Buy now at Amazon
wines,” she says to me in her lilting French accent, which her Cuvee Concerto (100% Cabernet Franc) shows.
Of course most of the wineries here are family affairs, and winemaker and son Matthieu Baudry of Bernard Baudry (the dad) in Chinon are crafting exceptional wines of depth and character. The family, post-wwii, was growing corn, barley and some grapes, but demand and production of grapes soared after the war, so vineyards increased. Matthieu pulls his grapes from a variety of plots, some hillside, some close to the river and some of the drier flatlands, all of which help to express the intricate nuances his wines achieve. “I am not the boss, my father is not the boss,” he tells me, “it’s the climate and we respect the geology.” What’s under scrutiny throughout Loire is the use of oak in Cabernet Franc; a method typically and historically frowned upon. Some decry that any barrel program with overt new oak pummels the Franc into a California style Franc. However I found that there are some producers who are using French oak judiciously like Domaine Olga Raffault, Domaine du Colombier, and even Alliance Loire to create wines for a public that has diverse and evolving tastes.
Castles and Fortresses
In addition to stellar wines, the Loire offers stunning castles from hilltop creations to mammoth structures to delicate Gothic buildings. Chinon Castle perched above the town of the same name is the most kid friendly and Hollywood-esque of the castles. Sound effects of swordplay fill the air and cardboard cutouts of faceless knights and damsels allow you a selfie moment. In spite of the kitsch, the history at Chinon is all about Joan of Arc who came here in 1429 for several days to plead with Charles VII to fight the English.
The Fortress at Angers is as imposing as it is inspiring. Seventeen round turrets of local troglodyte stone found throughout Loire (which is why the wines are so mineral driven) allow you to walk nearly the full length of the parapet, imagining you’re keeping your enemies at bay as they sailed up the Main River. This rocky bluff has been inhabited since the 9th Century, but it wasn’t until the 1200s that a fortress began to take shape as a formal installation. It has been expanded upon ever since. Inside the walls is the chapel constructed somewhere about 1410, as well as a royal residence for King Rene in 1435 and other buildings from as late as the 1700s. But the fortress is also home to a temperature-controlled room where the Tapestry of the Apocalypse is housed. Spiritual or not, these 71 hand woven tapestries from the 1370s depict the biblical End of Days in stunning detail and color and, if for no other reason, a visit is a sublime experience in handiwork rarely seen anymore. There were originally 90 tapestries, but they have been lost to time and this darkened room reveals a stunning realization that the colors, skilled weaving and intricate detail of these large fabrics, over 500 years old proves how adept our ancestors were at creating beautiful artwork.
Chenonceau castle is the most delicate of the castles; built over a river, it is storybook perfection. It is often called “the ladies’ castle” due to the number of women associated with it from 1547 to World War II, six in all, who contributed to building portions of the castle and to major renovations. It is an elongated home with original hardwood floors. Of particular interest to me was the kitchen and the weathered wood counter, with a bowed portion still visible after years of use. Unlike some of the other more imposing castles, hunting lodges and palaces that are austere, Chenonceau feels lived in, personal and romantic.
Chambord, the largest, most visited and most jaw-dropping castle in all the Loire was the part-time home of Francois I. The mammoth structure is unbelievable in terms of scope and mass, dwarfing every other castle, yet fitted with intricate embellishments. Huge stone blocks make up the interiors; ceilings are 30 feet high; some rooms are fitted with two fireplaces as, no doubt, it was very cold in the winter. Built as a hunting lodge, Chambord is one of those castles so large and postcard perfect, it’s hard to imagine this was built with such precision in the 1500s; it is the iconic image of the Loire Valley castles.
But this is the contrast of the Loire: delicate wines with a rich farming history situated side by side with French royalty, all sitting on precious earth. As Carine Reze of Domaine de la Jarnoterie says, “The best way to taste the ground is to drink the wine.” A visit to the Loire will give you a compass to understand Cabernet France and the visuals of French architecture.