I’m starting my exploration of the Loire valley at the small village of Port-St-Pere, 20km south-west of Nantes. Le Fief Saint Mars is a small winery run by Michael Goulin, who seems rather young to have his own business. His family have been making wine in the region for 4 generations on their 16 hectare vineyard next to the Acheneau River. I discovered this little gem in the French Passions Guide, which joins together farmers, winegrowers and craftsmen with motorhome travellers. They offer you a safe place to stay the night and the chance to taste their products with no obligation to buy anything. However for me, the main reason for visiting is to sample and buy the produce.
I am greeted on arrival by a very boisterous wolf with one brown eye and one blue one. He is followed by his owner, Michael who invites me inside his cave (wineshop) to taste the wines. The muscadet is the local favourite and it’s deliciously fresh and light. He also sells chardonnay, my personal favourite, so I end up with two bottles of each for the bargain price of €13.
The next day I am driving along the south bank of the Loire River flanked by fields of vines. It is the end of the season. There are few grapes to be seen and the leaves are changing colour from green to brown to red. I find myself in the town of Chalonnes-sur-Loire which is home to another winemaker called Francois Picherit. His winery – Domaine des Coteaux Blancs produces the local rose d’Anjou and also a rather nice sweet wine called Coteaux du Layon (€7).
I sip a glass while I watch the grape pickers returning from the fields. They rinse out their blue plastic baskets and the grapes, which are stored in a sealed metal container attached to a small tractor, are poured into a conveyer which takes them up to the pressing machine. Francois has just emptied the dried pulp and stalks from the machine to make way for the new load, the juice of which will flow down the 2 inch wide pipe and into the vats. Meanwhile the workers head for a large room filled with oak barrels at the back of the farm and they invite me to join them for another glass of wine and some freshly baked tarts of flaky pastry with a brown sugar filling. A sugar rush is just what they need after a hard day’s work picking grapes. I feel very welcome but a little bit guilty that I haven’t earned my share.
Continuing along the Loire valley I head for Samur, known for its sparkling white wine, not dissimilar to champagne. The city is dominated by a large white stone chateau which sits high up on the hill like a king on a throne surveying his penitent subjects. Next to the tourist office is the Maison du Vin (the house of wine) where Alexia invites me to try some of the locally produced wines and tells me about the regions and their specialities. The sparkling wine is very dry and definitely not to my liking and the strong red is heavy in tannins and leaves a damp woody aftertaste on my tongue.
Rather than buy wine from the Maison du Vin, I decide to drive a short way out of town to the tiny village of Chaintre which is surrounded by vines of the Domaine de la Cune. Jean-Luc greets me in the office. He runs the winery, along with his brother, Jean-Albert. It is such a lovely afternoon that I ask if I can take a walk among the vines. He obligingly produces a map with three walks marked on it and recommends the 4 km walk up the hill for stunning views of the vineyards. It is a lovely walk amongst the vines and through pockets of dense oak forest. By the time I return, the sun is setting and I’m ready to taste their wines. I try two reds from consecutive years. There is a marked difference in the taste, which Jean-Luc tells me is due to the different weather conditions and the times when the cabernet franc grapes were harvested. A third red is delightfully named after his two children (Charl’Anne). It is a gold medal winner and definitely the best of the three but alas, beyond my budget.