Vicky Bishop reports from the Loire - a château a day and horses in May
We were finally off! After months of planning Lily and her faithful travelling companion Dromara happily climbed into their electric mint green horse box in Wiltshire to begin our epic journey around France.
With Ben Attlee at the wheel and Ros Stace following close behind we arrived in Portsmouth for an easy sunny crossing with P&O – a true blessing as horses don't recover from seasickness as quickly as humans.
From our first night's stop near Beauvais where the stable mascots – the goat and donkey - were the only ones awake to watch the horses clamber down on to French soil under a full moon we trundled on south to Pouilly and Sancerre.
Didier Dagueneau and his team had done some sterling work in researching where we could go by horse and had liaised with all the best local vignerons.
Saturday morning saw us trotting across to Château Tracy in the bright spring sunshine. The horses were so eager to get going – they had left England seriously fit but not knowing what on earth they had been prepared for!
Pierre Fort received us at Ch Tracy where we were joined by Didier and his friend Guy (of local charcuterie fame) on their Ducattis. The horses having had a good leg stretch obligingly hopped back into the box while we went in to taste Ch Tracy's Pouilly Fumé from tank samples through to the finished product dating back to 1996. The silex and gunflint characters give the wine tremendous expression. What a great place to start!
Then the bikes revved up and the horses were mounted and we all headed over the hill back to Didier's home for lunch. Pure Sang 1988 shone out of the glass as Guy's charcuterie started to make its way round...
After tasting Elyse 1997 Zinfandel with an impressive cheese board we squeezed in one morsel of homemade cake slathered with Didier's own jam and climbed back on board our trusty steeds.
We rode a loop around the vineyards to come back to St Andelain at a lower level to visit Didier's cousin Serge where we tasted not only their Clos de Chadoux 2000 but a red from the Coteaux Charitais – light in colour but with good fruit – not dissimilar to a Sancerre Rouge with a hint of cherry stones on the finish.
The next morning we rode to Sancerre where we were met by Alphonse Mellot in the main square. As the French flowed out after mass it was not only Alphonse's eyes that were opened as the two horses marched into the square bristling with energy after a couple of steep vineyard climbs. Despite their enthusiasm for more they happily hopped into the box again and settled down with a haynet whilst Alphonse took us around his vineyards and most impressive cellars. There we tasted three different barrel samples of La Moussière, followed by Generation XIX 1999 and then Edmond 1999. After the flinty Pouilly Fumés these carefully more rounded Sancerres with barrel ageing reflected a fascinating change from one side of the river to the other.
After a delicious Sunday lunch with Alphonse we moved on to Bourgeois in Chavignol where we saw their new state-of-the-art cellars with amazing views out over the church spire and vineyards around Chavignol. There we tasted an impressive collection of wines including their Sancerre Jadis 1999 from vines of a minimum of 50 years old before moving on to their Sancerre d'Antan 1998 and culminating in a tasting of their première cuvée: Etienne Henri 1986. My tasting note reads: 'a great mild gold colour with a complex nose of dried fruits and nuts ...while it pours outside and Lily rubs her teeth along the inside of the box.' The latter has developed into her theme tune: keen for the off!
We climbed out of the cellar and and started out for the stables at Moussard. Three hours later just after 8.30pm on that sunny Sunday evening we clopped back into the yard after traversing several vineyards, coaxing the horses across a bridge with grating that must have contained every ghost and ghoul in Sancerre – and finally a railway crossing. Brave to the end, they snorted and trotted on ...knowing there was dinner and a warm bed at the finish.
We met Didier bright and early on Monday as we went to feed the horses before packing up for Château de Fesles and Bonnezeaux and told him of our escapade. Even his eyes twinkled as we relayed the tales of crossing the bridge not to mention the 40 leather-clad bikers from the French touring club we encountered on the edge of a roundabout in the middle of Sancerre – he laughed - les anglais! But as a keen horseman his admiration went out to Lily and Dromara – the real stars.
From our base at Madame Tenaillon's charming gîte at l'Etang opposite Château de Fesles in Bonnezeaux we have explored Saumur and the National Riding School, the tufa caves housing thousands of bottles of wine, and tasted wonderful crottin and viande seche from the local market.
A château a day and horses in May ...you can't visit the region without taking in one of the stunning châteaux – and Villandry was my first choice. Their gardens are just amazing – rows of neat vegetables form one part of a huge complex and highly colourful web. From there we checked our map with a local écurie and took off along the Loire on horseback before visiting Pierre-Jacques Druet at Le Pied Fourrier in Benais where we tasted his Bourgueils with Charles and Philippa Sydney.
Saumur Champigny seems to be the team's favourite red wine of the region. The most impressive ones were Château du Hureau's with Philippe Vatan just outside Saumur, and Domaine de Roches Neuves's Marginale 1999 at the Relais de Bonnezeaux after our three-hour ride exploring the local area last night.
Château de Fesles have been most helpful, taking in our delivery of horse feed from England and giving us an excellent array of wines some of which have been enjoyed already and the remainder to be auctioned for the charities when we get home. Their Savennières remains the number one wine of the appellation.
We have also been west to St Aubin de Luigne where Madame Branchereau had mapped out a great tour for the horses and a superb tasting for us from their hillside domaine. From zingy Cepage Sauvignon 2001 we tasted our way around their property culminating in the spectacular Sélection de Grain Nobles Coteaux de Layon 1996.
Tomorrow we will take the horses out of their field for the last time and head south... Bordeaux here we come!