Why didn't I do this earlier? I asked myself as I slowly pulled into a rocky driveway off a winding road in the Loire Valley. After eight years of living in France and enjoying its local traditions and treasures- the Fête de Lumière in Lyon, fresh fish in Normandy, the adorable accents and warming sun of the sud- I had never immersed myself in the country's most celebrated natural resource: wine.
My first French natural wine tasting tour began at the Domaine des Maisons Brulées, where winemaker Michel Augé led me through rows of vines, encouraging me to touch the soil and inspect the rich ecosystem thriving at root level. We wandered the vineyards I learned more about a non-intervention approach to wine making and the history of the region. Our tour ended on a sunny porch where Michel's wife Béatrice joined us to taste a selection of the Augés vin naturels. I savored my first Pineau d'Aunis and came back to my previous pondering- why didn't I do this earlier?
The question was simple and the response, upon deeper reflection, was a bit more complicated. While my visit to the Loire Valley's natural wineries was both relaxed and unstructured, the terroir tours, sun-soaked terrasse tastings, and candid chats with winemakers did not come about without a certain amount of effort.
In order to plan a French vineyard visit a number of elements must be aligned. A certain control of the French language helps, as exchange and building a relationship with the wine and its maker are such an important part of the experience. Then you have to know when and where to visit- no easy task given that small-sized vineyards demand an enormous amount of attention from their vignerons and they are not always available to accept visitors. Add to that the many regions in France to chose from- it's hard to know where to start!
When it comes to tasting natural wines, arguably the most important decision is who to visit. To truly understand what makes a wine natural you need a good guide. Wine makers that embrace a “nothing added, nothing taken away” approach from the vine to the bottle are by far the best suited to introducing you to the traditional methods of wine production.
The umbrella term of “natural wine” is used quite liberally and refers to wines made with varying degrees of intervention. Ambiguity in wine labels and certifications means that knowing the wine maker-or a caviste or other intermediary who has a relationship with the winemakers- is the only way to be sure you are getting the real deal.
Overwhelming, right? Especially if you only have a week or so in France and want to scratch your oenophile itch while in town.
Thank Bacchus for Terresa of La Cucina di Terresa, who is now offering Loire Valley wine tours which organize a day around cooking classes, vineyard visits, and tastings of the best natural wines the region has to offer.
Terresa will meet you in one of two Loire towns, Blois or Angers, and whisk you off to a nearby winery. Prepare yourself for a wine tasting like no other- this is not your typical Napa Valley affair and no stuffy tasting rooms await. Here you will meet winemakers who make wine not for profit, but for their living.
The first part of the day will have you set up in a rustic country kitchen, where you will use fresh, seasonal ingredients to make a three-course vegetarian meal. Terresa will hold the class in English, instructing you in her Italian- inspired cooking techniques as you appreciate the change of scenery from big city to rural countryside.
While waiting for lunch, stroll the grounds and enjoy the fresh air as you notice the defining characteristics of a natural vineyard- wandering animals, untamed flora, wild vines and an unpretentious setting.
Lunch is eaten with the winemaker, who will serve a selection of wines and suggest pairings as you go. This is the occasion to ask questions and learn more about the process of natural wine making as well as the differences you notice between natural and industrial wines and just about any other wine related question you may have. Always wondered how to use acidity, tannins, or terroir in a sentence? Here's your chance! Question about dry farming, sulfur, or oxidation? Ask the experts!
Farming and vinification methods will be explained to visitors and tastings of wines that are in the process of fermenting in the barrels can be tasted to experience young wines that are not yet ready for bottling.
Your day will conclude with an opportunity to buy bottles to take home- or to last you through the rest of your trip- up until that last Seine-side picnic. Terresa and the winemakers can also advise you on where to find these wines, and others like them, once you get back home.
I am sincerely excited about these tours and equally eager to spread the word about them. It was thanks to Terresa that I had the opportunity to meet natural wine makers such as Michel, and it is thanks to her that many more will be able to have this invaluable and authentic experience.
For more information on Terresa's Loire Valley Wine Tours visit her site to find dates, availability, and pricing. Tours booked before May 31, 2013 will benefit from a 10% discount- so don't wait to make a date to discover the world of natural wines!