My first visit to France was as a teenager, my first stop the Loire, launching a love-affair with this most understated part of the country with its opalescent light, its cuisine and its wine, and these three elements - the place, the food and the wine - are a part of me, which is why I relish any chance to talk about them and spread the word.
It was impossible then, as now, to be in Nantes without feeling that there was a natural symbiosis between land, vines undulating in the breeze, and the Atlantic waves, which the waters of the Loire blend into. Even the local wine, the delicious Muscadet, with its salty tang, seems a creation of the two elements. It's also impossible to sit in a restaurant in old Nantes, eating fresh fish served with a beurre blanc sauce, known locally as beurre Nantais, made from butter reduced with Muscadet, flavoured with the local grey shallots, a sprinkle of the famous fleur de sel, the grey sea-salt from the nearby mediaeval town of Guerande, and perfumed with herbs, rich, yet light and washed down with a bottle of the same wine, Muscadet, and not feel that all is right with the world. Make sure that the wine is a Muscadet 'sur lie'. Here, in the Loire, this is another magical connection. The secret of the 'sur lie' process, letting the wines rest on the lees, the dead yeast cells, which adds to the complexity, has a romantic side: it was one of those wonderful accidents when tradition leads to a new discovery.
Wines which were set aside for weddings and other celebrations would increase in flavour, becoming creamier and it is this creaminess, along with the fresh lemon zest lightness that makes Muscadet such a perfect companion to rich dishes. I've had it with scallops in a dense cream sauce, even with a rich fish korma, and it was the proverbial 'marriage made in heaven'. Also, it is the perfect fish & chips wine as well as being de rigeur with oysters. It only made it all the more a natural essence of the place when I discovered that the word 'Loire' comes from the Celtic word 'liga' which means sediment, that is - 'lees'. It also means 'silt' and the reason for the calm, undisturbed movement of the river is the silting up of the waters, preventing river traffic. This was a place meant for peace, with a glass in hand.
Of course the river is the continuum to a vast array of wines and wine styles. I remember on my first visit it was summer and a summer with golden sunshine. As the sun came out the pink came out and I would sit at a small bar in Anjou, further east along the river from Nantes, sipping a local rosé, its fresh strawberry aromas and line of fresh acidity picked up by just a hint of sweetness. I'd be singing 'I love Anjou in the Pinktime'! This is another example of summer in a glass and the pink passion that is spreading throughout the UK is evidence that the coin has finally dropped. The main grape, the Grolleau, meaning 'crow', an indication of the darkness of the grape skin, gives a singing acidity which is offset by a hum of sweetness. Smelling of strawberries, and occasionally blended with other varieties, particularly another local treasure, the Cabernet Franc, try this wine with strawberries and cream cheese, sitting in the garden in the sunshine. Even better, slice the fruit into a bowl, pour over an overly-generous slug of Rosé d'Anjou, chill, sprinkle two twists of the black peppercorn mill and pour yourself a glass of the same wine. A ticket for heaven can be this cheap. It also goes splendidly with salmon in a cream and tarragon sauce.
The great French poet, Rabelais, hails from this region and his great work, Gargantua and Pantagruel is seasoned with bawdiness and marinated in the local wines which he loved so much. In the final chapter, the Oracle of the Holy Bottle gives an answer as to whether one of the main characters should marry or not; the answer is 'DRINK'. Pour yourself a chilled Muscadet or Rosé d'Anjou and the Oracle will speak to you, with temperance. These wines are never strong in alcohol. They are about companionship, conversation and they brim with sunshine.
For more tips on the types of wines you should be indulging in during the summer watch a recent online wine tasting master class I recently hosted.Suggest a correction