If you ever have a few days to spend in France this is how you should spend one of them: first, be lucky enough to have a few friends that know/are amazing natural wine makers in the Loire Valley. Second, go spend 24 hours with them on a sunny and carefree pre-vendanges day.
You know your weekend is off to the right start when, upon rolling into a gravel driveway and ditching your car, your first task is to drink a bubbly rosé and shell peas under a chestnut tree. And that's just the beginning. But it goes back a little farther than that, actually.
About 3 years ago, thanks to this blog and good fortune, I met Terresa Murphy who has since become a dear friend and guide, bringing me closer to all things green and great in Paris and beyond. It was thanks to Terresa that I first met natural winemakers Christophe Foucher and Michel Augé, whom I wrote about a year ago for an article for ecosalon.
After the visits to Michel and Christophe's vineyards, and especially after tasting their exquisite wines, I was hooked on the taste and terroir of the Loire Valley. Since that first visit I've often missed the hours we spent tasting whites, reds, and rosés and talking about the science, philosophy, and purity of French natural wines.
So I was overwhelmed with excitement when Christophe invited my husband and I to a party at his place in Couffy, about an hour west of Tours. Christophe welcomed friends, oenophiles and above all fellow winemakers to this epic outdoor affair, complete with caravans, pup tents, an open fire and an amped out stage that set the scene for the live music that would accompany us well into the night.
But back to the chestnut tree, where we made conversation over the shelled peas that Terresa would eventually add to an evolving pasta dish packed with basil, summer squash, onions, and a simple homemade tomato sauce.
Once the food was prepared and the crowd started growing, the party got going. Winemakers Brendan Tracey and Pascal Simonutti (who works with one of my favorite cépages in the Loire Valley, Pineau d'Aunis. Apparently his Pineau is Out. Of. This. World & can be found in Paris at La Cave des Papilles) took to the stage fronting a band that kept the crowd dancing and was not afraid to take the amps to eleven.
I guess this goes without saying, but I can't write about this weekend without sharing the simple fact that when you're at a natural winemaker party in the Loire, you drink amazing natural wines from the Loire. The vignerons had each brought bottles to share and everywhere you turned there was a new discovery to be made.
We enjoyed more than a few glasses of Fée Maison, a joyful pet' nat full of rosy bubbles and made by local organic farmers Laurent Romanet and Sandra Couderc, who have been working with Christophe's wines for a little over a year and are already making wines worthy of the region.
As the evening progressed we found a spot in the grass to enjoy the food, music, and the feel of the Loire under our bare feet. Over Brendan's lyrics and Pascal's riffs I heard the voice of Terresa calling me to a nearby picnic table. "Taste this" she instructed, offering me a glass of white.
I stuck my nose in the glass and inhaled the aroma that is natural wine at its best- a mixture of farm and citrus smells with the earthiness that comes with natural fermentation and the absence of filtration. I swirled Joël Courtault's 2008 Péridote in my mouth and turned towards Terresa, with an expression that I only hope expressed my gratitude for her sharing with me. "That's where we're going tomorrow" she said in response.
Joël Courtault's Domaine de Bel Air occupies a little under 17 acres in Thésée, on the opposite side of Le Cher river from Christophe's vineyard. We headed there after a breakfast of hot coffee and runny, local chèvre spread on leftover baguettes.
Joël welcomed us into his tasting room and this is when I start to really fall hard for La France all over again, because Joël's tasting room isn't a room, really- it's a somewhat dilapidated wooden structure ("I always thought I'd put cars in here," Joël explained to us, "but then I had to put the wine somewhere..."), that is full of bottles, wine barrels, boxes, and labels.
Other places that make wine take note- the only things you need to taste wine are: wine, wine glasses, and someone who will talk to you forever about how they make wine. That's it. You don't need a tasting room, you don't need a parking lot, and you don't need a souvenir shop.
Joël is a geology geek and all his wines are named after different stones and precious rocks, which is how his sauvignon, cabernet franc, and gamay came to be known as Péridote, Béryl, and Onyx. Joël lets his wines stay in the barrel for long periods- his 2008 and 2009 vintages have only just recently been bottled- and he adopts a biodynamic and minimum intervention approach to winemaking. His wines ferment with natural yeasts and experience zero filtration or addition of sulfur.
The wines are emblematic of the Loire- grassy and mineral- as well as everything I love about natural wines- the way they dance on your tongue, subside and then hit you again with a finish that reminds you that tasting wine, like making wine, takes patience and is full of surprises.
Besides the overall pleasure that it was to spend a day tasting at the Domaine de Bel Air, the visit brought two new revelations- the first was a cépage that I had never heard of- menu pineau- a rarely grown grape in the region which I look forward to learning more about. The other thing I appreciated from our tasting were Joël's rosés, which are structured and made to stand on their own- and don't exist as reds that didn't work out. Joël's Aragonite is a rosé made with intention and attention- not your simple summer sipper, but something more complex and enduring than that- something solid as a rock.
A mere 24 hours after arriving in the Loire, we made our way back to Paris. Driving through the planes and valleys, under a bright blue sky, I thought about how lucky I am to live in France and how much I cherish its local treasures and terroir.