Sunday, September 30, 2012

Day 1 - The Wine Trip

Yes, I have a pretty good job. I get to taste lots of wine, but the best part is the opportunity to travel the world’s wine regions. Being on the ground is essential to understanding more profoundly what the wines are all about. It’s about meeting winemakers and grape growers on their turf.

But wine travel is not always easy. Winemakers tend to be a festive group — wine writers can be as well — and love pouring their wines. Once they get you in their grips, they will pour and pour. These trips are a constant battle with staying on schedule, avoiding excess and, most importantly, trying to get enough sleep.

My partner used to give me that “yeah, right” look when I would arrive home from one of these trips and would need a few days to recover. That was until I brought her along on one of them. After Day 1, she said I would never be allowed to complain again. After Day 2, she was only tasting half the wines poured during the afternoon visits. By Day 3, she didn’t even want to put a glass to her lips.
So what’s it really like? Right now, I am in France’s Loire Valley. What follows is a typical “Day 1” — from winemaker to winemaker, one glass to the next.

Sunday, Sept. 9

7:50 p.m.: Plane is taxiing and leaving on time. It’s packed. I’m in economy, hoping to sleep as I have to hit the ground running tomorrow morning.

Monday, Sept. 10

8:10 a.m.: Six-hour flight and a six-hour time change. That’s the problem with the overnight flight — there isn’t enough overnight. Managed almost three hours of sleep, so not bad.
9:15 a.m.: Cleared customs in Paris and have my luggage. Looking for my taxi driver.
9:26 a.m.: Found her. My driver, Inès, says we have a minimum 2½-hour drive to get to Sancerre, the easternmost appellation of the Loire Valley. I need a coffee in a bad way, and haven’t eaten anything aside from a poor excuse for a muffin on the plane.
10:15 a.m.: Stuck in Paris traffic. I was hoping to sleep, but Inès loves to chat. Turns out we have a common challenge: raising a 12-year-old daughter.
10:48 a.m.: Finally cruising down the autoroute. Coffee stop No. 1. Automatic espresso dispenser at the gas station. That will have to do. We’re late. I knew I wasn’t going to make the first winery visit of the day at 9 a.m., and now I will have to miss the second. We are going directly to a restaurant in Sancerre, where I am to join up with my travelling mate, Toronto sommelier John Szabo, who arrived a day earlier.
12:30 p.m.: I arrive at the bistro, on time, to meet John and a woman named Hélène who works for the local wine syndicate, which handles the promotional and communications needs of the Centre Loire (the regions of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and other neighbouring areas). She will be driving us — making sure we arrive sort of on time — over the next two days. John and Hélène aren’t here, but I get an espresso and sit in the sun and wait.
eing poured. We step in. Like most French, they love to chat with Quebecers.
3:30 a.m.: Finally get to bed. Need this. We leave in four hours. Five wineries, one winemaker lunch and a dinner on the schedule.

1:05 p.m.: They show up late, but that isn’t a shock. It is rare that a winemaker doesn’t open one last bottle of something special just before you are supposed to be leaving. I am just happy to have some food and wine. Four bottles are open. One great white from Tinel-Blondelet, the tasting I just missed, and a great red from Chotard. Good to have a glass of wine and eat some crottin de Chavignol, the famous goat cheese of the Sancerre region.
2:15 p.m.: Next tasting is scheduled for 2 p.m., which means I’m late for it. The little village bistro where I’m eating is not big on speedy service. “The dessert is coming,” says our waiter. It gets there 10 minutes later, and after another espresso, we are off.
2:40 p.m.: Arrive at Pascal Jolivet winery, which was luckily only a 10-minute drive from the restaurant, 40 minutes late. Quickly lay out the game plan for the visit with the people at the winery: 30-minute vineyard tour with the vineyard manager to learn about soil types. Interesting guy with 30 years of grape-growing experience. Lots to talk about: organic conversion, the different soils found in the region. Thirty minutes becomes 60.
3:40 p.m.: Begin tasting with the head winemaker and the vineyard guy. Fifteen wines on the table in front of us, each from a different vineyard site. Talk centres on the difference between Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. In the end, there isn’t that much of a difference.
4:24 p.m.: Powering through the wines. Next visit is with Alphonse Mellot, a legend in the region, scheduled for 4 p.m. He said not to be late. He won’t be surprised that we are, as many winemakers will say this just to make sure we aren’t really, really late.
4:37 p.m.: Only around 40 minutes late; Mellot is there and full of energy. It’s cloudy and hot. Coffee buzz has worn off. Starting to feel really tired.
5:19 p.m.: Mellot loves to talk. Been tasting wines from last year’s vintage from barrels for the last half-hour. Haven’t even started tasting bottles yet. There is a lot of action in the facility, as harvest starts in two weeks and the barrels and grape presses need to be cleaned.
5:41 p.m.: I need air, so we take the tasting outside — on the street of this tiny village. Mellot leaves and comes back every 10 minutes with a new wine to taste. I sit on the curb, spitting into the street drain. Lose track of how many wines we’ve tasted.
6:15 p.m.: My third wind kicks in; I am feeling more energetic. Four Austrians show up to taste, then Nadine, the assistant maître d’hôtel at a local restaurant. Yan, a friend of John from Ottawa, shows up out of nowhere.

6:28 p.m.: Haven’t moved from my spot on the curb. Mellot keeps coming back with more and more wine. Locals passing by stop and join in. This is becoming a street party wine tasting.
6:54 p.m.: Really need to check in to my hotel, and desperately need a shower. Mellot brings a bottle of white, no label, and wants to play “guess the vintage.” The wine is still fresh; the colour is getting golden. Something tells me it’s a 2002. I am right. I ask for my prize and I get a big hug from Mellot.
7:10 p.m.: Really want to go now. Have a dinner with a winemaker in less than an hour. Mellot now wants us to try a white wine that has spent 24 years in barrel. I stay. Tastes like sherry.
7:40 p.m.: Hélène finally drives me to the hotel. John has stayed with Mellot and said he will meet us there. Just time for a quick shower and a change of clothes. A bit dizzy now from the tasting, trying to synthesize all this new information under a lack of sleep.
7:55 p.m.: Hurry downstairs and meet Hélène, who is waiting to drive to the restaurant to meet Sophie, winemaker at Eric Louis winery. “Where’s John?” she asks. “Dunno,” I reply. “Probably still with Alphonse.”
8:10 p.m.: Late again, trying to find John in the maze that is Mellot’s wine cellar.
8:15 p.m. Find him, and hurry to the restaurant.
8:25 p.m.: Make it, though our initial reservation for five has grown to seven, as we have invited Nadine and Yan to accompany us.
11 p.m.: Dinner almost finished. Have tasted maybe 15 Sancerres and Châteaumeillants (a new appellation that grows gamay and pinot noir on granite soils). Coffees all around. Feeling good. We decide to take the 15-minute walk back to the hotel. John grabs a bottle. “Just in case,” he says.
12:30 a.m.: As usually happens, I don’t really feel tired now — even though I haven’t slept in what seems like days. Jet lag has officially kicked in, and from experience I know that the key is to stay up as long as possible. John, Yan and I end up sitting on a curb having a nightcap, catching up. It’s a beautiful night in a tiny country village, though I go through waves of fatigue.
1:30 a.m.: Finally moving back to the hotel. Come across a small bar, the Ramparts. Typical of the French, Champagne is being poured. We step in. Like most French, they love to chat with Quebecers.
3:30 a.m.: Finally get to bed. Need this. We leave in four hours. Five wineries, one winemaker lunch and a dinner on the schedule.
Each winery has its own story. My job is to take all these stories, and all the information culled from these visits, and turn them into a portrait of the region. In a few weeks, I will do my first article on the Loire. After I catch up on some sleep.

Originally published in The Montreal Gazette, September 23, 2012

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