1940s Archive

Wines of the Loire

Originally Published February 1948

My affection for the wines of the Loire (I cannot say so much for my knowledge of them) dates from longer ago than I am prepared ordinarily to admit, from a certain “year of glory” when I was a freelance writer in Paris and

"When all the wines succeeded
From Douro to Moselle,

And all the papers neede
The wares I had to sell…"

In those rosy days on a Left Bank street, not far from St.-Germain-des-Prés, there was a dilapidated little bistro that specialized in the wines of Vouvray and Anjou. Its proprietor, an impressive old fellow with a fine, white beard, became, after a fashion, my mentor and my friend. He belonged to a species that was once common in Paris but is now almost extinct—the tavern-keeper with vague literary pretensions à la Ragamand, a first-rate Boniface an a third-class bomme de lettres.

Back of the bar there was a large painting, somewhat in the manner of Puvis de Chavannes, of a Bacchic procession, the young men quite unbelievably well-groomed and handsome, the bacchantes chastely swathed in vine leaves. Below the painting was a scroll with a quotation from Ronsard: “Corydon, lead ahead. Show us where goo wine is sold.” Monsieur Audibert was excessively proud both of the painting and the quotation.

“Jeune bomme,” he would say, “Hippolyte Audibett is the Corydon of the rue du Four. We, my wines and I, come from the garden of France, the cradle of French letters, the land of Rabelais and Ronsard, the one province where the French language has retained its antique purity.

Jenne bomme, taste this white wine, this Pineau of the Loire, which the immortal Rabelais called wine of taffeta. What do you think of that for one franc a glass? Or try this Coteaux du Layon from Anjou, farther downstream. Roll it on your tongue, close your eyes. Do you not find in the aftertaste what Joachim du Bellay called la douceur angevine?”

Every year on the first of August, Monsicur Audibert would shut up shop and disappear for a month, leaving in his window a faded, ancient poster with a message for his customers and friends. “Your patron,” it said, “has left on his annual trip to the Loire vineyards, to select the wines of impeccable quality which will be served you beginning September first.”

The second time I saw this poster I decided to follow Monsieur Audibert's example. I acquired an ancient car, a secondhand copy of Rabelais, a pocket Ronsard, and set out for Tours. Since then I have spent in the Loire Valley a good many of the pleasantest weeks of my life, but I have never forgotten and shall never forget my first pilgrimage to a wine country, on the trail of the white-bearded, long since vanished “Corydon of the rue du Four.”

I learned a great deal: that the proper name for a half bottle of Vouvray is not a demi-bonscille, but a fillette, or young girl; that vin breton never comes from Brittany; that Curnonsky, “Prince Cur I,” the most famous gourmet of contemporary France, is not a Pole but a native of Anjou, and that this is not at all surprising; that the most celebrated vineyard of the Loire, the Coulée de Serrant, is owned by the descendants of one Count Walsh; that the poet Ronsard used to drink nine glasses of wine in honor of his lovely Cassandre, one for each letter of her name, and that “long names for girls have been popular in Touraine ever since”; that Rabelais was the first to record a familiar phenomenon: “This wine is delicious, but the more I drink of it, the thirstier I get.”

There are few places on earth pleasanter than the Loire Valley in spring or summer or early autumn, and there is certainly no more agreeable trip that a wine lover can make than to go leisurely across the smiling face of France, following the shallow Loire and its quiet tributaries. Unlike the Bordeaux country, where wine is an industry as well as an art, unlike Burgundy, with its hundred famous vineyards crowded into forty narrow, closely planted miles of hillside, the Loire, which produces the “most literary wines of France,” if not necessarily the best, is magnificently casual about the whole thing, and it is quite possible for a tourist to visit the Château Country without seeing more than an errant vine or two.

But for those who take their food an wine as seriously as their architecture, to whom a star opposite the name of a restaurant in the Guide Michelin is quite as important as a star in Baedeker,there are rewards aplenty. By and large, the Loire has the best country auberges of France, a regional cuisine famous for its lightness and distinction rather than for the richness of its sauces and the length of its menus, and a whole constellation of wines—none, perhaps, of the first magnitude, but a full half dozen of the second, and more good vins du pays than a score of Pantagruels coul catalogue in a score of lifetimes.

The Loire is one of the longest rivers of western Europe. Its source is in the Cévennes, southwest of Lyon; in the course of its six-hundred-mile journey to the sea at St. Nazaire, it crosses eight provinces and its basin includes almost one-fifth of France. With a bow of apology to a great many villages where I have dined well and drunk the wine of the country, I shall confine myself to the Loire wines which you can generally find in Paris and, occasionally at least, in this country.

Like all other districts of great wine, the Loire Valley owes its pre-eminence to a happy combination (or a series of happy combinations) of grape variety and climate and soil. Such equations are only arrived at by trial and error over a period of centuries; it is not by any means by accident that the Pinot Noir, rather than the Cabernet, is the grape of Chambertin, and that the Cabernet, rather than the Pinot Noir, is the grape of Château Lafite.

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