two grams. Sweet is at about 100 grams and up to 200 or 300 grams per liter. While trying to be nice, she did say most Americans had a sugar recognition level that was quite high. I certainly will not disagree.

After lunch we went to visit a local winery. For each of the wines we tasted, Cathy told us about the winemaker, their focus, their philosophies, their processes, etc. And she had a picture of each of those winemakers. They seemed to know lots of the locals. We went to Chateau du Breuil.

First was to inspect the close by vines. One of the key things was frost damage and/or potential damage. The weather forecast was for a low of -2C (28F) which certainly could cause a lot of frost damage. Last year in a big frost in late April, one winemaker they knew lost 90% of his crop. They fear that if he loses any substantial part of the crop this year, he might not survive.

The vines below are quite young. This vineyard is farmed organically (“bio”). So you see grass and pulled, now dead, grass between and in the rows. Also, not easy to see, are little packages that release pheromones that “sexually confuse” one of the pests.

You can see the land drop off down into the valley of a tributary to the Loire.

Across the road is the winery itself.

Actually, the chateau building itself is neither the tasting area of the winery. I do not know if someone is living there. It is certainly a nice chateau with a very nice view, as you have seen, over the valley.

We met the assistant winemaker. The principle was off in southern France tasting wines. He only spoke French. I tried to understand, but was only getting 30% or so. I was later told that he speaks French very fast even for the French.

He took us over to the winery and we saw a large machine designed to de-stem and de-leaf the picked grape bunches. Then there was a large hydraulic press for extracting the juice. He carefully explained the multiple drains to get the juice out as quickly as possible. He said they worked very hard to minimize any time during the process that might cause oxidation.

Then inside were massive fermentation tanks of stainless steel. I’m talking 8 meters tall. It was a room of about 20 of these tanks. That is a lot of fermenting wine.

Another room has full of barrels used for fermentation. Each barrel could be about 300 bottles. They were loosely bunged so gases could escape during fermentation. He said each barrel was checked each day. Some were stirred every so often to increase the skin/yeast contact with the juice. Some were never stirred because they were after a very delicate wine in those.

In a different building, we tasted three of his wines – one white and two reds. Then what he is really famous for – a dessert wine. The dessert wines are only made when there are enough of the right ripeness of grape at harvest. All was very good.

I did not buy any wine as I did not want to travel with it from Angers back to Paris. It would not have been that hard; I guess I am just lazy.

Back to the Angers TGV station at about 17h30 and then back to Paris. A long day (for me!), but extremely pleasant.

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