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Harvest Time in the Garden of France

Campaign manager Nicki Smith visits the Loire with buyer Joanna Locke MW to get an early taste of the 2009 vintage

The Wine Society does all it can to encourage members of staff to learn more about the wine world. I have been part of The Society's marketing team for two years and over that time I have taken various wine courses and had my interest well and truly sparked. So I was delighted when Society buyer Joanna Locke MW invited me to join her on a buying trip to the Loire Valley during the 2009 harvest.

Our chaperone for our whirlwind three-day visit was Charles Sydney, Courtier en Vins de Loire. Charles and his wife, Philippa, moved to the Loire valley more than 20 years ago and what they do not know about Loire and its many vineyards is not worth knowing.

Our first stop is Frédéric Brochet's vineyard not far from Poitiers. Ampelidae (the Greek for 'wine') was set up by Frédéric in 1995 and is now the largest producer of organic sauvignon blanc in the Loire. The winery is not only extremely grand but is also an impressive mixture of the old and the new as stainless steel mixes with oak barrels and limestone. Whilst tasting our way through his delicious range of wines, all labelled with the image of a pike (the English translation for 'Brochet'), a tractor full of freshly picked pinot noir arrives and Frédéric excuses himself to lend a hand. When he returns he explains how he loves to be hands on at all times and his passion for wine is obvious. Frédéric tells us that the harvest so far is excellent. Despite cool and misty mornings, day time temperatures are still approximately 25°C with beautiful sunshine, following a day or two of welcome rain at the start of September.

Society Buyer Joanna Locke MW and negociant Charles Sydney discuss the success of the 2009 harvest with Frédéric Brochet

Society Buyer Joanna Locke MW and negociant Charles Sydney discuss the
success of the 2009 harvest with Frédéric Brochet

On the way back to our base in Chinon we pass through Richelieu, home of Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII's chief minister and the antagonist in Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers. Charles is a wealth of knowledge and he regales us with stories of the region as we drive from vineyard to vineyard.

Early start and busy day

Close to the Vienne river in Chinon, we stay in a charming little hotel called Hôtel Diderot (www.hoteldiderot.com), run by a family of brothers and sisters. Their speciality is the hundreds of different jams they make from local produce which you can sample at breakfast.

So with a full stomach, we head off in the morning mist to our first stop of the day, Domaine de Rochelles in Anjou run by Jean-Yves Lebreton and his son Jean-Hubert. By the time we arrive the mist has cleared and the sun is shining. We are met by Jean-Yves who looks pleased with the latest batch of chenin blanc being added to the press, which will eventually produce their sparkling wine. Jean-Hubert then takes us to the tasting room and explains the success of the harvest so far. Vin de Pays wines are already finished and they will hold out another week or so before they start picking for their premium grapes. Lebreton work very hard on their red wines and like to leave the grapes hanging for as long as possible. Their test for when cabernet sauvignon is ready? Kick the vine and if the bunches fall it's time to pick! In their white wines they don't search for oak flavour but more for roundness and balance and therefore believe in barrel fermentation rather than just barrel ageing.

Jean-Yves Lebreton proudly shows the latest harvest of chenin blanc

Jean-Yves Lebreton proudly shows the latest harvest of chenin blanc

With each wine Jean-Hubert shows us samples of the sand, slate and schist soils where the grapes were grown to highlight the difference the soil makes on the final taste of the wine in the glass. It was a fascinating lesson.

Vines at Domaine de Rochelles grow on a variety of soils as Jean-Hubert Lebreton demonstrates in the tasting room

Vines at Domaine de Rochelles grow on a variety of soils as
Jean-Hubert Lebreton demonstrates in the tasting room

Having started bottling the 2008 harvest that week, Jean-Hubert was keen to show us round the cellars and let us try the wines still in barrel. He is particularly excited about the new concrete, egg-shaped fermentation tank they are experimenting with. Often favoured by young winemakers, clay or concrete tanks allow very gentle oxidation without any impact on flavour, therefore maintaining the natural flavour of the fruit, unlike barrels which add a wood or oak flavour to wines. They also keep the lees in suspension due to the constant natural movement of the must.

The chance to taste from Jean-Hubert Lebreton's unusual 'egg tank'

The chance to taste from Jean-Hubert Lebreton's unusual 'egg tank'

We finish with the sweet and luscious Coteaux de L'Aubance, Ambre, 2007. The grapes for this wine are so carefully selected that only Jean-Yves, Jean-Hubert and their wives pick the dried chenin blanc grapes, going through the vineyard seven times. It was a thoroughly enjoyable and educational tasting.

Carefully selected, botrytised grapes make up the delicious, pineapple-tasting Coteaux de L'Aubance

Carefully selected, botrytised grapes make up the delicious, pineapple-tasting Coteaux de L'Aubance

From there we head over the river Layon, from red schist to blue schist soils, to Pithon-Paillé run by Jo Pithon. Previously of Domaine Jo Pithon, Jo has now joined forces with Isabelle his wife, her son Joseph and Joseph's South African wife. The new domaine name, that is proudly stamped across all the new labels, was created by a friend, a stained-glass window designer, and is a combination of Jo and Isabelle's surnames. Jo runs the vineyards using organic methods and buys in a small amount of grapes from other organic vineyards. The whites have good acidity and minerality, typical of the 2008 vintage and the region, and the reds, which would be excellent with food, have good tannins from the ripeness of the grapes and the excellent way they were handled in the cellars.

Jo Pithon explains how organic methods achieve the best results for his crop of grapes

Jo Pithon explains how organic methods achieve the best results for his crop of grapes

As we finish tasting, the harvesters, including Isabelle and Joseph, return from the vineyards and invite us to lunch. As we sit under a chestnut tree with the sun shimmering through the leaves, tucking into a selection of hams, cheese, salad and bread, Jo tells us how some areas of the vineyards are so steep that to pick you have to go on all fours!

Not all hard work: lunch with Jo Pithon and the Pithon-Paillé harvesters

Not all hard work: lunch with Jo Pithon and the Pithon-Paillé harvesters

Our next port of call is Muscadet. Pierre Lieubeau of Domaine de la Fruitière takes us for a quick trip around the vineyards where the grapes look healthy and he too is excited about the vintage. As we return to the tasting room he explains that they have nearly finished picking and because the grapes are so healthy they can afford to leave the skins in the press for two-three hours. Again the wines have great acidity and minerality but this time there is a lovely spritz to them with citrus and tropical notes on the palate.

Pierre Lieubeau and Jo Locke admire the quality of the grapes at Domaine de la Fruitière

Pierre Lieubeau and Jo Locke admire the quality of the grapes at Domaine de la Fruitière

Before leaving we head back to the winery to try the fermenting must from the recently picked grapes. In Muscadet most of the vats are built underground where the cool temperature means the must can be left on its lees for some time giving the wines extra depth and complexity. Pierre tells us that these underground vats, which can hold up to 1,000 hectolitres, need to be treated with care as when they are emptied there is no oxygen in the tanks, and many winemakers have succumbed to fatal carbon dioxide poisoning when cleaning them out!

Fresh from the tank: Jo Locke tastes the grape must from the 2009 vintage

Fresh from the tank: Jo Locke tastes the grape must from the 2009 vintage

Our last visit of the day is to Bernard Chéreau of Chéreau-Carré, producer of The Society's Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie, on the bank of the river Maine. The château was built before the French Revolution from Saumur stone and is truly breathtaking. Bernard is a charming man and shows us round the vineyard by the entrance, where harvesters are hard at work bringing in the last of the grapes, before taking us on a tour around the winery. We watch as the freshly squeezed juice (maybe for the next batch of Society's wine), goes from press to tank and try a sample of the clean but cloudy juice - you can really taste the grapes with a hint of apple.

Bernard Chéreau of Chéreau-Carré takes us to the vineyard responsible for The Society's Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie

Bernard Chéreau of Chéreau-Carré takes us to the vineyard responsible for The Society's Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie

In the tasting room we try the first batch of the Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie, Château L'Oiselinière de a Ramée, 2007 and the Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie, Comte Leloup du Château de Chasseloir, Cuvée ces Ceps Centenaires, 2005. Both were given long ageing on their lees before bottling but remain fresh with good minerality.

The cellars at Chéreau-Carré are full of delicious treasures

The cellars at Chéreau-Carré are full of delicious treasures

But just when you think it's time to relax you realise the work of a wine buyer is never over. Before even thinking about dinner Jo and I head to Charles's beautiful house, cut away in the limestone hills of Chinon, to taste another 30 or so wines from other sub regions of the Loire valley. The variety of tastes and aromas are incredible, with the whites encompassing vegetal, citrus and tropical fruit flavours and the reds, which have been the nicest surprise for me on this trip, full of strawberries, blackcurrant and raspberry aromas.

We finish the day at a beautiful restaurant called L'Oceanic, but I am truly shattered. Any illusions that the life of a buyer on the road was glamorous have been well and truly shattered. True, they get to try some amazing wines, visit some amazing countries, regions and vineyards and meet some amazing people, but to find the perfect wine requires long days, stamina and, most of all, an excellent palate.

The Final Day

Before heading back to the airport, there is time for another couple of visits in the region of Touraine.

Paul Buisse, a local negociant, specialises in sauvignon blanc which makes up 40% of the 1 million bottles produced here every year, representing 17 appellations. The firm was established by his great, great grandfather in 1905 and their top priority is still quality, value and character. Tourists can visit at anytime and try the wines they have on offer, and have lunch in the 17th-century troglodyte tasting room.

The troglodyte tasting room is a popular lunch venue for tourists

The troglodyte tasting room is a popular lunch venue for tourists

Paul, like Jean-Yves Lebreton, is an avid red wine producer and along with his new owner Louis Chainier, they have been experimenting with growing malbec. Although it is not often grown in the Loire it surprised me to discover that the Loire is actually the birth place of the grape. They show us three examples, one with half-barrel, half-chip ageing, one from a vineyard on the south bank of the Loire (Château de la Roche) and one from the north bank (Château de Pocé). All three are delicious. They are keen to raise the awareness of Loire reds, and wines such as these can only help. Once again we hear that the 2009 vintage has great potential; Paul even compared it to 1989, an extremely successful vintage for the Loire valley.

Paul Buisse prepares us for an extensive tasting!

Paul Buisse prepares us for an extensive tasting!

Our final stop is Domaine de la Charmoise in Touraine, run by Henry Marionnet and son Jean-Sebastien. As you enter the vineyard, the most notable point of difference is the planting of the vines. 60 hectares of vines are planted 2 metres apart and 2 metres high. This spreads the vines out to attract the greatest amount of sunshine and brings the greatest ripeness. They also still have 6 hectares of ungrafted vines that have not been attacked by phylloxera, a rare occurrence in France. Jean-Sebastien informs us that they have finished picking the sauvignon blanc, and the gamay and malbec are still being picked. Although Domaine de la Charmoise is not certified organic, the Marionnets only intervene when they deem it truly necessary.

The vines at Domaine de la Charmoise stand 2 metres tall

The vines at Domaine de la Charmoise stand 2 metres tall

Even here we hear praise for the vintage. Carbonic maceration (a method in which whole bunches are fermented while the grapes are still intact, leading to fruity wines with low tannins) is often used by the Marionnets but this is expected to be to a lesser extent in 2009 as the grapes have a healthy balance of fruit and acidity. The sauvignons here have a more stoney and tropical aroma while the gamay has hints of raspberry, blackcurrant and smokiness. Their Special Cuvée, Premiére Vendange Gamay is indeed special: no sulphur is added and the wine is vinified completely naturally, as wines used to be made, hence the name - First Harvest. This requires careful monitoring, without which a vat of vinegar is all that would remain.

Jean-Sebastien unloads a pallet of gamay fresh from the vineyard

Jean-Sebastien unloads a pallet of gamay fresh from the vineyard

Before we leave I notice, in a field of harvested vines, one row which has been completely untouched and still has big healthy looking bunches hanging from the vines Why I ask? Because Henry's wife and Jean Sebastien's mother likes to see them still hanging and see what happens to them. The quirks of the wine trade!

Back to reality

So we leave Loire with great hopes that the next few weeks will remain dry and sunny for the growers and that vines will stay healthy. All are keeping their fingers crossed for what they are hoping will be one of the best vintages for many years, and I am looking forward to a well-earned rest!


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