Upper Loire Visit - Easter 2003

It has become a habit for the Dulwich Wine Society to have an April excursion to the vineyards of France, but who knows for how much longer. The same team has now organised five such visits, and is running out of areas within an easy drive of the Channel Ports. The custom has been for members to drive to a base hotel and then to use a locally hired coach for three days of visits. This year our destination was the Upper Loire – or as some would have it – Loire Centre. Twenty-seven members and partners headed for Sancerre and the Hotel Panoramic, a fairly large, modern hotel which makes up for any lack of character by having breathtaking views and efficient, comfortable rooms.
This year was a change insofar as the visit was from Saturday to Wednesday rather than the customary Wednesday to Saturday; a change brought about by a late Easter. Early on the Saturday evening there was an introductory reception, with an unusual méthode traditionelle Pouilly sur Loire. This was followed by a six course regional dinner, prepared by the chef-proprietor Monsieur Sivet. (All accompanied, of course by the wines of Sancerre.)

Sunday dawned bright and sunny and the first visit was just down the hill to St. Satur and the Domaine Mollet- Maudry. This estate has been revolutionised by an exceptional young winemaker, Florian Mollet. Unfortunately he was at an important wine fair near Paris, selling his wares, but we were given fine tank tasting and exposition of the differences between their wines from Sancerre vineyards and those from across the river in the Pouilly Fumé appellation, by Monsieur Mollet pére. 

After this it was up the hill to Chavignol . The destination was the renowned Domaine Henri Bourgeois. We were greeted by Arnaud Bourgeois and his South African wife, and the company’s Sommelier Christian, for a tasting of current and older wines in a very old cellar. This was probably the most impressive tasting of the tour.

Usually on these trips people are left to their own devices to find lunch, often a snack, but, because it was Sunday, it had been decided to have an organised lunch, and this was a memorable buffet at the top of the extremely modern Bourgeois winery. After this we were given a tour. The family have dug into the hillside to construct an enormous state of the art winery, with gravity and computers combining to do the hard work which complements the winemaker’s (and winegrower’s) skill.

The Monday was cloudy but warm, and the coach journey was long. The morning visit was to Domaine Claude Lafond at Reuilly. Monsieur Lafond is the president of the local winegrowers and has created an unusual co-operative on his land. A group of growers share the premises and the services of an oenologist but their wine is made, stored, bottled labelled and marketed individually. The visit and tasting were conducted by Monsieur Lafond’s assistant, Corinne – who speaks English with a Lancashire accent and a salty vocabulary. The white and red Reuillys were well made but the unusual wine here was the “vin gris” a pale pink made from the Pinot Gris grape. A feature of the visit was the local “galettes de pomme de terre” which accompanied the tasting, leaving, for some, little room for lunch in Bourges.

The afternoon saw the party in Menetou Salon at the Domaine de Châtenoy where there was a very good tasting of Isabelle and Pierre Clément’s wines. The family have been making wine in Menetou Salon for more than 400 years. In he nineteenth century Pierre Clément was one of the first people to treat vines against mildew and helped found the local winegrower’s association. The present generation continues the tradition of innovation.

For the third day we had hot sunny weather, more appropriate for July. After breakfast it was across the river to Pouilly and the winery “Guy Saget”. This is an old family business, but now with wineries and holdings in most parts of the Loire Valley. It is an enormous operation with millions of bottles in store The company is presided over by Jean-Louis Saget, a very astute businessman without losing his passion for his wines.The tasting was basically a tank tasting, illustrating the differing terroirs of the Pouilly Fumé appellation (and also the way that the chasselas grape can produce very good “Pouilly sur Loire” in the right hands.)
Last year in Alsace the society visited a very small family firm followed by a gigantic cooperative : this year he reverse happened. After Guy Saget’s huge winery – and lunch and sightseeing in La Charité sur Loire – the next stop was at “Les Caves des Hauts de Seyr” a tiny co-operative making Le Montaillant, vins de pays des Coteaux Charitois. A handful of growers got together and built a tiny winery at Chassnay which is run by a winemaker and an assistant. The Chardonnays produced there have won gold medals in the Chardonnay Mondial for several years, and other awards both locally and in Paris. Alas the winemaker had been called away to the vineyards, but his young lady assistant made everyone welcome. After a brief visit and some photographs the coach left for the village of Les Loges. 
Unfortunately the driver headed for one some ten miles away from our real destination, the home of Pierre Marchand. The small detour made little difference and the group only arrived in this ancient wine village only about fifteen minutes late to be greeted by the engaging Pierre Marchand and his brother, who make extremely good Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-sur-Loire in their small premises – with not a stainless steel tank in sight. Monsieur Marchand gave his explanation and conducted the tasting in French so clear that translation was scarcely necessary.

And so to the final dinner at the excellent Restaurant “La Tour” in Sancerre. An imaginative, elegant and superbly cooked menu complemented by wines from Henri Bourgeois made a memorable end to the tour.

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