There was a distinctly British feel to Saumur last week as the whole town turned out for Les Grandes Tablées du Saumur-Champigny, a celebration of French wines, and just for this year, British food. To add to the British feel of the occasion, the 100 or so volunteers who manned food stands and poured the wine, wore bowler hats and there were union flags on their bright red T-shirts.
And whilst British food may not often be the first choice for loyal lovers of French cuisine, the open-air banquet for 6,000 people, held in the impressive town square, provided a delicious interpretation of classics such as mushroom pies, pork pies and fruit crumble.
Naturally there was a Gallic twist to the menu, so the pork pies were made from a medal-winning terrine recipe with a crisp pastry top, and the mushroom pies were shaped like pasties, but these variations on a theme just added to the fun of the whole occasion. It helped to have Saumur’s recently retired master baker François Sassier, in charge of the food. He looked relieved and delighted as the mountains of pies and pasties were enthusiastically consumed.
So why was there a nod to Britain for this local celebration? The association goes back to the 12th century, to the time of Plantagenet King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, who together ruled this part of France. Their kingdom stretched from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees, and their dynasty lasted over 300 years, ending with Richard III. Henry and Eleanor were both buried in the Abbey of Fontevraud, close to Saumur, and their tomb effigies remain there. Side by side in the beautiful abbey, they appear to be the perfect medieval couple, but despite or maybe because of their eight children, they spent most of their time warring on a serious scale.
To round off the association of this part of France with England, a plan was announced at the dinner in Saumur to create an effigy of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet kings, to lie alongside his ancestors.
But while I was fascinated by the history of the region, the honey-coloured stone of the grand châteaux that line the banks of the Loire, and even the troglodyte homes whose windows, doors and grand entrances have been dug into the soft porous limestone, I was really in Saumur to taste the wines.
There are vines dotted along the whole 600 miles length of the Loire, from Sancerre in the centre of France to Muscadet in the west. This region is famous for its sparkling wines, whites, reds and sweet wines, but on one particular plateau of soft, local limestone known as tuffeau, the Cabernet Franc grape produces some of its most vibrant, delicious flavours. This is Saumur-Champigny, a tiny triangle of the Saumur vineyard, anchored by the town at one corner, bordered by the river to the north and stretching a few miles south to St-Cyr-en-Bourg.
The vineyard area follows the tuffeau, a crumbly, well-drained, alkaline soil that is the remnant of a vast shallow sea. This is the region where Cabernet Franc shows its best flavours. Tasting of crushed fresh raspberries, with notes of red cherries and just a touch of green herbaceous character, these are red wines that appreciate just 30 minutes in the fridge to add vitality to the flavours. They go well with all kinds of summer foods, not just pork pies and mushroom pasties, but oven-baked fish, herb-sprinkled chicken and tomato-rich pasta.
Cabernet Franc is more usually found in a blend, particularly in Bordeaux blends, but here in Saumur-Champigny it shines on its own. It is one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon and so has some of those same red summer berry fruit flavours, but because it buds and ripens at least a week earlier it is well suited to this northern climate. I spent time driving through this tiny region, tasting wines and meeting the vignerons and they have been working hard to develop consistency of style and quality. As the landscape changes, with slopes and with aspect to the sun, so do the wines, but throughout the region there is a clear thread of quality running through the wines. Tannins are soft and velvety, flavours are concentrated and there is a harmony on the finish.
The growers and the local co-operative work together to maintain standards and there is a programme of work in the region on biodiversity, to encourage a more natural way of controlling pests. The wine poured at the Grandes Tablées was made specially for the occasion, with each grower contributing grapes from the 2014 harvest. They will be making another wine for the 2016 Grandes Tablées, but if you want to enjoy this region sooner, then the whole region will be “en fete” for Festivini from September 5 to 13. There is a programme of events, from tastings and visits to walks, cycle-rides and even horse riding amongst the vines. The beautifully restored Abbey at Fontevraud will be part of the celebrations with a grand tasting taking place in the grounds. Go to www.festivini.com for more details.
If you haven’t tried a wine from Saumur-Champigny there are several available locally. Here are my top choices:
• Domaine Filliatreau 2013 (Le Bon Vin, Sheffield, £13, or £10.99 on multi-buy) Elegant summer-berry fruit and silky tannins.
• Domaine de Rocheville ‘Le Page’ 2014 (Hoults, Huddersfield, £13.99). An excellent, ripe vintage with clear raspberry and cherry fruit and a hint of white pepper on the finish.
• Croix de Chaintres 2013 (Waitrose, £12.79) Lively herbaceous style, with supple fruit and a long finish.
• Langlois-Chateau Saumur-Champigny 2012 (Latitude, Leeds, £11.99) The scent of violets on the nose, raspberry and dark cherry fruit and velvety tannins.