We started out for Domaine Montrieux just after 9 on a still, warm August morning, the Loire a blanket of green, blue and burnt gold calm. The previous day’s traveling, which had taken us the 600 plus miles from Carmarthenshire to Brendan’s place near Vendome had passed without incident. The handful of kilometers from there to Naveil were more eventful - for the first time in 30 years of driving in continental Europe, perhaps a little hazy from the night before, I took the clockwise route at a roundabout. Panic broke out, but only in our car - the other drivers confronted by this motoring madness were as placid as the weather, either slowing to a stop or gently shifting out of the way. Not a French horn blown in anger. On my part there was no such composure. I drove blindly on, with the scathing abuse from the passenger seat piercing my skull as I made a full circumnavigation before finally leaving the intersection. Back on the right side of the road, but feeling smaller than a mouse and imagining tales of British lunacy being later related in incredulous French by those I had threatened, we drove on in silence. In the back, Warren, our photographer friend had been quiet throughout, ever the observer. After a short while he leant forward, his face squeezed like a cheeky owl between the front seats, “that was interesting” he said.
We had met Ariane earlier in the year. Her effortless English a legacy of years spent working in the UK wine trade; she had given us lunch with her husband Martin a ceramicist and their two sons, the oldest of whom was home from art school in Paris. The wines we tasted seemed sublime amongst the charming miscellany of her house and the warm embrace of the family, but we knew to be wary of holiday romance; coolly stashing some bottles in the boot for calmer consideration at a distance. When we got them home we found we were still in love and so these few months later, we were back to cement the relationship. It was good to see Ariane. In February, with the rain descending, the vines dormant and time short, we had passed on making the trek to the vineyard but now, in August, there was anticipation in the air as we strode up the steep path behind her house, passing Martin’s brick workshop and a patch of dense woodland before emerging into the open fields of vines that drape the top of the hill.
It’s usually not that hard to work out which areas of vine belong to someone from the natural tendency. They will be the messy ones, the ones that look like a line up of a ramshackle home guard volunteers alongside the stiff to attention, not a leaf out of place military order of the great majority of parcels. They will be the ones with the scrubby floor of a wild orchard, rather than the neat manicure of a golf course. The Montrieux vines run to character and are composed mostly of the pineau d’aunis variety endemic to the area - a grape that has largely escaped the attention of the consumer whilst being beloved of certain winemakers - together with gamay, chenin and a small amount of cabernet franc. The 18 or so acres are in parcels spread across 6 communes of the Vendomois. Right here in the area closest to where production takes place there’s still a few weeks until the beginning of the vendange and the fruit is hanging heavy amongst the leaves but it’s not abundant, the bunches are sporadic with barren patches in between, as if there has been some theft. But they’ve not been taken, they were never there. When we came in February the winemakers we met were working with the dismally small harvest of 2016 when the vines flowered in March and the frosts came in April - a perversion of climatic order that destroyed anything up to 60% of the yield before the grapes even began to form. The people we met in the Loire then were pretty sanguine, they’re already in the habit of letting nature decide and when she acts like this nobody is in a position to defy her. Anyway, “it’s only one year” they said, “2015 was good” they said, “just so long as it doesn’t happen two years in a row” they said....
If anything 2017 was worse. The same sequence of weather occurred resulting in the same poverty of fruit. What there is, is good though and like last year Ariane will be making wine, delicious wine, just less of it. So we head back down the slope to the cellar to taste again the wine from vats and barrels and bottles. Warren snapping away between slurps, Joel swirling his glass anxiously as he quizzes Ariane on what of the little remaining stock we might be able to bring to the UK and me, the driver, assiduously spitting wine into a pot thinking about the roundabouts between here and our next destination.
Arianne’s wines can be found and indeed purchased here