We recently visited the nearby Grand Caves Saint Roch, the largest troglodyte in the region. This is our second visit to a wine cave, only nine hundred and ninety eight to go. Well, this is the Val de Loire, France’s third largest wine region with, if anyone is counting, four thousand vineyards, a thousand of which welcome visitors.
Les Grand Caves are very welcoming and not at all daunting. No pressure to taste or to buy after the tour. Staff are so kind to wine tasting virgins (us) we confessed we like our wine on the moelleux spectrum. Did they have any? Yes, two. One, very reasonably priced which we came away with. The other one, very rare, we put on hold for a special occasion.
Now. There are wine caves and then there are these. Almost two miles of them. Astonishing, by anyone’s reckoning, a truly wonderful experience (as long as you wear a woolly). The caves have an average temperature of 12 degrees centigrade (53.6F) . What we are really looking at is an old stone quarry first mined a thousand years ago. Tufa was used to build some of the three thousand châteaux in this area.
Tufa, a soft porous chalk which hardens to white stone when exposed to light and air is found all over the Loire Valley. Easily transportable by water, hauliers loaded it on to flat bottom boats (gabares) which explains why so many châteaux were built on or near a river.
We were happy to see a statue of Saint Roch, our favourite saint. All over this region you see him in churches (a town near Chinon is named after him) dog at his side. He is always depicted drawing attention to a nasty looking wound on his leg.
Turns out that, because of his name, Roch which means rock, he is the patron saint of stone hauliers.
Saint Roch was real (unlike Saint Emilion adopted by another wine growing region)! Born in Montpellier during The Black Death, he trained as a doctor. Trying to cure people of bubonic plague he was himself struck down so hid in a forest ringing a warning bell if people came near. The landowner sent him bread rolls carried by his dog every day until he recovered.
On his way back to Montpellier, was arrested as a spy by the Duke of Milan and died around 1380 in Italy after five years in prison.
Quarrying here stopped in the late 1400s although châteaux continued to be built until 1530 (Villandry). It may be the miners were needed to defend their country against the English invasion which went on for over a hundred years until 1473.
Five hundred years later, during WWII, local French men and women resisting another invasion met in the caves. The entrance to nearby Château Chenonceau on the Cher was in the occupied zone, the exit was in the Free Zone.
Today, the caves are used to age and store one and a half million bottles of Les Bulles de Loire Blanc Foussy.
Grapes pressed by local winemakers are bought in. Production is in nearby Vouvray.
The traditional method of bottle fermentation takes on average up to one year but can take three. Ageing happens in the bottle not in the barrel.
Wine making is so labour intensive no-one should resent the price (although here they are very affordable). Harvesting grapes for high quality sparkling wine is by hand. Pickers, using pruning shears, deposit clusters in crates put on a trailer then onto a lorry for the grape dump.
Grapes are pressed and vinificated (technique to transform grape juice into wine) in stainless steel tanks. The first natural fermentation (transformation of the sugar into alcohol) results in a basic wine.
A cellar master blends different basic wines. He adds sugar and yeast when the wines are bottled. Bottles, sealed with a plastic capsule, are stored in wooden cases in a natural constant temperature of 12°C. This period produces a second alcoholic fermentation during which the yeast and sugar slowly transform into alcohol. Once the fermentation is over, the wine is left to mature for twelve, twenty-four or thirty-six months after which bottles are turned and tilted to a vertical position, allowing the yeast deposit to slide down into the neck of the bottle.
The closed bottles are placed upside down with the neck in a refrigerated solution at minus 25°C. After a few minutes, an ice cork forms in the neck capturing the deposit.
The bottle is automatically placed on the line in an upright position and opened. Under the pressure, the ice cork is ejected, eliminating the deposit. The lost volume is topped up by a liqueur which will determine the wine’s style. Depending upon its composition (rate of sugar) it will produce either a brut or demi-sec wine. The bottles are dressed with the final cork, a wire hood, a bottle label and a neck label.
Do visit Les Grand Caves Saint Roch where not only will you be very welcome you will find to your delight you can fill the car with very fine wines.
Post by Pamela
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