August 19, 2013
Distance: 17 miles Climbing: 941.6 ft
We were excited to be biking again, especially since we had a plan. Ultimately, we were headed to Nouans les Fontaines which was a few days riding away. We enjoyed the scenery along the river, so we decided stay along the Loire as long as possible.
This area of France produces some nice wines and tuffeau limestone. The iconic building material can be seen everywhere, most walls and stone builings in the Loire Valley are built using tuffeau limestone. The material was mined by prisoners in earlier centuries to provide material for the magnificent châteaux lining the river. The caves that remain now are used for a number of different purposes, from restaurants to art galleries to wine production and storage.
We headed to one such place which makes and store wine inside the caves, Louis de Grenelle. The caves offer a perfect environment for store wines while its ages, the temperature stays at a constant 12°C year round. With over 2.5 km of caves, there is more than enough space for for their 4 million bottles.
Louis de Grenelle specializes in producing sparkling wines. The process is the same as used to make Champagne, which of course is a regional designation. The main grapes they use are Chenin blanc, Cabernet franc and some Chardonnay. From what we understood, this is the last wine cave in the region that is still actively used as a production facility, as opposed to just a storage site. Unconditioned wine is trucked in from the family’s estate and stored in large underground vats. The one million bottles of wine are all filled with one small machine in the cave. They cap the bottles with a regular beer type bottle cap and let them age. The owners apparently enjoy their wine without any further processing, but the suspended yeasts create an ascetically unappealing cloudiness.
The consumer destined bottles go through a unique process called “riddling”. It used to be a laborious manual process where each bottle was slowly inverted and rotated over the course of around two weeks, so that all the solid residuals settle at the top of the bottle neck, against the cap. The process is now automated with big robots that carefully rotate huge crates of the bottles. Next, they flash-freeze just the neck of the bottle and remove the temporary metal bottle cap. The frozen plug of sediment is ejected by the carbonated pressure in the bottle. A cork is quickly inserted and the clear, sediment-free sparkling wine is ready to go!
As part of the tour, we also enjoyed a tasting. The wines were all quite nice, but we really don’t know much about wine appreciation. To us the most interesting one was the sparkling red wine. At first, it tasted like a normal red, but then the bubbles explode in your mouth and things just get a little confusing for your brain. Hard the explain, but it was very tasty and we ended up buying a bottle.
After our tasting, we didn’t really feel like cycling anymore and just wanted to enjoy a bottle of wine. We cycled through the town of Saumur, which was cute and situated along the river. It seems like every town has a castle or giant château and this village was no exception.
We went to a few campgrounds, but they were all the bizarre resort type places and nothing was less than 25€, which was way out of our price range. We figured we would keep biking along to Loire and either come across a place to free camp or another campground within our budget. We were lucky and found a great free campsite right along the river. We were hidden from the road and people boating on the river didn’t seem to care we were there.
Our first order of business was to chill our wine in the river, then make dinner. We had delicious veggie burritos with lots of guacamole. A perfect Mexican meal to go with a nice bottle of French wine. We were feeling very multicultural. Once dinner was cleaned up and put away, we were ready for dessert. I pulled our wine from the river, only to discover the bottle was warmer than when I had originally put it in. The water was actually perfect for swimming and warmer than the air temperature. So much for that idea!