I decide it is finally time to put together a website concentrating on Loire wines. Initially this will be through these notes, while I put together a more ambitious site aiming in time to cover all of the Loire wine regions and a number of its producers. I don’t, however, have the time or the ambition to cover them all.
My interest in the Loire and its wines was kindled by visit and tasting with Gaston Huet in late August 1979. Carole, my partner, and I had spent five weeks driving around France and Italy covering some 6500 miles in a Renault 5. We were on our way back home to London but wanted to visit Vouvray to taste its sweet wines. We both taught in a comprehensive school in Southwark, then part of the Inner London Education Authority. I had no inkling that nine years later I would change my life and start writing about wine.
Clutching the then current edition of Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine, which recommended the wines of Gaston Huet, we searched the by-ways of Vouvray looking for Le Haut Lieu. In those days there was no sign only the name carved in the limestone gateway. We wandered into the courtyard of Le Haut Lieu, an attractive manor house. It hadn’t occurred to us that we might need to make an appointment but we were in luck as Gaston Huet was around and had time to give us a tasting.
We sat with Gaston in a comfortable room in the Haut-Lieu sipping a 1966 moelleux from the special Vouvray glasses with a small dish of walnuts and attempted to converse in our then very limited French. Even though this was the very late 1970s the price list still had 1966, 1964 and, I think, 1961 moelleux on it. He was charming and we must have spent half and hour or more with him. We selected five bottles of moelleux from 1964 and 1961 – we didn’t have much space in the motor, having already bought some wine in Bordeaux and the Rhône, and at that time you could only bring back into the UK a small amount of wine before paying duty and vat on it. It wasn’t until we got back to London that we discovered that Gaston Huet had given us an additional bottle.
My interest in the Loire continued to grow and in 1987, with a group of friends, we bought a house in a small village in eastern Touraine in the Cher Valley. The next year in August I left teaching following the abolition of the Inner London Education Authority. The abolition meant that the special project I had been working on ceased and I had to choose whether I would return to classroom teaching or do something different. As I had a friend, who had become publisher of the now long deceased Taste magazine, I decided that I would start writing about wine, with the thought that I could always return to teaching if things didn’t work out.
In late 1988 had a chance meeting with David Rowe, who had recently been appointed editor of Decanter, at a smart dinner organised by the Sherry Institute at Mosimann’s. We chatted about what I was doing. At this stage, although I had written several articles for Taste, none of my pieces actually appeared because of the long lead-in times, so some minor embroidering was necessary – glossing over this. To my surprise and delight David asked me whether I would write for Decanter. The first Decanter piece I wrote was a follow on from this dinner at Mosimann’s – suggesting Sherries to go with recipes provided by food writer Jill Cox.
Soon after David Rowe commissioned me to write a piece on Muscadet, which in those days was still fashionable with vast UK sales, and in February 1989 Carole and I spent four days in the Pays Nantais visiting producers, including Jean-Ernest Sauvion of Château du Cléray, Louis Métaireau, Chereau-Carré at Château de Chasseloir, the Marquis Robert de Goulaine at Château de Goulaine, Jacques Guindon (Muscadet Coteaux du Loire and Coteaux d’Ancenis and a meeting with Jean-Luc Blanchard, long-time export director of Donatien Bahuaud. It was an intensive but fascinating visit and a steep learning curve for me for I knew little about how wine was made and my French was extremely limited. Among the many things I learnt was that well-made Muscadet, contrary to popular belief, could age well.
Looking back after nearly twenty years after my first visit to Muscadet much has changed. Following the severe frost of April 1991 Muscadet has has been through severe problems and, with the upsurge of wines from outside Europe, has ceased to be fashionable. The quality of Muscadet, however, is better than it was. Back in 1988 the négociants were strong in the Pays Nantais and all were locally owned. Since then a number of businesses have changed hands with control moving to pan-France companies like Castel Frères, who bought Sautejeau-Beauquin in 2007, Grands Chais de France who bought Vinival in July 2004 and Gabriel Meffre, who bought Donatien Bahuaud in 2005. More recently Maison Sauvion and Château du Cléray were sold by the Sauvion family to Grands Chais de France in November 2007. Grands Chais has subsequently bought Château de Fesles in Bonnezeaux from Bernard Germain.
Why a site not a book
On a few occasions over the years the chance of writing a book on Loire wines has appeared to be coming off. The most serious prospect was a series to be published by the University of California and to be edited by Clive Coates MW. Unfortunately it never got off the ground. Given the current unadventurous state of UK wine publishing – a reliance on a blend of the tried and tested with punts on celebrity wine books – the chances of getting a reasonably detailed book on the Loire published in the UK is probably less than zero. Making any money out of a book would be even more unlikely – sub-zero – nine below even!
Instead I have decided to set up Jim’s Loire as an amuse-bouche before launching a more comprehensive site that will then incorporate this blog. The net has the great advantage of allowing me to amend and add – it is always work in progress whereas with a book time and content are frozen by publication. I will be focusing more sharply on the Loire and spending less time trying to cover the rest of the wine world.
The Google blog launching Jim’s Loire is the easy bit; now I have to find ways of making it pay for itself. I have decided against the subscription route and instead will be looking for sponsorship and advertising – but not from producers. I’m also looking for spin off work – articles, translating from French into English especially websites and booklets etc. as well as organising tastings of Loire wines. I’m often surprised at the laughably bad and often comical English on French producers’ websites. It looks so unprofessional. Fortunately this can be put right. I also have a large and growing library of photos covering the Loire and its producers. I can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org