Wine Tasting Along France’s Loire

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The 16th-century manor, built on the site of a 12th-century home, juts out over the Cher River, and has everything in your real estate fantasy, including extensive gardens, a hedge maze, a moat, turrets, and wonderfully preserved rooms hung with emotive Tintoretto and Correggio paintings.

The kitchen and pantries, encased in stone and brick, had stuffed boars’ heads and huge meat cleavers, proving that the residents lived grandly, ate a lot of delicious game, and that the times were decidedly more brutal than our own. And nothing drove home the point more than the fact that the kitchen was equipped with an escape hatch—when the enemy approached, the residents (notably Diane de Poitiers and later the arch-nemesis who evicted her, Catherine de Médicis) could lower themselves into awaiting boats to escape down the Cher. They were always prepared to hit the road, so to speak, and I took that as my cue to press onward.

Destination: Chinon, home to my personal favorite red wine, an aromatic charmer that’s often the best value on a restaurant wine list. But I never got more lost than I did within the town of Chinon, at the center of the wine appellation, which is a little absurd given its tiny size. The one-way streets led me up, down, and around, and I think I drove on every single block until I hit the town square, on which my hotel (the so-so Best Western) happened to be situated.

But once I put the car in park, I realized that this would be the perfect place to set down temporary roots the next time I’m in the Loire. Centered on a Medieval fortress, Chinon is small and walkable, with a beautiful park on the Vienne River where old men play the traditional ball-throwing game pétanque and occasionally relieve themselves behind even older trees.

My biggest stroke of luck was to stumble on what I later learned may be Chinon’s top restaurant, L’Oceanic. At this family-owned seafood place, I ordered sandre (perch) in a Chinon sauce that had an electric purple color I’ll never forget. The exquisitely emulsified blend of butter, wine, and a touch of vinegar went perfectly with a half bottle of Domaine de la Noblaie Chinon 2006, a high-quality producer that I visited the very next day.

L’Oceanic is located on the Rue Rabelais, named for the great writer François Rabelais, Chinon’s most famous resident by a mile. His best-known work, the satirical Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, happens to be about two giants who go on a star-crossed odyssey to find something called the “Divine Bottle.” That sure sounds a lot like my own wine-obsessed quest in the Loire—and I bet the giants didn’t have GPS, either.

Ted Loos writes the “Tasting Notes” wine column for every month and also contributes to Vogue, The New York Times, and other publications. He last wrote for Gourmet Live about the Future of Georges Duboeuf. Follow him @LoosLips on Twitter, where he tweets the #WinoTheDay.

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