European wine shows often and ingeniously sport a catchy name with the syllable wine/vin/wein in it. Prowein in March, Vinitaly in April, Vinisud somewhere soon. And I have just returned from one such in Paris called Vinovision; an event showcasing French cooler climate wines.
I was unaware of this one’s existence until I received an invitation from the Wine Merchant Magazine to go along as their guest; I presumed paid for by some of the exhibiting producers although I don’t like to pry.
I have described the format of such excursions in these pages before and although they are generally organised with military precision by the people behind them, they remain eminently hijackable by enterprising delegates so whatever their agenda might be it is usually possible to modify proceedings to meet mine. With this in mind, and having checked the dates, I accepted the challenge.
Another reason for agreeing was that Champagne is cool climate. And since Paul Clouet/Bonnaire decided to sign an exclusive deal with a fast-asleep London importer (grrrr) we need a new one.
So it was only a minor setback when the list of producers arrived, a list from which I had to select eight to meet. And they were all Loire Valley; a region that I feel we serve relatively well in our offer. Turns out that on this occasion it was a group from the Loire that were paying. And not just any old Loire either, this lot were Coteaux de Layon, Chinon, Saumur, Saumur Champigny, etc.; tough wines to sell around these parts. So I chose eight almost at random avoiding Muscadet (we have an excellent one), Touraine (ditto) and comically unsellable upper Loire villages like Reuilly and Quincy.
I have some experience of keeping meetings with unpromising potential suppliers short without appearing too rude and so I was confident that I could bang through the list and still have time to find some more commercial would-be suppliers.
So we were all set. As my niece Chloë lives and works in Paris I arranged to meet for supper and got our sponsors to extend the same day return on the Eurostar to an overnighter, booked a suitably grotty/cheap hotel room (something I am only permitted to do when travelling alone) in the 11th arrondissement and girded my loins in anticipation of my customary public transport shenanigans.
I think it is fair to say that I have a poor history of travelling amongst the great unwashed. More superstitious people than me might even say that my very presence causes buses to crash, trains to encounter wrong snow, timetables to go awry and other assorted disasters. And Paris had just endured record rainfall, snow, floods and general pestilence. On top of this I was travelling alone without my usual carer who normally takes charge of reading station signs, buying tickets, knowing the time, etc.
How exciting I thought as I set my alarm clock for 3.30am; what an adventure I am going to have. The forecast said minus five in the morning so we had ice to look forward to as well. Perhaps the Dartford crossing would be closed!
I have taken the Eurostar from Ebbsfleet before and it is an absolute pleasure. For those who haven’t tried it, it is as though whoever designed and built it was completely unaware of what an utter misery international travel should be. Like they never went to an airport before. It is conveniently situated close to Dartford just off the M25, you park within a stones throw of the terminal, check-in is a piece of cake and even passport control is civilised. And they don’t send you out onto a freezing platform until the train is almost in. It’s almost as if they cared.
And to top it all off, the train itself is fast and relatively comfortable; it’s never broken down once when I have been on it. First Class is worth having if you can get a deal but no such luck this time. Except they don’t call it anything so old-fashioned as First Class of course. Premier Business or something.
The other delegates were London types and were travelling from a place called St. Pancreas and were going to arrive at the Gare de Nord an hour later so our guide Arnaud had given me the choice of either waiting that hour at the Gare and travelling to the Expo Centre at Porte de Versailles across town with them or, and imagine the challenge, take a thing called an RER “B” heading south to Cité Université and then swap to a tram (A TRAM!) for the final leg. A single ticket would work on both and it was a really easy thing to do. Parisiens did it every day.
Considering that my first appointment was (not by me) scheduled for 10 minutes before their train even arrived, I thought I’d give the solo thing a go.
And do you know what? There were clear signs for RER all over the place; I just had to follow them which I did, nonchalantly and with a shrug like a local buying a ticket from a machine along the way. Okay so it nicked a euro off me but hey, still cheap.
And what a thing an RER is! Its not an underground train because they are called Metros in France and are completely different. But it is a train, has tubelike slidey doors and, wait for it, it runs underground. Not only that but it comes with a team of cheerleaders; older men dressed in really nice red uniforms who wave a kind of dance at each door. At first I thought the homme rouge at the door nearest to me was waving me onto the train, but the train was completely full and so he couldn’t have been. It was only later that it dawned on me that he was actually just celebrating the wonder of the RER. I couldn’t help contrasting between this level of almost-superfluous ceremonial staffing and the arguments raging at Britain’s Southern Rail about whether trains need any staff at all.
The “B” suffix to RER relates to the track I think but it is designed to fool foreigners. The RER I needed stopped next to a large “D” but I saw through this subterfuge.
I got on the next one which was slightly less full but still properly and redly manned. Three cheers for RER; hip-hip……
Getting off at the correct stop was a doddle. Each stop has a sign up saying what it is called and a diagram on the wall of the RER corresponds to it exactly. Piece of cake for us seasoned travellers.
And as I emerged from the Cité Université station (or Gare as I now call them) there was a tram. Right in front of me, waiting. Here’s a little wrinkle though; when you get on one it is important that you validate your ticket by inserting it into a machine mounted amidships. Failure to do this, I discovered, causes officials in pairs to approach you and suggest that you do. It was while being gently defenestrated from the tram that I discovered that Arnaud’s “…one ticket works on both RER and tram…” may have been an exaggeration. They don’t and I had to apologetically buy the correct ticket from a machine the screen of which directly faced the bright sun and was thus unreadable.
When I finally arrived at the Expo a mere 10 minutes late for my first appointment, and with the words “your entry ticket will be waiting for you at the gate” ringing in my ears, I learnt that I hadn’t been registered so had to fill in all my details on a computer that didn’t have a QWERTY keyboard. Now if somebody had described this experience to me as I am to you, I would have thought “how hard can it be?”, just slow down a bit and type deliberately carefully. It’s much harder than that in practise though and even an untrained slow typist like me found it a real task. This was further complicated by the absence of UK or Royaume Uni or Britain in the country options box. Needless to say this is a red and therefore “mandatory” box. I opted in the end for DR Congo as it is somewhere I would like to visit one day.
If any of you remember the Krypton Factor…….
Anyway, after a quick chat with my old friend Julien Breuzon of Champagne Vollereux (and previously Paul Clouet/Bonnaire) I was in!
There then followed a series of meetings with winemakers during which I learnt a lot about the Loire Valley, Cabernet Franc (the dominant red grape of the region and a real delight), sweet wines that nobody in England buys and the oft-boasted similarities between Crèmant de Loire and Champagne. It is telling that Champenois never draw the comparison……
Although these were producers from areas I would not ordinarily pursue, I was educated and impressed by what I found. Far from being light, non-serious reds drunk chilled and young, these Saumurs, Champignys, Anjous and Chinons were bold, robust and most definitely age-worthy; proper alternatives to the wines of Bordeaux just down the road and although nobody ever asks me for them in the UK, they really are wines that we should start championing. After all, if not us then whom? Didn’t see any supermarket buyers there.
Of particular interest were the wines of Patrice and son Remy (third and fourth generation) of Domaine de la Guilloterie of Saumur Champigny. Not cheap but with a price/quality ratio easily the equal of more commercial areas of France. Their oak aged Chenin Blanc is right up there with a decent Village Burgundy in style and substance and no dearer than a Sancerre. I am saving up already.
Donning just for a moment my hijacker’s hat I headed for the Champagne section of the room, an area I had been eyeing up all day as I trudged between aspirant Loiristes. I had studied the exhibitor’s list a little beforehand and there were a couple of promising-looking Champenoise that I had earmarked for a visit.
One in particular who shall remain nameless but whose wines scored really well in the New York Times but were not imported to the UK.
While I thoroughly enjoyed talking to this charming couple, and was fascinated to learn their reasons for not pursuing the UK market, the wines themselves simply didn’t impress me enough.
I did, however, meet a couple of fellas whose wines cried out for attention. And I shall be doing my best to import some of these beauties just as soon as we have tasted further samples back at the farm.
I quit the show and headed back to the 11th where I had a dinner date with Chloë. We found the kind of café in which Maigret would have lurked had it not been so clichéd and we ordered rillettes to share and flank steak “a point” with frites to follow. We didn’t order one but we did get to enjoy a debate (argument is too strong a word) with the waiter about the best wine to drink. I ordered Brouilly, got Chinon to try (macho tannic rubbish) and ended up with a serviceable Fleurie.
Rillettes were a great slab of unctuous naughtiness, the frites weren’t frites at all and were none the worse for that but the bavette; oh the bavette was a joyous, tough-as-old-boots, burnt to a crisp yet raw-on-the-inside riot of a thing. Worth the chew when it tastes this good and is this cheap.
One highlight of dinner was practising my crap French with the nice people on the next table who had thoughtfully brought their Border Terrier out for dinner purely to further Euro entente cordiale.
Shan’t bore you with less-then-straightforward taxi journey across from the Expo with a driver unfamiliar with Paris or my near failure to disembark the Eurostar at Ebbsfleet because they don’t announce the stop.
I’ll save them for a future post…..