By Wink Lorch
Testing out the insider expert advice on Wine Travel Guides is definitely one of the perks of my job. As a wine educator, I used to advise my students that by choosing top producers from lesser-known wine appellations, they would find better value than choosing a nobody from the well-known appellations. It’s no different with a wine tour, so when we wanted a stop en route to visit my sister south of Tours, we checked out Jim Budd’s guide to the Central Vineyards of the Loire and planned our Saturday.
We’d both already visited Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire (home to Pouilly Fumé and arguably one of the most boring ‘famous wine villages’ in France!), so we decided on a short visit to one of the more obscure Central Vineyards appellations: Menetou-Salon, Quincy or Reuilly. We selected Menetou-Salon for the simple reason that we could link up a visit and tasting at a family-owned domaine with lunch at an interesting-sounding restaurant.
Pierre Jacolin of Le Prieuré de Saint Céols was initially reserved and somewhat preoccupied as during Saturday afternoon and Sunday that first weekend of August, the Menetou-Salon producers were holding ‘Caves Ouvertes’ (Open Cellars), meaning that for once, visitors are welcomed for tastings without needing appointments and often side-events are laid on. The only wine estate in the village of Saint Céols, set in an large old Benedictine priory linked to the famous Cluny monastery, the Jacolins had invited several local artisans to display and sell their crafts, arts and foods. Last minute preparations under the supervision of Pierre’s wife Christine were underway while we were tasting. As so often happens when tasting wines with a producer, as soon as he realized from our questions that we were genuinely interested, Pierre gave us plenty of information along with the wines to taste.
The Jacolin range consists of two whites (Sauvignon Blanc), a rosé and two reds from Pinot Noir. As everywhere in the Loire’s Central Vineyards area, the whites made up the majority production from the domaine at around 70%. The slightly more expensive wine named Cuvée des Bénédictins was aged for longer on the yeast lees and bottled later giving a much deeper flavour and ageing potential than the ‘basic’ fresh and zippy white. Both the rosé and the two reds (the better one again named Cuvée des Bénédictins and this time, spending time in oak barrels) had longer maceration on the skins than most producers in the area give their Pinots. This gave more structured wines calling out loudly for food. After tasting a few older vintages, which impressed us greatly, we were offered a taste of a very different kind of drink – a Crème de Cassis made from blackcurrants grown on their family farm, and Pierre urged us to taste it neat, without adding any white wine to make a Kir. It was absolutely the most concentrated blackcurrant flavour I’d ever encountered and I could imagine it would be delicious over vanilla ice cream – we bought a bottle to try another day.
As always, tasting made me hungry, so I was ready for lunch when we arrived at the restaurant C’heu l’Zib (Chez l’Zib) in the middle of the nearby village of Menetou-Salon. Apart from the food itself, the whole experience at Chez l’Zib (C’heu is the dialect word) reminded me of eating in the Italian countryside, though I suspect that decades ago there may have been more restaurants like this in France too. The warm, rustic interior is full of wood (including the trestle-like tables and rather uncomfortable school-like chairs), with decorations hanging from the ceiling and every piece of wall or beam, an open fire for winter and a bar in the corner. There is a cosy family atmosphere with strangers often sharing tables. Although a menu of sorts is displayed outside, there is no menu handed to you and you are expected to eat the menu of the day, which will include some choices. From most tables, you can see into the busy kitchen at the end where several women of all ages and one lone man bustled away. The restaurant was full this Saturday lunchtime with a mixture of locals and (French) tourists in the know.
Everything about the food is homely, simple, seasonal, regional and delicious. I started with half a melon (served completely plain) and Brett had perfect, rustic pork terrine. He followed with a classic of the restaurant, locally caught pike served simply in a typical beurre blanc (cream, butter and wine) sauce. I had tow magnificent slices of veal shin cooked in wine. Carrots in butter and simple roasted potatoes were served on the side. After, a big bowl of green salad and a cheese plate including several of the local goats’ cheeses were passed from table to table and replenished as needed. Dessert focussed on slices (however big you wanted) of a rich chocolate charlotte and there was a bowl of stewed plumss and another of marinated grapes. Phew! I feel full just writing this and to think that one option was to choose both the fish course and the meat course! The wine choice is even simpler: red or white, Menetou-Salon of course, from whatever producer they have around. You can have a bottle, a half-bottle or a glass …
Our meal for two with a half a bottle of white and a glass of red plus a couple of coffees came to just 78 Euros. We had a slow walk around the village, inspected some badly hail-damaged vines (sadly 2009, the year in which the appellation celebrates its 50th birthday, commemorated by a bottle sculpture, has not been kind to Menetou-Salon) and then ambled off to the local woods for a siesta. Thanks to Jim Budd for recommending these gems in one of his five Loire guides.
By the way, in case you’ve not yet noticed, Wine Travel Guides is currently offering subscriptions at half price – only till August 26th. That makes the Gold subscription with access to 50 guides only £24.50 (approximately $42 or €30).
C’heu L’Zib, 2 Route des Aix d’Angillon, 18510 Menetou Salon
Tel: +33 (0)2 48 64 81 20 (No email, no website).
Open lunchtimes except Wednesdays. Dinner by reservation only except Wednesdays and Sundays.