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Tasting Differently in the Loire Valley

Sommelier Rania Zayat reflects on a recent trip she took to the Loire Valley through WFFT's Industry Support program.

Though I’m writing this blog post over three months after my trip to France’s Loire Valley, something unique and beautiful from my visit still sits in the front of my mind. So often in wine we talk about the importance of the people and the stories behind the bottle. After all, stories are the most effective sales tool for wine professionals. This is true for all facets of the industry, from importing and distribution to working the floor at a restaurant. So why are most winery visits set up in sterile tasting rooms and led by someone far removed from the viticulture and vinification of the place?

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Church and farmhouse where we stayed

I’ve been fortunate enough to go on several domestic and overseas trips in my wine career, including Sonoma, Napa Valley, Germany, Italy, Chile and, most recently, France. I attended that last one, by far the most meaningful trip of my career, as a beneficiary of WFFT's Sommelier Support program.

We flew into Paris on a cold morning in early February and took a train to a charming, centrally located hub in the Loire Valley: the town of Angers. It was a cold and overcast time of year to visit, when most of the valley is so gloomy that it feels like a WWII documentary set. Old buildings and ancient farmhouses are scattered around the countryside with little hope of sunshine for the next several months. Frost and hail are still very real concerns for many winemakers as winter breaks to spring.

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Sylvestre Mosse in his vineyard

We were traveling with local distributor David Mayfield, who’s been a big supporter of producers from this rural region in the French countryside. David’s entire portfolio is comprised of products made by minimal intervention winemakers who ferment with native yeasts. During our trip, we had the unique opportunity to visit six of his producers, some who have been making wine for less than twenty years and others who are farming land that has been in their family since the 1600s.

After each visit, I left with the same feeling of connection and a deeper understanding of the wines than I knew possible, because the wines were, and are, an extension of the people making them. Formal tasting rooms have no place here. Rather, we found ourselves standing in underground mold-covered cellars dug from the prized tuffeau (a type of limestone with high chalk content) soils common in the central Loire.

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Benoit Courault’s horses

Many of these charming locals have a long family lineage of farmers and grape growers that sold to local co-ops before starting to bottle for themselves in the past few decades. Here, you won’t find newly constructed tasting rooms and thousands of annual visitors. Instead, we were welcomed in as family, often greeted with a cold pour of the recently bottled pét-nat (pétillant naturel) and offered a walk through the vineyards to discuss the soils, age of the vines, pruning and vinification methods, and given a chance to see the biodiversity that exists on their small plots of land. All of the producers we visited farm organically or biodynamically, and many raise their own food. One didn’t even have indoor plumbing in his home! Some of them cooked us lunch, we played with their kids, met their horses, heard about their difficulties losing significant portions of their crop to hail and shared many laughs.

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Sunset in the Loire

Meeting their families definitely enhanced the experience and provided a deep retrospect of the way I’ve tasted wines during my travels. No wine tasting had ever been so personal or evoked such a feeling of belonging to a place and understanding a culture. When it was time to leave, it felt like we were saying goodbye to old friends.

Advanced Sommelier Rania Zayyat is the co-owner of Vintel, a wine education and consultation company, and the founder of Wonder Women of Wine (W.W.O.W.) is a non-profit entity advocating gender equality in the wine industry.