Well that’s it. 3.5 months in Bordeaux done, and I’m on my way home.  I’m starting this post sitting in the Merignac airport, a 45 minute bus ride from my apartment near Place de la Victoire.  My bag is stuffed with Christmas gifts for the family, and a long list of things I need to bring back with me upon my return in two weeks. I’m not bringing much wine home, thanks to Canadian alcohol tariffs (and also because I haven’t been able to successfully build up my collection to a point where there is enough to bring anywhere – someone keeps drinking it!)

The Pessac city hall gets a festive facelift

The Pessac city hall gets a festive facelift

Our story picks up where it left off a few weeks ago, after a week of exploring in the south of France and the festive spirit arriving in Bordeaux. The second-last week of class is mainly focused around the wine export business, with smatterings of economics and accounting, our final journal club on canopy management, and a visit to the opera.

A sun-dappled lesson on export readiness. Yes, those are pictures of pallets!

A sun-dappled lesson on export readiness. Yes, those are pictures of pallets!

Our instructor for the module on exports, a wine exporter and consultant himself, is a high-energy Peruvian who walks us through all the steps of the process, interspersing his lessons with the challenge: “Are you export ready?”  It’s a good refresher course and reminds me (too much, maybe) of my own baptism of fire in the world of exports with Unilever’s Ethnic Business and the UK (re)launch of Toni & Guy.  I can’t help chuckling a bit at the discussions reviewing the differences between EU vs. North American pallets, how to fill a 20/40′ container, dry vs. reefer, INCO terms, barcode requirements…. ahhhh, I thought this was a world I left behind, but it all comes back very quickly.

Wine finances.

The accounting and economics lessons are a little drier by comparison.  The economics are fundamentals – the basics of supply and demand in markets of varying levels of competition. And it’s cost accounting, rather than financial accounting, so we’re examining the differences (for example) between organic and conventional viticultural methods. FYI – organic methods have higher labour costs, but lower input costs (sprays, fertilizers, etc) which is valuable intel for my future vineyard planning.

Other techniques for protecting Ontario vines from frost damage include candles and (in extreme circumstances), fire. This is actually not a joke.

Other techniques for protecting Ontario vines from frost damage include candles and (in less romantic circumstances), fire. I’m not completely joking here…

The journal club discussion on canopy management (pruning and trellising the vines) is also valuable information, although I now need to do a little homework on my end to determine what kind of needs I’ll have.  Prince Edward County gets so cold in the winter that the base of the vines need to be buried to protect them from temperatures lower than -21°C (-6°f), you know, NINE MONTHS OF THE YEAR. (Kidding!) But I am curious to know how these colder climates might impact other vineyard management decisions.

The week is broken up by a trip to the opera – the Russians are in town for one night, and performing La Traviata. The setting is a skating rink, a larger venue than the Grand Theatre and possibly more appropriate for the Slavs(?) A highlight – literally and figuratively – is the high E flat at the end of the first act. It’s not written in the original Verdi score, but sopranos singing the Violetta role often flaunt it, if they can. This Russian Violetta, it turns out, can.

The curtain is about to go up on the Russian Traviata.

Slav-ing away at the opera; this skating rink cleans up nicely!

I’ve been looking forward to this particular weekend for a good six months. It’s a pilgrimage made to the Loire Valley every year by Philippe and Brigitte (the French family I know from Bretagne and key players on my journey into wine). The trip is organized for friends and family to taste the new vintages and refill their bottles. I’m on my way with my Dutch classmate Bruno (he of the flan-tastical dessert skills) after playing a fun game of what crazy requirements do (some) French rental car services have…passport, utility bill, €1000 deposit; in short, far more than I’m willing to share, so we switch gears to a ride-sharing service called Blablacar. This is our first blabla experience, and we are matched up with a French military helicopter pilot on his way to Paris. It goes without saying that we get to our destination in record time, and the weekend’s events commence.

Mouth of the Vouvray caves, tasting the sweet wines by the light of a lantern. Our digs for the night.

At the mouth of the Vigneau Chevreau caves, tasting the sweet wines by lantern-light. Our digs for the night.

Our first stop is Vouvray, a city in the Loire Valley, which produces white wines made almost exclusively with Chenin Blanc. Like Riesling (my favourite grape variety), Chenin Blanc can be used to make great dry, off-dry, sweet and sparkling wines.  The tasting begins at the Domaine Vigneau Chevreau, a biodynamic wine producer with a vast network of caves made out of mold-covered tuffeau (a type of sedimentary rock native to the Loire Valley), where the wines age. It’s interesting to taste the same grape made different ways, with varying levels of sweetness, acidity, sparkle (not a technical term…), and different methods of production. This is exactly what I want to do with Riesling, when I eventually set up in Ontario, although there’s a part of me that is starting to think about adding Chenin Blanc to the range.

The best whiskey collection I've seen in a while, Canadian ice cider, and the best Bourgueil cakes.

The best whiskey collection I’ve seen in a while, Canadian ice cider, and the best cakes in Bourgueil.

The next day sees us off to Bourgueil to visit the Domaine des Géleries. Any self-respecting pilgrimage includes visits to places of worship along the way, and this food-and-drink expedition is no different. The best shops in each town have been earmarked for our arrival, and we stock up on local delicacies, some of which manage to survive the trip home to Toronto for Christmas dinner.

A trail of (red?) wine marks our Camino de Loire.

This domaine’s wines are an interesting exploration of Loire terroir.  There are 45 unique parcels of vineyard scattered across 30 hectares in three appellations: Bourgueil, St. Nicholas de Bourgueil and Chinon.  Due to appellation restrictions, the vast majority of what they grow is Cabernet Franc – a red grape that is also permitted in Bordeaux, and one of the varietals that happens to suit Ontario’s climate very well.  (Am I thinking about recreating the Loire style in Ontario, you ask? Peut-être…)

We start with an aperitif at the winery, and then make our way to the caves located under the Bourgueil vineyards to organize our lunch.  It’s clear that the regular pilgrims – les morts de soif – have perfected the routine. The menu is set and everyone seems to know the part they play, whether shucking the oysters, seasoning the côtes de boeuf, chopping potatoes or prepping the rillette hors d’oeuvres.

Clockwise from the top left: the table is set in the caves under the vineyard; Philippe's secret to French cooking is the wine, of course! Old vines crackle on the fire while I eye a slice of the famous Bourgueil galette (cake). Brigitte demonstrates how to taste from the bottling machine. Years of practice allow the cars to manoeuver through the caves.

Clockwise from the top left: the table is set in the caves under the vineyard; Philippe’s secret to French cooking is the wine, of course! Old vines crackle on the fire while I eye a slice of the famous Bourgueil galette (cake), and the chimney smoke escapes above the young vines. Brigitte demonstrates the proper technique for tasting from the bottler. Years of practice make quick work of driving the cars through the caves.

After lunch, we return to the winery to do a formal barrel tasting of the reds. It’s all Cabernet Franc, but the differences between old and new vines, and the three different appellations are quite telling. I’m still working on being articulate with my sensory analyses, but I can identify distinct characteristics that set them apart from each other. The tannins in the Chinon wines (old/new/2014/2012) all have a similar quality – don’t ask me to describe it – which must be an effect of the terroir of their Chinon parcels. (Isn’t this neat?!) Pedagogy aside, my favourite from this whole line-up is the Bourgueil 2014, so that’s what comes home with me. We return to the caves for an evening of more food, wine and song!

Hobbit holes, candle-lit lunch and a good sense of humour make for a great end to the weekend.

Hobbit holes, candle-lit lunch and a good sense of humour make for a great end to the weekend.

For the final day of the weekend, the group heads to Marson for a lunch of local dishes in a troglodyte cave. Marson is very close to the beautiful city (and wine appellation) of Saumur, so Bruno and I are dropped off there after lunch for our blabla ride home. We have a few hours to spare, and decide to take in a few sights before we head home.

The Loire as seen at Saumur under the watchful eye of my intrepid travel companion, Bruno.

The Loire is the longest river in France.  Here is the view at Saumur under the watchful eye of my intrepid travel companion, Bruno.

Beyond wine, Saumur is famous for being home for the Cadre Noir, one of the (if not THE) most prestigious cavalry schools in the world. The only evidence of horsemanship we see is the boys wearing knee-high socks (presumably for riding boots) around town. There’s just enough time to check out the view from the castle walls at the top of the town, before our driver picks us up and returns us to Bordeaux.

Saumur lovin', had me a blast!

Saumur lovin’, had us a blast! Wildflowers on the banks of the Loire, the Château de Saumur, and sunset view from the castle – those blobs in the trees are mistletoe.  Looks pretty, but it’s technically a parasite. (That is not a metaphor for anything…don’t read into it.)

There’s another week to write about before I catch up to present day, but I’ll save it for the next post.  Enjoy the week!

No horsing around here on the castle walls.

There’s no horsing around here on the castle walls.

PS. Bruno gets photo credit for the Vouvray hotel, the chimney smoke above the vines, and of course, the one that I clearly didn’t take!

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One thought on “(love is like a) sweet cave

  1. Pingback: farewell tour de france: the north – when wine sings

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