Photo by David Darrault
Photo by P Merat
Hotel Le Panoramic sits in the heart of Sancerre country.
One writer discovers the best of Paris and the Loire Valley, bottle by unforgettable bottle.
Of all the hobbies I picked up to pass time in 2020’s very sheltered in place climate, my exploration of wine surpassed them all. Not only picking up a bottle and drinking it—though that was welcomed too—but also studying the labels to read about the region where its contents grew, and how the climate, soil, slope, and even fog all worked together to produce a harmonious blend of wine.
Those places became even more vivid in my mind once I decided to pursue my WSET wine certification, providing a sense of nearness and connection to the world, despite closed borders at the time. I began to see how smell, texture, and color could be so representative of a place.
During my exploration of wine, there were always two regions that satisfied, sip after sip: the Loire Valley and Burgundy. And so, despite discouraging news headlines, I made a commitment that I would travel to France and further my education in 2021. I would take this journey with Lydia Richards, a New York–based sommelier. She helped me bring my dreams of diversity to wine experiences to the virtual world in 2020 via my company CrushGlobal Travel’s initiatives and has taught me far more about wine than any book or class could.
We would taste the delicate pinot noir grapes of Burgundy and the herbaceous sauvignon blanc and versatile chenin blanc grapes of the Loire Valley that have produced my favorite sancerre and vouvray bottles. Our dream road trip, fueled by both our love of wine and excitement to see the world again, would finally happen.
My oenophile aspirations begin early on with United Airlines’ Polaris flight to France, where impressive pours of decade-old burgundy and French merlot serve as an appetizer for what’s to come.
In Paris, as luck (or the wine gods) would have it, our first night of wandering aimlessly leads to a natural wine bar called Magnum La Cave. The ambience is everything I crave: very small groups and very good natural bottles from brands taking a more sustainable approach to winemaking. We open a bottle of Domaine des Fables’ Gamabumba—a red wine produced with gamay grapes from eastern France’s Bugey region. The smoked chocolate and raspberry flavors give my palate just the kick needed to round out the saltiness of the pork-driven charcuterie that we devour almost as quickly as the wine.
In the evening, we check into Sonder Atala, a network of apartments that are available for travelers to rent. The company offers short- and long-term rentals in 30 cities in 8 countries, with 4,500+ listings worldwide. We’re mindful of social distancing and hotel crowds, and the stay is a perfect alternative to traditional check-ins, with an app that allows us to make an early arrival request and even view the best restaurants in the area. Rooms are comfortable, bright, and considerably larger than a standard Paris hotel, and my view of the Eiffel Tower twinkling in the distance at night doesn’t hurt either.
Book now: Sonder Atala
The next day, a wine pairing at Hugo & Co. in the fifth arrondissement is slow and steady. Chef Tomy Gousett (who returned to France after some time at Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel in New York City) works intently under the lights of the open air kitchen to create plates of duck pâté topped with fig and encased in a flaky crust, a tender Iberian pork with roasted parsnip and carrots, as well as poached pear with cinnamon and caramel ice cream. The wines placed on our bare oak table to pair with the food are anything but simple like the decor, including an elegant David Moret 2016 – AOP Meursault that defies the outrage over excessively buttery chardonnays with its light minerality.
Another culinary extravaganza occurs at Le Sergent Recruteur, a one-Michelin star restaurant helmed by chef Alain Pégouret, who worked for years under the tutelage of Joël Robuchon. In the open air kitchen, Pégouret and his team create a number of dishes, including a sea bream ceviche with coriander sorbet and chicken roasted with black garlic under its skin—a dish that did not last very long on our plates because of its tender, umami rich flavor.
For our last dinner, we pull out our fancy coats for L’Écrin, Hôtel de Crillon’s Michelin-starred restaurant set in an intimate 28-seat dining room. The wine cellar is overseen by head sommelier Xavier Thuizat, who recommends a 2014 Domaine Arnoux-Lachaux pinot noir from Côte de Nuits that sings of cherry, forest floor, and rose petals. The wine is a nice accompaniment to the show-stopping five-course menu from chef Boris Campanella, which includes a terrine of game meat and scallops swimming in a decadent beurre blanc. The quintessential French cheese cart presentation rounds out our fine dining experience, and we leave full of good food and conversation.
After three days of city life, it’s time to say au revoir to Paris and drive about three hours southwest to the central valley of Loire. In 2020, more than 5 million people visited this UNESCO World Heritage site for its fairy-tale-like châteaux, gardens, and wine. In the Loire Valley, there are more than 25 Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which, in broader terms, indicates the grapes’ geographical origin. We will visit some of the Loire Valley’s most well-known AOCs: Le Vouvray, Le Sancerre, and our first stop, Chinon.
Winding streets lead to centuries-old castles, tiny shops, and of course, the vineyards of the prized grape for which the region is known. Chinon is a medieval village that produces the eponymous wines that are cherry red to deep garnet colored and made from the cabernet franc grape, with a leafy flavor made more intense by aging to create flavors of baking spices.
At our first tasting, we sip Château de La Grille’s range of Chinon wines, including whites made from chenin blanc, rosés, and reds. The property dates back to the 15th century and is one of the few in the Loire Valley that is surrounded by its own vineyards. Just 10 minutes from La Grille in the Savigny-en-Véron district sits a family-owned, well-loved producer: Olga Raffault.
We luck out and have a tasting with Olga’s granddaughter Sylvie, who now runs the estate alongside her husband Eric to produce wines handpicked and fermented in stainless steel. Alluvial clay with a chalk limestone base give Raffault wines a distinct, refreshing minerality; our favorites included the dry and jammy Les Barnabés, as well as limited chenin blanc called Champ-Chenin—with notes reminiscent of chamomile tea.
In the evening, we check into Château du Rivau, a 13th-century castle with a storied history that even includes a visit from Joan of Arc, and which certainly would have made my younger self sit by the window and await a pumpkin carriage. On the grounds, there are 14 intricately manicured gardens with 450 rose varieties and seven rooms that are all inspired by Renaissance figures. The on-site restaurant offers a flavorful three-course menu of the day, with decadent dishes like seared beef cheeks with a whipped foie gras, and many vegetables and herbs procured from the estate’s gardens.
Book now: Château du Rivau
Spotting grand architecture while driving through the Loire Valley is easy: There are hundreds of châteaux, including ones that are private and open to the public.
Château de Chenonceau is one of France’s most striking and visited sites, second only to the Palace of Versailles. Nicholas Tolman, an American designer who has restored the grounds, uses traditional gardening methods to maintain the gardens and decorates the inside of the châteaux with seasonal bouquets. This is a place you want to spend a full afternoon exploring.
Just a 20-minute drive from Chenonceau in the old town of Amboise, we check into a 17th-century mansion, Hotel Clos d’Amboise. The foliage-wrapped estate offers a large garden area to enjoy, and inside, 20 period furnished rooms and bistro where a bottle of Château de Pez 2018 Saint-Estèphe makes me long to return to Bordeaux. The next morning, a 15-minute drive brings us to another grape to explore in Vouvray.
Book now: Hotel Clos d’Amboise
The Vouvray appellation on the Loire Valley’s Touraine region produces the white grapes of chenin blanc that can be still or sparkling, dry or sweet. After a few wrong turns, we make our way up a hill in Vernou-sur-Brenne to Le Clos de la Meslerie, a small estate owned by vigneron Peter Hahn and his partner Juliette Gidon. We could have easily spent the entire day there, and almost did, in part because of Peter and Juliette’s sense of humor and passion about wine, but also because of the single organic vouvray grown on the 20-to-60-year-old vines just outside the salon.
These limited production bottles are everything a chenin blanc should be: chameleonic and coyly acidic, with the true character of the terroir shining through each sip. Juliette manages a bed-and-breakfast on the estate where she prepares amuse-bouches like beet and goat cheese millefeuille with a soy and balsamic vinegar dressing paired with their wine, which is biodynamically and organically grown with natural yeasts in old presses.
After we drive a half-hour along narrow, dirt roads, a lush forest pathway leads to Les Sources de Cheverny, a stunning property that includes an 18th-century château, traditional stone farmhouses, and quaint cabins. One could easily spend hours fireside in the lobby (and we do) or get lost in tranquility at the Caudalie spa housed in a double-height barn, which features an indoor pool and floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook 110 acres of private forest.
In the morning, we’re off to the northwest on a three-hour drive to an appellation that I’ve been anticipating since our arrival: Sancerre. The grapes are sauvignon blanc and have fueled some of my best summer nights with a crisp acidity and notes of flint and honeysuckle. At Domaine Vacheron, I taste pinot noir–based sancerres for the first time. It’s love at first sip, and as often is the case with love, I am left heartbroken to learn that the Sancerre Belle Dame I’d like to take home is completely sold out.
At Famille Bourgeois, a much larger producer a 10-minute drive away in the village of Chavignol, the citrusy sancerre that I first fell in love with is ever flowing. The Bourgeois family has been producing sauvignon blanc and pinot noir for 10 generations, and it’s a great brand for anyone curious to begin their foray into Sancerre at a level of price points and aging potential.
The night in Sancerre ends with, you guessed it, more Sancerre— first at Le Panoramic hotel’s dimly lit bar, then at La Tour, a living room–size restaurant that serves a bottle of Domaine Fouassier’s Rouge sancerre that is so velvety and packed with notes of wild strawberry and clove, that we make our way to the nearby estate to pick up a few bottles before saying goodbye to the Loire Valley . . . and hitting the road for another wine center of France: Burgundy.
My travel partner and I used the fun new United Trip Planner feature on the United Airlines app to coordinate our flights. It allowed us to share our preferred flights, vote on the best option, and even book directly on the app.
While driving in the Loire Valley, be sure to have a reliable navigation system in place or download your wine route in advance, especially if you’re driving at night.
Many châteaux do not require advance reservations. For vineyards, it is best to check the website for tasting appointment requirements.
By car: The Wine Routes
By bike: Loire by Bike
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