Last week I was on a rather lovely trip to the Loire Vally in France. Unusually though I didn’t just get to see vineyards and wineries, but a little bit of the surrounding area too – which could be seen as self indulgence, but I think that seeing the place, people and culture around a wine can often help with understanding what makes a wine region tick. Strolling around the French city of Angers in the middle of a working day felt like a lovely adventure – even a little naughty. It was as if it was stolen time that I should have spent doing something more productive – but what the heck.
The city feels quite small, which can be very attractive as you can see it all in a short time without having to cherry pick as you would in somewhere the size of London or Paris. The River Maine flows through the middle of the city and you get lovely glimpses of it from the ramparts of the astonishing Château d’Angers. Once home to Catherine de Medici, this is not your typical Loire Valley Château, but a huge mediaeval fortress whose harsh defensive exterior does not prepare you at all for the haven of peace inside. It is a delightful place for a stroll complete with rampart walk, gardens, orchards and even a small vineyard. Most famously though it houses the Apocalypse Tapestry - well worth a look as it really is one of the jewels of early French culture – strangely enough this castle was also the place where, as a young man the future Duke of Wellington received his military training.
Wandering around foreign cities is something I greatly enjoy and a walk through the old town of Angers proved what an attractive place it was with narrow lanes and bustling squares. The city is actually easy to manage on foot, but there is also a rather swish looking tram system – in case you get ambitious and want to go further afield. I only had a short time to explore a small portion of Angers, but it seemed very promising and I stared longingly at every street café that I had to walk past on my way to the Maison du Vin. You can actually see this from the castle and if you find yourself in Angers and do not know much about the local wine, then I would recommend dropping in. You can taste a wide range of the local wines here and pick up masses of useful maps and brochures – they even sell wine and some extraordinarily good value Foie Gras.
I was especially excited about this trip as my flight was from London City Airport and although I am a Londoner I had never flown from there before. I really like smaller airports as I find as everything happens so quickly and easily; I arrived, checked in and was through in no time at all. The trip was a celebration of the new British Airways flight to Angers, so centred on the attractions and wines of that area and to get me and my fellow scribes into the mood we were treated to a little tasting and nibble in the airport’s City Bar & Grill. This struck me as being rather a good airport restaurant and I thoroughly enjoyed it from the whacky Magritte-esque bowler hat lights to the rather lovely food presentation – I made a mental note to eat there next time I pass through.
Of course the trip was not all fun, I had to do some work at some point, but they broke us in gently with an excellent first dinner in a wonderfully relaxed little eatery called Mets et Vins Plaisirs there we had our introduction to the simple, but effective food of the region, much of which involves fish and shellfish – always good in a region that produces a lot of white wine. This lovely space is both a restaurant and wine shop and has no wine list, instead you browse the shelves and see what takes your fancy – what’s more they cover the whole country, not just Loire Valley wine.
We threw ourselves on their inside knowledge and our trust was rewarded with a superb pair of wines from a producer that none of us knew – Domaine de Saint Just. Their Crémant de Loire Brut made an elegant and poised aperitif – if more Crémant was like this the world would be a happier place – while their 2009 Clos Moloton Montée des Roches A.C. Samur-Champigny was one of the most supple, concentrated, elegant and attractive Cabernet Francs from the Loire that I have tried – it was perfect with the meat course and cheeses too. I understand this is made from a specific parcel – hence the long name – of 50 year old vines that are organically farmed and I wish it was available in the UK.
Believe it or not I often grumble about the way people who organise wine trips seem to think that the meals should be frequent and swanky. It often seems that no sooner is a stunning lunch over and hardly digested, than we are heading for dinner in yet another famous restaurant. Sounds ungrateful I know, but I really do think one formal meal a day is ample and even I would prefer it in more simple places – I strongly believe that local traditional fare is usually the best thing with wine. This trip got it exactly right, the food was excellent, but never pretentious – sometimes the exact opposite, as with our last lunch.