Monday, September 10, 2012

Vineyards, Wines, and Hikes

Last weekend I went on an outing organized by someone with On Va Sortir, but which was actually part of the "Vignes, Vins, et Randos en Val de Loire" (Vineyards, wines, and hikes in the Loire valley). It was the 9th year for the event, a two-day multiplicity of guided hikes through nearly 20 different appelations running on either side of the Loire from Blois to Nantes. I was on the 7km hike for the Coteaux-du-loir and Jasnières wines, north on a tributary of the Loire, the Loir (without an 'e') River. Our group had a picnic before the hike at the event meeting area in the public park of the town of Chahaignes; unfortunately the pork terrine in a jar that I'd brought truly tasted like dog food, and I ended up giving most of it to the organizer's dog. I contented myself with cherry tomatoes, potato chips, and dates, and a small glass of wine the organizer poured to get us in the mood. At the appointed time, the hunting horns provided a fanfare for our departure in groups of 40 or so, each with two guides to explain things as we went along.

For the 5 euro participation fee, we each got a small canvas pack, an apple, some literature on the area's wines, a wineglass and holder, and a quiz/entry form to complete and turn in for fabulous prizes. One of the questions asked about the type of soil in the area, and it was very easy to pick the right answer, after only five minutes of walking through the fields: a mixture of clay and sandy soils, full of chunks of flint. There are over 400 cellars in that particular region alone, and almost all of them are dug into the hills. Some of the houses are burrowed back into the slopes as well, giving the area the look of Hobbiton. The rest of the buildings have walls made of the earth and stone dug out from the cellars.

There were some old pieces of equipment here and there, the wooden wine presses that are no longer used as well as the harrows and plows that still are. We followed the guides up narrow trails to the vineyards at the top of the ridges, then back down to the wineries for our dégustations (tastings).

For the first stop, it was red and rosé Coteaux-du-loir from winemaker Jean-Marie Renvoisé in the little township of Vaugermain, accompanied by cubes of creamy-sharp local goat cheese (yes, I had one) and squares of chocolate (I passed on those). The second stop featured the Jasnières white wines from several different winemakers in the area, at the Domaine de la Raderie. This was accompanied by pâté de foie gras on little toasts, alas! which I could not eat, and more chocolate which I again ignored. I liked the one that I had, but didn't write down the name or label. I liked it much better than the rosé I tasted at the previous stop. I didn't write that one down either ... I need to work on my foodblogging reporting skills. I probably won't have much luck selling columns to food or travel magazines if I don't provide minor details like the actual identity of the things I eat and drink, or who made them, or where they can be found. You know, real informational sort of stuff.

Maybe I'll just take pictures of writing instead of writing about pictures.

At this second stop, we got a look at some of the modern winemaking tools. We were shown three presses, two of which use horizontal plates to squish the grapes together, and one (the more useful one, we were told) that compresses the fruit vertically, then flips the grapes over to squeeze again to get the last juices out. There were some displays on winemaking techniques, but by that time we'd collided with two of the other groups who were traveling the hiking route in the opposite direction, and there were too many people milling around for me to work up enough interest to fight my way into the rooms to look at them. Instead, I sat out in the sun listening to the birds, or wandered around taking pictures. Once again falling down on the reportage job, I think - I suppose I should have been asking questions of the producers and/or guides, and taking notes, and composing some sort of thoughtful essay on the local varietals. Won't someone just pay me for random haphazard scribbles and gradually improving photography?

We saw both the bottling machine and the boxing machine. After 150 years, it's time for something new.

In the cool dimness of the hollowed-out hills, grapes dream of greatness.

In my rambling around outside the cellars, I heard a buzzing noise, and saw a hummingbird hawk-moth (Moro sphinx, Sphinx colibri, or Sphinx du caille-lait in French). I'd never seen one before. I spent about ten minutes and a hundred photos - whatever did we do without digital photography? - before being rounded up with the rest of the group to continue on through the woods and fields to our next stop, another dégustation but this one musicale. We had two, actually; the first a gospel group set up in an orchard with their microphones and electric piano, and the second the actor/author/singer Michel Freyssinet, who sang a song of the grape harvest in true chanson française style.

Zhasta klotha wakwa zee.Can you hear the accordions?

Halfway through the route we stopped at the Château de la Chenardière, a lovely little dream home built halfway down a hill back in the mid-17th century, constructed as usual out of the local rock, with cellars and storerooms under the hill and a tall pigeon-breeding building to the side. A large open park with stately trees and a pond with a small island on it continue down the hill off the terrace, which would make a lovely view in the morning as I sat sipping my coffee, wouldn't it? We were told that the property is being restored, that the now-mucky pond would be dredged and the bridge over to the decorative island replaced, and perhaps the geraniums in round beds at the bases of the trees would be replanted as well. I didn't get a chance to find out who it was that gave us the mini-lecture, whether it was someone working on the property to turn it into a home again, or a guest house, or if it now belonged to one of the winemakers in the area. Journalism fail, once again. But my head was full of impractical visions of actually living there. I'm sure some of the outbuildings could be turned into a cheesemaking facility with no problem at all, and the goats would keep the park trimmed and tidy. Replace the pigeons with some chickens and add a few raised beds for tomatoes ... okay, back to reality.

The hike was only 7km but with all the stops and starts, not to mention the 50-degree slopes up to and down from the fields, it was rather tiring. I'd gotten a ride with a woman who lives not too far away from me, and as we were heading back to the park she asked me if I really was interested in staying for the optional dinner and entertainment, and was quite relieved when I said no, not so much. They were grilling sausages and selling wine and setting up a stage for music, and the approximately 150 people who went on the tour that afternoon were settling in to make a night of it, but instead Sandrine and I headed back to Tours, watching the late afternoon light gild the fields of wheat, talking art and politics, and - at least on my part - thinking about how nice a hot shower would feel.

I'll remember to take notes, next time.