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Crémant, Vouvray and Vino Vision

Jo Locke MW blends the next vintage of our Celebration Crémant, we have a tour of Vouvray star, Domaine Huet then finish this tour as it started, at another trade fair.

Keeping up with the buyer!

Following road closures and extended tasting and lunch we were pushed for time. A brisk walk from the hotel in Saumur to the Gratien and Meyer cellars ensued (Jo is a keen walker and it was a struggle to keep up whilst pretending not to be embarrassingly out of breath!) Not only that, but these are one of the few cellars in the wine world where you have to go up to get in.

General manager Olivier Dupré first took me on a tour of the rather grand cellars including the impressive bottling line and tasting room. It was lovely to see the rapport that Olivier had with the cellar workers with all the cellar hands stopping and saying hello, out of what seemed genuine affection. It was either that or they made a very good show of hiding their fear!

From the size and grandeur of the imposing site overlooking the Loire it is clear that the cellars are a major tourist attraction with visitors from around the world flocking to the tasting room as they tour the region. But despite the potential for crowds, Society members are very welcome, 'particularly those with large car boots'.

Celebration blending_A little bit of this, a little bit of that... Florence trialling blends for the next edition of the Celebration Crémant Celebration blending_A little bit of this, a little bit of that... Florence trialling blends for the next edition of the Celebration Crémant

Putting our blend of Crémant together

Back up in the offices oenologue Florence Haynes was preparing various tank samples of the varieties (chardonnay, pinot noir, chenin blanc and cabernet franc) that might be used in the final wine. These were all tasted and analysed with minor variations between the different tanks noted.

Florence then proceeded to prepare various blends from those samples which were again tasted and discussed. For example, did Jo prefer the freshness of 'A' or the roundness of C? Further variations were trialled, some quite radically different in composition from previous editions, until finally all were in agreement. As luck would have it, the final makeup was almost identical to the very first blend that we tried, but the 20+ variations that were subsequently tasted only reinforced what was clear, that the quality and appeal would be present yet again in this wine that is a members' favourite every year.

A new place to dine chez Gratien & Meyer

The old office block is now open for fine dining at Gratien & Meyer The old office block is now open for fine dining at Gratien & Meyer

That however was not the end of our time at Gratien and Meyer. The old stately home that had previously acted as the office building at the bottom of the block has recently been transformed into an upmarket restaurant with grand Michelin-star ambitions.

So with the hard work done it was time to relax and enjoy a meal with Jo, Olivier and Florence where we discussed Florence's history in winemaking, the history of the relationship between The Wine Society and Gratien and Meyer (which dates back to 1906 – they are our oldest suppliers) and the future direction of sparkling wines coming from the Loire. We talked about how they stay relevant against the continued growth of Prosecco and the re-emergence of Cava as a viable competitor.

This was our 2nd night staying in Saumur, and having enjoyed a delicious meal at Le Pot de Lapin, a lovely bistro in town the night before, I wholeheartedly recommend using Saumur as a base if you are travelling through this part of the world.

Classic and delicious French brasserie fare at Le Pot de Lapin in Saumur Classic and delicious French brasserie fare at Le Pot de Lapin in Saumur

Heading east and another of my bêtes noires to overcome – sauvignon blanc!

As we continued to head east along the Loire we went from one grape variety I had previously disliked but grown to enjoy (cabernet franc) to another grape variety I was less than keen on, the dreaded sauvignon blanc. I know, this is akin to swearing in the Loire!

Much of the popularity of sav blanc, in my opinion, is based on its capability to produce aromatic, fruity but fresh wines. New Zealand, and the Marlborough region in particular, have lead the charge in making this grape and style of wine popular.

To me though, its biggest attraction is also its biggest drawback, with most sauvignon blancs displaying the same characteristics and there being little to distinguish between examples. Whilst this is great for the consumer who wants a consistent flavour when they are having a large glass at the pub on a Friday night, it is the opposite of what keen wine drinkers are seeking, that being detail, complexity and finesse.

Over the next few days, both in the Loire itself and in Paris at the Vino Vision trade show where Jo continued her gruelling buying trip, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself having to question all I thought I knew about sauvignon blanc.

A couple of months ago I was in hospital having a Quincy removed from my throat, now I was putting a different form of Quincy back in there. I know which I would rather next time. A couple of months ago I was in hospital having a Quincy removed from my throat, now I was putting a different form of Quincy back in there. I know which I would rather next time.

Having previously subscribed to the Len Evans view of 'sauvignon blanc, green one year, underripe the next and unpleasant most of the time' I found that as I tasted wines from Chenonceaux, Touraine and Cheverny, I realised that Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé were not the only exceptions and that enjoyable wine with genuine quality could in fact be made from the sauvignon blanc grape.

From this revelation I hope to put together a masterclass for our Loire Growers tasting in July that will highlight the regional specialities of a variety that is at risk of becoming a victim of its own success.

Despite some tough recent times, Patricia and Bruno Denis continue to smile Despite some tough recent times, Patricia and Bruno Denis continue to smile

Once again I would like to thank the growers for their hospitality and this enlightenment with Philippe and Fabienne at Alpha Loire, Patricia and Bruno Denis at Domaine de la Renaudie and Emmanuel Delaille from Domaine du Salvard, all extremely generous in taking time to answer my questions and opening up various bottles for me to taste. Each of these producers had suffered significant loss to frost in 2017 but the fruit that did remain has produced wines of extremely high quality and once again these wines should be a welcome addition to any summer time gathering.

A leaf day at Domaine Huet – an auspicious start? A couple of months ago I was in hospital having a Quincy removed from my throat, now I was putting a different form of Quincy back in there. I know which I would rather next time.

A final visit to Domaine Huet – star of Vouvray

The final producer on our list of visits was one of the most recognised wineries in all of the Loire, Domaine Huet in Vouvray. With 12 wineries and over 250 wines already tasted, I was getting used to being pleasantly surprised by the quality of wines on display. With Domaine Huet though, there was a much higher level of expectation as I knew the wines already and considered some of them to be amongst the finest white wines I've tasted.

Stunning view from Huet vineyards in Vouvray Stunning view from Huet vineyards in Vouvray
Jo and Johan of Domaine Huet who proved to be the perfect tour guide – 'where have you been hiding him?' Jo later asked of Sarah Hwang Jo and Johan of Domaine Huet who proved to be the perfect tour guide – 'where have you been hiding him?' Jo later asked of Sarah Hwang>

I was initially a little disappointed not to be meeting Sarah Hwang, the daughter of Anthony Hwang owner of Huet since 2003. Sarah moved to Vouvray from New York in 2012 to act as President, but her absence was more than compensated by private clients' manager Johan who delivered a genuine, informative and friendly presentation and tour.

However, as you would expect the stars of the show were the wines themselves and being able to taste the Haut Lieu, Clos du Bourg and Le Mont wines going back several decades was a treat and only reinforced the ability of these wines to age into something truly special. The next time these are offered for sale I will certainly be purchasing some of the wines and will be putting them into Members' Reserves to allow them to mature gracefully.

Stunning view from Huet vineyards in Vouvray Stunning view from Huet vineyards in Vouvray
98, 93 and 90 Domaine Huet. The couple who happened to call in at the same time as us couldn't believe their luck when they also got to taste these very special wines 98, 93 and 90 Domaine Huet. The couple who happened to call in at the same time as us couldn't believe their luck when they also got to taste these very special wines
Missed out on my birth year but I'm not complaining! Missed out on my birth year but I'm not complaining!

Paris and the Vino Vision wine fair

Marc Thibault opening a Society favourite at Vinovision in Paris and celebrating 20th anniversary of the Coteaux Giennois appellation Marc Thibault opening a Society favourite at Vinovision in Paris and celebrating 20th anniversary of the Coteaux Giennois appellation

With our time in the Loire over, it was time to head to Paris and prepare for Vino Vision, a large wine trade show focusing on cool climate regions. These types of wine shows can be draining affairs and it helps to have a plan and some pre-determined appointments to maintain focus and ensure a valuable experience.

Spending the next two days at the exhibition shadowing Jo was yet another invaluable learning experience both from a wine knowledge perspective and for the chance to be introduced to producers not just from the Loire but from Champagne, Burgundy and Alsace as well. A great opportunity for me as new-comer to The Wine Society and manager of our Tastings & Events programme.

Throughout the whole trip Jo was so gracious and patient and I could not have asked for a better mentor to guide me around the region. Jo kindly translated those producers whose English was worse than my French and didn't just teach me more about the Loire than I thought I could ever learn but also explained her role as a buyer for such a unique organisation as The Wine Society. More and more I appreciate what a special set-up we have and how different it is from so many others.

Not only that, Jo also suffered bravely my driving as I learnt to drive a manual in some rather icy conditions, a fate I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemies. Thankfully we survived and returned to Stevenage in one piece, enriched for the experience and eager to develop some tastings and events based on my experiences; look out for our tastings and events programmes on the website.

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