le tasting room

Loire wine tours, tastings, day trips from Paris & short breaks organised by experienced English wine trade professionals.

Monday, 27 April 2009

The plight of the ancient mariner - Le Thoureil

Every year, Le Thoureil (our nearest village on the banks of the river Loire), hosts a regatta which is a great day out if the weather is fine. Yesterday, we were in luck - the sun shone, the boats arrived and the band played. In the morning we hosted a tasting for a group of clients from Russia and Paris and afterwards walked down to the river together to have lunch (prepared and cooked by local volunteers) and to join in the festivities.

These local events are still commonplace in France - simple catering, local micro-brewery selling its beers, basic wine at 5€ a bottle, stalls selling soaps, arts and crafts and the local fishermen showing the art of weaving fishing nets.

I was a little taken aback therefore to be approached by a very disgruntled mariner who offered to sell me his lunch ticket for 5€ instead of the normal 10€. In years gone by, the mariners who took the time to sail their boats upstream to support the celebration were given a free lunch. This year, there had been a change of policy - now the mariners were expected to pay 5€ for their lunch and no prior notice was given. 5€ isn't going to break the bank I know but I'm inclined to see his point of view. The regatta would not exist if the boats were not there and they are expensive to run. It takes planning and effort to sail to Le Thoureil - these boats are old and beautiful and the day would not be the same without them. No doubt this was a committee decision - to charge the mariners for their lunch, but a short sighted one in my opinion. Maybe it was a result of last year - it tipped down with rain all day so visitors were sparse and a free lunch still had to be provided for the mariners. The mariner I was talking to told me that he won't be back next year. This is a shame - he may not be the only one.

That aside, we had a great afternoon. After tasting wines during the morning we enjoyed a couple of beers from La Piautre - a small micro-brewery just over the river at La Menitré. This year they had produced good quality plastic 'glasses' for which they charged a 1€ deposit. Branded and with some background information about the brewery this was an attempt to reduce litter and encourge recycling - a great idea.

Another positive note - it was wonderful to see the local amateur fisherman's association demonstrating the art of weaving fishing nets and also to see so many of the older generation joining in the fun of the day.

So thank you to our clients to helped make the day a memorable one and to all the mariners who sailed their boats along the river to provide us with a glimpse of the past. I hope to see them all back at Le Thoureil next year for what is a traditional celebration of life on the river Loire.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Elderflower Cordial - Sirop de Sureau

I promised to post my recipe for elderflower cordial and as Spring seems to be leaping ahead here in the Loire, there is no time to waste. I normally make double the quantity given and that just about keeps us going for a year (assuming we can control our post vintage frenzy of drinking it every day for a couple of weeks). You can buy citric acid in most chemists in the UK - not quite as easy to source here in France if you're not involved in wine, but you can order it at the pharmacie and they will get it in for you.

You will need

21 Elderflower heads - fresh and in full flower
2 Sliced lemons
2 Kilos of sugar
100g Citric acid
1.5L Boiling water

Pour boiling water over the other ingredients until the sugar dissolves (I normally use a bucket). That's it - as simple as that. Cover with a clean tea towel and put somewhere cool. Give it a good stir every day and leave it for between 5 and 7 days. Strain it thoroughly before bottling.
I find that half bottles are good for this - keep some full bottles for yourself and use the halves to give to other people.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Planting Vines

Visited our local pépinière viticole yesterday to pick up a few vines for le tasting room. We decided upon half a dozen Cabernet Franc and half a dozen Chenin Blanc and intend to plant them in two different ways, as a trained row with posts and wires and as bush vines, untrained on the ground.

We first visited the pépinière in the autumn last year to discuss our requirements and were a little hesitant when asking for just 1 dozen grafted vines for our business. The reception and advice we received as to the choice of vine and relevant rootstocks was helpful even though our order was likely to be miniscule compared with other customers. We eventually decided to opt for Chenin and Cabernert Franc on a Fercal rootstock (one that tolerates high levels of chalk) and agreed to return in the Spring this year to discuss it further.

We arrived, without appointment, to be met by the proprietor, who remembered us instantly, went inside to collect a ready typed 'devis' (quote), collected the vines from the refrigerated holding room, bundled them up, labelled them and shook our hand. Great service from a local supplier.

Now all we have to do it get them planted and we can then look forward to sharing their development, pruning and training methods with our clients when they come to see us.

As a side note, the reason why vines have to be grafted is so that they are resistant to Phylloxera - a little louse-like pest that infected European vineyards towards the end of the 19th Century. It was first brought over from America by keen Victorian English gardeners wanting to plant rare and exotic specimens in their conservatories. They unwittingly brought with them, the Phylloxera louse which in turn made its way to France and many other countries in Europe as well. This louse, which destroys the roots of the vine, went on to destroy a large proportion of Europe's vineyards and it was some time before a 'cure' was discovered. The answer was and remains today, to graft the vines on to American rootstock. There are some producers who today plant their vines ungrafted such as Henry Marionnet but they take the risk that their vines will eventually become infected and the vineyards will have to be uprooted and replaced over time.

Pépinière Viticole
La Magaudière
49320 St Jean des Mauvrets

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Distillerie Combier

Combier was founded in 1834 by Jean-Baptiste Combier, originally from near Macon in Burgundy where his father was a vinegrower. A confectioner, he settled in Saumur with his wife in 1825 and as a sideline, had a small copper still in the back of his shop from which he produced small quantities of liqueurs for his chocolates.

In 1848 he bought the site on rue Beaurepaire and built the distillery which remains the production centre today. The production room was designed by Gustave Eiffel and his influence can be seen in the design of the iron gallery. This room remains nearly unchanged to this day, containing 2 copper alembics dating from 1870 and others from 1899. Jean-Baptiste and his son James started working together in 1866 and at the age of 28 years, James took over control of the company until 1933. The then sales manager took control until the 1970's whereupon the Company was bought by Bollinger (of Champagne fame). The Company was taken back into family hands in 2001.

Probably best known for Triple Sec (the first and original orange based liqueur, created in 1934), production remains artisanal with only 5 employees working in production and a further 10 in the office,
marketing, sales and export.

Bitter orange peel is imported from Tahiti - it arrives dried in large sacs and has to be rehydrated for 24 hours before the strongly flavoured zest can be separated from the pith. This is done using a hand-operated machine, each piece of rind being carefully fed in (see picture).

Once the zest has been collected, it macerates in 98% alcohol for a further 24 hours after which it is put into the still along with water. The still is locked, the mixture brought to the boil, the steam rises up the swan neck pipe and the resulting alcohol is collected. The heads and tails (with the highest and lowest alcohol levels) are discarded and resold (normally to the chemical industry) and the heart is retained, put back into the still, mixed with water and distilled again. This happens a third time making a total of three distillations to reach the final product hence the name Triple Sec. The liqueur is then blended with a sugar syrup which sweetens it and lowers the alcohol level to 40%.
Combier also produces a number of other products, Royal Combier is a mixture of Triple Sec, with 2 Cognacs and around 15 different spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and saffron. Absinthe has also been produced for the past 4 years - blended with green anise. The plant is gathered from the mountains and is left to macerate for a very short time to ensure the final drink does not contain too much thujone, a natural chemical that supposedly drove people to madness and resulted in the product being banned in France between 1915 and 1990.

Fruit syrups and creams are also produced on the premises using natural extracts of fruit, flowers and nuts all sourced from the region. Rose petal syrup is made from roses gathered at Doué la Fontaine and the local aperitif Guignolet is made from bitter cherries called la Guigne.

Guignolet was originally created as a medicine in the 17th Century by La Reverende Mère Madeleine Gautron at the Benedictine Convent in Angers. Her great grand nephew passed on the recipe in 1890 and Combier has been producing it ever since. Because the fruit is used with the stones, it's rich and aromatic but has a refreshing bitterness on the palate. It can be drunk alone or added to a glass of crémant or petillant.

Total production amounts to around 900,000 bottles per year of which around 80% are exported around the world.

A visit to the Combier distillery can be organised as part of a loire wine tour organised by le tasting room. It's a small family concern right in the centre of Saumur and caters for very small groups with a tasting afterwards. Another benefit is that with producing so many fruit syrups, this visit is suitable for children who can enjoy their own tasting after the tour.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Keeping off the wine for a week

As we move into Spring, life becomes more hectic, so we have decided to have a full week off the wine while the opportunity presents itself. Why this feels such a difficult task is a bit of an embarrassment as it should be easy to lay off the wine from time to time. I know it's good for the body to have a break and working in wine and with wine every day it's very easy to justify the need to drink every single day - a client is coming, I need to taste these wines to keep up to date, we have people for dinner etc etc. Sharing wine with friends, colleagues and customers is a pleasure, and the Wine Trade is a sociable business to be involved with.

At the end of the day, I look forward to a glass of something before I start preparing dinner. This for me is the best moment - to open a bottle of something, be it a glass of cremant, a really chilled Fino sherry, a glass of Vouvray (for more often than not at this stage in the evening it's something light, white and chilled) then sit down for half an hour, reflect on the day's events and just relax before starting again. Sometimes this period of relaxation results in a second glass being poured before dinner which is always a mistake.

Sometimes the wine we've had as an aperitif will continue through dinner if it suits the dish but often we'll go and fish something else out of the cellar that better suits what we are eating that night. This is also a pleasure - thinking about the flavours of the dish, the spicing, weight and intensity of flavour and finding a wine that matches the dish in terms of fruit, acidity, weight, tannin etc.

So, it's not just the actual drinking of the wine that gives pleasure - it's the choosing, opening, discussing, trying, tasting as well.

For this week, I'll stick to Elderflower Cordial. I make it myself every year and have just a little to last me until the trees flower again and I restock the larder for the coming months. It's incredibly easy to make and is easily as good as any of the big brands. It's also not at all bad with food - quite sweet but with loads of fresh lemon in the background and refreshing acidity on the palate. I'll dig out the recipe and post it on the blog - once you've made it you'll never buy a bottle again.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Rubissow Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Napa Valley

It's a long time since we enjoyed a bottle of wine from the Napa Valley and this was given to us by an English friend who worked over in California for a year doing wine analysis. She assisted in the making of the wine, making it doubly interesting to us, so we were pleased last night to partner it with a 12 hour shin of beef cooked with 50 cloves of garlic and a bottle of red wine. The beef also contained lots of cracked black pepper so choosing a wine that would complement these extrememly strong flavours was a hard task. Anything too tannic would have clashed with the levels of heat coming from the pepper and anything less concentrated would have been swept away by the intensity of flavour. So, this led us to the Rubissow Cabernet Sauvignon 2005.
Rubissow Vineyard is the southern-most vineyard in the Mt Veeder AVA, bordering Carneros AVA. Planted at 600-860 ft above sea level, sustainable farming practices are used with small yields, crop thinning and winter cover crops.
To the wine itself - 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6.5% Merlot and 1.5% Cabernet Franc, unfined and unfiltered. Upon pouring a sample, the concentration is immediately evident. With a deep, deep rich ruby colour and a touch of brown at the edges it's almost impossible to see through it. On the nose the first thing that is apparent is ripe, ripe fruit with notes of plum, chocolate and blackberry. On the palate, vanilla comes in to play from the 20 months in oak, and the tannins (although evident) are soft. It's very intense and long on the finish. It absolutely needs food and was more than a match for the intense flavours of the beef. At around $75 or £50 a bottle, this is no every day wine. A real departure from our normal drinking style but one which we enjoyed very much.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Spicy Thai Curry with Vouvray

Spicy but not too hot - a combination of Thai curry paste, fish sauce, coconut milk, plenty of fresh coriander, squeeze of lime juice and a couple of kaffir lime leaves. Add to that, fresh chicken cut into smallish pieces and a couple of peppers (one yellow, one red) cut into strips. Simple supper in 10 minutes - serve with boiled rice (Thai or Basmati will do). As for a good wine match - Vouvray from the Loire is excellent - we favour one with a small amount of residual sugar (around 9g) but other wines, notably the aromatic ones, also go well. Consider Riesling from Germany or Pinot Gris from Alsace.