In the cellar

  • Friday 1 June 2001

A drive around the Loire Valley with a couple of trusty companions provided the starting point for building a cellar, by PAUL JOHNSON

A drive around the Loire Valley with a couple of trusty companions provided the starting point for building a cellar, by PAUL JOHNSON

It was as my sunburnt nose started to peel on a patio in Stellenbosch, South Africa, that my wife and I realised we'd been discussing our glass of wine for the past hour. Together, we'd found a fascinating topic. Some months later we were being entertained by a friend who treated us to some 1990 claret, our enjoyment of which was only tempered by the price. We simply had to get a cellar of our own – buy wines that were affordable now and look forward to them in a few years time. But where to go and what to buy? First we bought two guide books – the pocket Oz Clarke and the pocket Hugh Johnson. And where to go? Bordeaux was out (that complicated ranking system terrified me), so we decided to focus on the Loire Valley. With Oz and Hugh in agreement on the merit of the area's wine, it was now down to us to find, taste and buy.

This was easier said than done. Two hours after arriving in Chinon, in the central Loire, we were lost and questions about the location of two 'favoured' producers were met with blank stares. Eventually we stumbled on a cellar, but the wines were inadequate – I was becoming so intimate with Oz and Hugh that I was only receptive to wines they covered. We left empty handed after numerous samples. But then, on passing a shop, I recognised a name on a bottle – Val Brun. Oz awarded it a star while Hugh commented that it 'ages remarkably'. I don't know whether I got raspberries, Oz, but I was convinced. Six bottles made their way to the car. Over dinner I researched the wines of Vouvray. 'Listen to this, Louise. Hugh says that some Vouvray wines get four stars. Both mention Gaston Huet. We must go.' In Vouvray there were no big signs for Huet's winery, but the hunt was on. If the guides have a drawback, it's the absence of maps, but then again the searches did become an integral part of the trip, preparing our palates for the tasting ahead. We finally found Huet. It was so discreet it felt like our little secret. The wines were superb. Was I being led by the guide books? Probably, but when we were given some of the 15-year old Le Haut-Lieu, all the driving was worth it. We bought a case and I rubbed Hugh's spine through my coat as thanks.

Finding agreement on Sancerre wines between my pocket pals wasn't easy, but we noticed that Bourgeois (Le Borgeoise) was well received, and we delighted in its 'flinty overtones' and took a case, along with some wines from Lucien Crochet. My cross-referencing in Chablis led me to four grand cru wines, from the best producers. We piled proudly and confidently into the tourist information centre and were laughed at, 'those sir were sold while still on the vine'. This was disappointing, but with all the tasting in the centre of Chablis and Oz and Hugh in broad agreement on good wines, it was easy to pick up another 24 bottles. It was also a surprise to learn that some of these wines can be aged for more than 10 years – something I shall be doing with my D&E Defaix Les Lys 1996.

Such trips generate their own vocabulary. As we were tasting wines, we would refer to them as 'an Oz three' or 'a Hugh two,' although by the end of the trip we were settling for 'Hugh one' and 'Oz one' bottles because, pleasant as it was driving round, we were in France for a purpose. I'm finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that I can't touch many of the wines for a few years, but instead can look forward to a trip to Bordeaux in a couple of months. Oz and Hugh will naturally be coming along for the ride, but this time I'm hoping we'll be confident enough to trust our own palates instead of leaning on the professionals.

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