6 Oct 2010

Is this the way to start a blog?

Is this the way to start a blog? Why not, as it links several of the loves of my life (things, not people!): namely wine, painting, music and motorcycles, not to mention a hell of a party!

 There is a place in the Loire valley that should be visited at least once by every lover of wine, and especially those who also have a liking for reasonable prices, jazz, blues, classic rock and bistrots that just seep atmosphere and friendliness through every pore. It is not yet well known. Not suprising as it has only been open for a year or so. But get there as soon as you can, and I will tell you more about why in a moment.

First things first: let’s plant the decor. My own decor, quite quickly, as the picture will fill in over time as I gradually add to this blog (this is my first post by the way): I have lived in France since 1973 in various parts of the country, although I come from England. I currently live (mostly) in Paris. I have been working in wine, in various capacities, since 1983. For the past 15 years I have been a freelance writer, broadcaster and teacher on wine and stuff around it. That’s enough about me.

Now for the decor to this story. About midway between Tours and Angers lies the small town of Bourgueil, which has a wine to its name, made from cabernet franc. I was visiting Bourgueil on a research trip for an article on the cabernet franc grape variety a little while ago and was looking for somewhere to eat in the evening. The restaurant I had randomly picked in a street was fully occupied by a group of people, so I asked them for advice. They directed me to a place on the outskirts of town, adding that it was next to a petrol station and a supermarket on the road out to Chinon. Didn’t sound very appetizing, but it was late, we were hungry, and the people insisted that it was good, but « simple ». Easy to find it was, indeed just before a petrol station and opposite a large and dishevelled set of greenhouses, on a small crossroad on the route going south out of Bourgueil. Winding one’s way through Bourgueil and its maze of one-way streets is another matter! The place is called Café de la Promenade and you can check it out here: www.cafedelapromenade.com.

The building (see above) was initially used as a gasworks, and has that old-time functionally gritty ‘n’ bitty look to it, though thankfully the smell is long-gone. It has gone through many changes since then and the lastest is its acquisition by a couple from Strasbourg, Ludovic and Sophie, who have turned it into the kind of place that any not-too-formally inclined wine-lover dreams about. The broad tree out front provides shade over a vast casual terrace (no neat tropical wood floor-boarding here, it is down to scrub grass, dirt and loose gravel!) where people can drink and eat when the weather is suitable. The café itself (actually a wine bistro) has been organised around the big central L-shaped bar, one end of which points suitably towards the cellar (we’ll get back to that in a minute) and the other to the open kitchen where Ludovic shucks oysters and prepares the dish of the day. Off to one side lie two other rooms, living-come-dining, where groups can party or for breakfast the next morning. Somehow everything is right for me in this place, from its mixed and cluttered décor, full of funny stuff from the owners’ past, about café life or the local wine scene, to the music that tends to get louder and tighter as the evening runs along. In the afternoon, the jazz and the blues seep out just as mellow as that soft Loire light (the river is just a couple of kilometers down the road).

Ok, seeing as we are on a (mainly) wine blog, what about the wine ? The first thing to know about Le Café de la Promenade’s wine selection is that prices are amazingly low! Ludovic wants his place to be a showcase for wine: especially, but not only, local wine. He rightly considers that this is best done by not only having a great selection, but also by encouraging clients to taste as much of it as possible thanks to low prices (and there are rooms out the back too if you make a night of it). So all wines are sold at winery cellar-door prices plus a fixed 8 euros mark-up, whatever the price or the age of the bottle. You just go into the cellar and pick whatever takes your fancy out of the bin. And there are 150 wines to choose from, roughly two-thirds of which are from the Loire region. I won’t mention any names here. Suffice it to say that just about all that counts in the Loire is to be found, and the selection from other places is just as good. Of course there is advice available if you need it, and a good, constantly changing selection served by the glass from the bar (also at very low prices). Feel like a beer ? Try the deliciously dry and savoury local brew, prettily called Loirette.

But a wine restaurant needs food as well. The Promenade’s menu may not get it much attention from the gastronomic guides, as it is quite basic but of excellent quality thanks to carefully chosen ingredients of the seasons. Charcuteries and cheeses, of course, but also some of the best and freshest oysters I have had inland, plus that Alsatian staple dish called flammekeuche that is a first cousin to a pizza, and whatever daily dish Ludo has put together.

But what makes you really want to go back to a place? Above all it is atmosphere in my book. Five stars here for Le Café de la Promenade. Some places just have it! And it flows from the people who run it and who work here, as well as the clientèle (most of the best local winemakers are regulars here). I have been back twice since my chance discovery, and it won’t be long before I return again. The next time I checked out the rooms, which lie just behind the main building, around a courtyard-come-garden that doesn’t quite come out of House & Garden but has its own, ramshackled charm. And the rooms are great, eccentrically looking like they were put together by a do-it-yourself man on a weekend, yet with all the necessary mod-cons. Book number 1 if you go there in the winter, as it has a fireplace. In the summer there is a pool, more like a giant round bath, sheltering under the fronds and behind some wood fencing. And kids are welcome, running free in the garden. It’s also the owners home. There’s plenty of space for parking outside and you can bring you bike into a back yard. Oh, and they lend you bicycles to get around the town and vineyards.

The last time I went back there I rode from Paris one of my motorbikes (the one that currently works), trickling along the twisty back roads of the Loir valley (not a spelling mistake, this is a tributary of the bigger Loire, with an « e »)  from Vendôme, and through tiny, almost secret wine districts like Côteaux Vendomois and Jasnières. This brings one out into the much wider Loire Valley through deer-filled woods (watch it on the bends here!). And the occasion was a fantastic day linking art and wine organised on September 18th by Ludovic and named « Bourgueillothérapie » (try pronouncing that!).  He paired about a dozen artists with as many wineries and sent them out with the wine-producer to do a drawing, painting or sculpture linked to wine and that particular place. The works were then shown at the day’s end in front of the café and judged, the winner getting to illustrate the poster for next-year’s edition. Then they were all auctioned off with the proceeds going to a local charity, and the party began! It was a great party. Dancing everywhere there was some free space, including on the bar. And many wines to taste, all offered by the producers. Later, much later…. Good to have a room on site, and the joy of the home-made jams and coffee in the morning sun the next day. And that packet of fresh oysters on the doorstep that just made me stay to lunch, postponing the ride back, slicing through the Sunday-evening-return-to-the-big-city-traffic feeling so good and singing into my helmet!

You on your way? See you there.

Café de la promenade
1 avenue du général de Gaulle
33 (0)2 47 95 10 87

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