A trip to the Loire Valley

I have been shamefully neglectful of The Kitchen Winery of late. Being in the middle of trying to buy our first flat is my principal excuse at the moment – good Lord it’s stressful. I always looked at people complaining about the horrors of house-buying with complete impatience and mild disgust – oh poor you, going through the dreadful experience of BUYING YOUR OWN HOME must be simply dreadful for you – but I have to admit the joy and romance of the whole business wore off in about 30secs leaving me feeling a little naive and really quite cross with everything house-related 99% of the time.

But the guilt has been eating away at me and everyone I see asks me “what’s happened to your blog?” (actually ‘everyone’ is obviously a massive exaggeration but you know, the odd one or two people). So a trip to the Loire Valley last week left me officially run out of excuses and so here I am, back again, and I will endeavour to pick up more of less where I left off, although perhaps with a little less frequency.

La Fesles
Chateaux La Fesles

The Loire Valley, I discovered, is really very beautiful. It refers to the area surrounding the river Loire which starts in the Massif Central and ends in Nantes where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. It includes different climates and terroirs along the way and it is along La Loire that you find appellations such as Muscadet, Vouvray, Chinon, Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre. Though famous for its Sauvignon Blancs, this grape shockingly only accounts for 10% of the overall plantings of the region. Though Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre may be the most well known styles they are in no way the most plentiful which of course contributes to their higher price points. For a wine in a similar style to Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume but a bit more affordable opt for a Sauvignon Blanc from the Touraine region which will show many similar characteristics.

We tried so many wines while we were there but the main grape variety I’d like to focus on is Chenin Blanc. There are some stunning dry Chenin Blancs from the likes of Vouvray and Anjou but Chenin can be used to make some really beautiful sweet wines as well. One of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting Chateau La Fesles where they make several styles of wine but most notably they produce Bonnezeaux. This may not be something you’ve come across before, and indeed there’s not a huge amount around, but Bonnezeaux is a fantastic sweet wine appellation within the Loire Valley. There are only around 30 Bonnezeaux producers in the Loire and Chateau La Fesles have 30ha out of approximately 100ha altogether so are by far the biggest producer, but still pretty small by general standards.

Weed management in the vineyard
Weed management in the vineyard

The grape variety is, as I’ve said, Chenin Blanc – the grapes are left on the vine until they are really really ripe and beginning to dry; they are therefore picked late in the year when the sugars in the grapes are very concentrated. A small proportion of the grapes will inevitably have been affected by the same noble rot as is found in the Sauternes region, botrytis cinerea, but interestingly, whereas this is encouraged as much as possible in Sauternes, it is not really desired in Bonnezeaux. Rather than attempting to copy Sauternes they are trying to stay in keeping with the classic style of the Loire and to produce a wine that is fresher, more aromatic and much lighter.

We were lucky enough to try a range of vintages of Chateau La Fesles Bonnezeaux – 2007, 2010, 2000 and 1993 in that order – and you could really see the differences between them. The 2007 was very classic Bonnezeaux with flavours of marmalade and honey; the 2010 was an outstanding vintage and was fuller with much more intensity of flavour; 2000 had had a much higher proportion of botrytis affected grapes and you could see why they didn’t desire it in the vineyard – for me the wine lacked freshness and tasted a little clumsy; finally 1993 which was fascinating – still intensely sweet but with savoury flavour characteristics and a salty/nutty flavour reminiscent of sherry.

The Wines

There were countless other wines we tried in the 3 days we were there and if you ever get the chance to go I couldn’t recommend it enough. And if you do get a chance to try Bonnezeaux one day, or see one on a wine list in a restaurant, then go for it as they really are wonderful wines.

This is us in front of La Loire whilst visiting Bouvet-Ladubay in Saumur
This is us in front of La Loire whilst visiting Bouvet-Ladubay in Saumur

Some very important pork meatballs

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I have this thing about cooking. If I have someone coming for supper I will have been thinking about what I’m going to cook pretty much since the moment I invited them. That isn’t to say that it’s necessarily something fancy, more that it’s something that fits with the person I’m cooking for and it gives me an excuse to try certain recipes that I haven’t been able to justify for just myself. Some people warrant ‘safe recipes’ – ones you’ve tried and tested and know are crowd pleasers but don’t take too much thinking about. This tends to be an evening where all element of risk is removed from the equation; generally speaking people you know less well. This was not one of those evenings.

The second thing about me and cooking is that once I’ve decided what I’m cooking, that’s it. There are no last minute changes and no backing out. Usually I will have bought food at least the day before. As I said… not one of those evenings.

I really really thought that pork mince is the kind of thing you can buy anywhere but on this particular day it felt as if it was sold out of every single mini supermarket in London. I’ve never had to ask someone I’ve invited for dinner to bring their own food before, but this is what happened. Charlotte, I’m very very sorry and I promise, the next time you come back from Africa I will not send you to THREE SUPERMARKETS looking for pork mince just because I’m too stubborn and unimaginative to think of something else to cook.

Confession out the way (I really did feel jolly guilty about that); let’s focus on the fact that I had been planning to cook these for supper since at least the weekend before which shows immense effort and thoughtfulness on my part (clutching at straws here??) – and that they were really rather good.

Another corker from Nigel Slater (thanks Nige) – this time it was from Apetite:

  • smoked pancetta – a handful or so
  • minced pork – 500g
  • groundnut oil – a little for frying
  • onions – either a couple of shallots or 4 small spring onions
  • chillies – 3 or 4 small, hot red chillies
  • coriander – a small bunch
  • lime leaves or lemon grass – 4 lime leaves or 2 thick stalks of lemon grass
  • garlic – 3 or 4 cloves, peeled and crushed

Chop the shallots or spring onions finely, then chop the chillies even finer, first removing the seeds if you don’t like things too hot. Scrub the roots of the coriander and chop them and the leaves finely, discarding the stems. Roll the lime leaves up and shred them finely, then chop them: if you are using lemon grass, remove the coarse outer leaves and discard them, then chop the tender inside leaves very thinly.

Chop the bacon or pancetta and add it, with the seasoning above, to the minced pork. Mix in a good pinch of salt, then cover with clingfilm and leave to rest in the fridge for half an hour.

Shape the seasoned pork into small balls and flatten them slightly. To cook you will need to warm a little oil in a heavy frying pan, then lay the meatballs in – without crowding them – and let them colour on both sides before turning the heat down a bit and letting them cook all the way through. They should be done after 4 or 5 minutes – the centre should be juicy but not especially pink.

We had this with basmati rice and spinach and it was delicious. A really clean dish that was straightforward to cook but something a bit different. It was a pretty good match with the La Grille Chenin Blanc (see Tuesday’s post); texturally speaking it was perfect and the chilli in the meatballs was complemented really well by the off dry edge to the wine.

So not too much of a disaster in the end despite the somewhat hectic beginning. What jolly important meatballs these are to warrant so much fuss.

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Two Chenin Blancs and a Mexican red

I tried to buy a third Chenin Blanc from Sainsbury’s on my way how (we were so close to having a ‘Chenin Blanc Week’) but unfortunately all it had to offer was row upon row of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. Mr Sainsbury is not making it easy for someone trying to ‘think outside the box’ in terms of their January drinking habits.

I feel like Chenin Blanc often gets a bit left behind. No one has that much of an opinion about it. You’ll have people jumping up and down saying how much they luuuurve Sauvignon Blanc or Chablis and how much they HATE Riesling (remember you don’t really though) but when it gets to Chenin it rather feels like all you get is a shrug of the shoulders, and a resounding “we don’t care”. It probably doesn’t help that it is the second wine on almost every wine list in the country, the one that proves it’s not quite as bad as the house but not worth you spending any good money on. Poor Chenin Blanc, that’s just not fair.

It’s a tricky sort of grape; uneven ripening can be a problem for the grower; and for the consumer it can vary hugely in style. If this was Chenin Blanc week then I would go into more detail but I feel like there’ll be a better opportunity for this in the future (and on a week where I’ve been a bit more organised). Traditionally it was planted in the Loire Valley, most notably Vouvray, where it produces a variety of styles from the steely dry to the sweet, depending in how ripe the grapes are before they are picked and pressed. The more overripe they become, the more sugar in the grapes and the sweeter the resulting wine will be. If it’s dry you’re after, look for ‘sec’ on the bottle, ‘demi-sec’ = off-dry etc. In the New World, Chenin Blanc seems to have found its natural home in South Africa where it is produced to varying levels of quality.

This week I drank the La Grille Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley and the Crow’s Fountain Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch. Very different in style but both really quite good. The La Grille is off-dry with a floral and peachy character. Despite the hint of sweetness it is fresh, clean and elegant and pretty good for £5.99 – find out on Thursday what I had to eat with it! The Crow’s Fountain was a bit more expensive and a much fuller style of Chenin. The nose literally makes your mouth water (a good sign) with aromas of ripe apples, melon and a streak of minerailty. It is dry and the body is much fuller than the La Grille with a slight spice to the palate from the oak. There could be a bit more intensity of flavour here but it is really rather good. This would go well with barbecued or flame grilled chicken due the the slight spice from the oak.

My Mexican wine was generously given to me by one of my clients this afternoon after I spotted it on his wine list. You don’t come across Mexican wine that often (certainly not in Sainsbury’s local) and I have only tried a handful. This wine is made by a producer called L.A. Cetto, the grape is Petite Sirah and it comes from Baja California. Baja California is just a hop down the coast from better known vine-growing sites such as the Napa Valley. I was a little baffled by the Petite Sirah (note this is not quite the same as the more recognisable Syrah) but it is a grape otherwise known as Durif that is widely planted in both North and South America. The nose is very plummy, as is the palate, with chunky tannins and a slightly medicinal and herbaceous edge. This doesn’t feel like a ‘quality wine’ but is perfectly pleasant. At the very least I feel like I’ve learnt something new today.

Annoyingly L.A. Cetto also make a Chenin Blanc so it could have been Chenin Blanc week after all! Maybe we’ll try that next time.