On The Road Part II: Chinon 

By David Brookes

Chinon is a gorgeous little town set on the banks of Vienne River at the intersection of the Anjou-Saumur and Touraine wine regions of the Loire Valley, around 10 km away from where the Vienne joins the Loire River. It is a town that is steeped in history and culture. Its impressive castle was once the home of Henry II, one of the English Plantagenet kings, and his wife Aliénor (Eleanor) d’Aquitaine and their son, “Richard the Lionheart” was born here.

That ribald old boozehound, Rabelais, also hailed from Chinon and his bacchanalian missives are well worth a read if you have some spare time. Although there should be a disclaimer here. His writing is full of booze, sex and gore and you can vividly imagine the drunkards, blasphemers and gluttonous imbibers of food and wine staggering around the pages of his books. 

If you fancy heading down that path, seek out an English translation of his “Garguantua Pantagruel” and try not to read it out aloud at the café. You’ve been warned. There is even an adjective in French, ‘gargantuesque’ which describes the unbridled joy of wild gluttony and dubious drinking habits in the pursuit of reaching the elite levels in debaucherous pursuits. Perhaps not as noble a cause as it once was, but wonderful reading nevertheless.

Anyway, Chinon is ace and I very much enjoyed strolling aimlessly along its cobblestoned, windy streets. But three moments stand out:

I met my first Ragondin. One morning, dangling my feet while sitting on the stone wall of the Vienne River, what I thought was a beaver popped up, eyed me suspiciously and then swam on his/her merry way. It was about three foot long from nose-to-tail; a powerful swimmer with an impressive set of teeth and a large tail for propulsion. I learned that it was in fact the same beast as the South American Coypu, imported to France for its fur, and now found in waterways throughout France. Speaking to the locals they assure me it makes a wonderful terrine and an Australian-based winemaker of French bloodstock tells me she fondly remembers her father making a killer ragout from these furry little dudes... 

Second, a visit to Domaine Bernard Baudry and spending some time with the wonderful Mathieu Baudry whose wines are recognised as one of the finest in the appellation. With 30 ha of cabernet franc and 2 ha of chenin blanc, these were wines that resonated strongly of place and it was obvious driving around the vineyards with Mathieu, that the farming of the vines is top-notch and the wines are guided to bottle with a very gentle hand. 

He’s an energetic, charismatic cat. Great to be around, with an infectious enthusiasm, constantly gesticulating and waving his arms around explaining the geography and vineyards of the beautiful countryside around Chinon. His passion and love for his surroundings is obvious and that comes through in the estates wines.

The white wines, made from chenin blanc on the region’s famous tuffeaux blanc and clay soils, bristle with energy with vivid, sapid lines and fruit profiles of apple and lemon with savoury finishes and an abundance of drive from the limestone rich soils.

There is a rosé and five red wines in the range all centred around the cabernet franc grape and all delicious. Three go through their gestation in cement tanks and three are raised in older oak barrels. All show amazing clarity and detail, those from the clay rich alluvial soils are meaty and compact with pure, juicy fruit and savoury profiles while those from the limestone soils of tuffeau blanche and tuffeau jaune showed amazing focus, space and a linear drive that propels them across the palate. Just tremendous wines.

I managed to drag a few bottles home with me. Two cabernet francs, the La Croix Boisse (white limestone) and Le Clos Guillot (yellow limestone), but one wine was of particular interest to me. It is called grolleau Franc de Pied and is made from an obscure little grape variety called grolleau. 

Now I have a penchant for wines that have a sense of spaciousness about them. Quite often they come from these obscure varieties such as poulsard, pelaverga and grolleau. While I’m in the confessional, I also have a fetish for really cheap Italian white wine, the kind of house wine you find in trattoria in Italy for €5 for a one litre carafe. I’m weird like that.

I’d had grolleau before as it is used in the super delicious Loire wine, Rosé d’Anjou, but I’d never had a straight red wine made from the variety before. What makes this one interesting is that it has been planted on its own roots (hence the name Franc de Pied) which is a rarity in France after the scourge of phylloxera ripped through the country in the 1800s.

It is absolutely gorgeous. Rare as unicorn poop though as only 400 bottles were produced, but these are the sort of wines that you seek when visiting wine regions overseas. The ones with a story, the ones that stand out from the crowd and the ones that are impossibly delicious and will remind you of a memorable winery visit when you finally crack them open when you get home. That’s what I love about wine.

The final stand-out from my visit to Chinon was a beautiful lunch at an amazing winebar called La Cabane à Vin. I guess, as with any meal, it is a combination of the surroundings, the food, the wine and your companions that make it memorable and I’d certainly lucked out in those stakes.

The wine-bar is set at the edge of a beautiful square in the centre of Chinon in one of the oldest buildings in the town dating back to the 15th century. It’s a sunny day and my companions, Mathieu Baudry, his Canadian importers and fellow Australian wine journalists, Jane Faulkner and Ralph Kyte-Powell are all in high spirits and animated conversation and laughter flows effortlessly across the table.

The food is local, simple and delicious. The most delicious pork rillette and a salad with ingredients so fresh and flavoursome that I find myself shaking my head and smiling as I take a mouthful. Fresh asparagus, terrine, a simple slow-cooked meat dish and the ubiquitous cheese course and I’m pretty much done and dusted, despite another two winery visits in the afternoon as I head onwards through the Loire.

So if you find yourself in Chinon, this beautiful slice of the Loire Valley, call in and say hi to Emilie at La Cabane à Vin, grab a bite to eat and grab a couple of bottles of wine from her amazing selection of vinous offerings to stash in the suitcase. It is the sort of venue that we need more of in Australia, warm, welcoming and food and wine that makes you smile. Ohhh! And great dining companions too, that certainly helps. Thank you Chinon. I shall be back… à plus tard.