Team Dégustation

Of utmost importance is how to pronounce our team name. Start out with a normal sentence like, “Right now, I am in the mood for…” or “Does anyone want to…” or “What do you think about…” or “Shall we find a…”. Make sure to prolong the last word of any of the above phrases, and then pause. Here comes the trickier part. Without mumbling and with an impeccable French accent, follow with DEGUSTATION said as quickly as possible. A benefit of mixing languages is that we get to use this word as almost any part of speech. Therefore, Team Degustation will degustation a degustation in a very degustation fashion. Degustation!

team degustation

Now for the varieties of degustation throughout the Loire Valley. There is Chenin Blanc degustation and Cabernet Franc degustation and Cabernet Sauvignon degustation and a little Chardonnay degustation. During each degustation we made sure to appreciate the color, nose, and taste of each wine. Katherine would flirt with the degustation server while Gabe and I would very gracefully swirl our degustation in our glasses. If there was a particular degustation that we enjoyed, the three of us would purchase a bottle to drink during our next picnic opportunity. Then we would be able to have a degustation picnic.

To save me the future trouble of recounting, I have used “degustation” 18 times or 7.5% of my total word usage in this entry, and I almost forgot to mention degustation means tasting in French.

Ode to Cheese

Camambert, Brie and Roquefort,
Chevre, Boursin and Munster
So many types, they’re hard to sort
And after time, they’re only a blur.

And when inside France,
Not any bread will do.
We never took a chance
And had baguettes brand new.

All I need is cheese and bread
My preference of course being goat
And with shops so widespread
The meal becomes almost rote.

more cheese

Destination: Loire Valley

Bicycling through the Loire Valley occasionally stopping at vineyards and chateaus, feasting on French cuisines, and staying in cute hotels is about as enjoyable and romantic as it sounds.

Day 1: Getting to Tours

Accommodation: Hotel le Manoir in Tours

After picking up some more bread and cheese (and a couple pommes so that we felt a bit healthier), Gabe and I head towards the train station to meet up with Katherine, another friend who will be joining us at school next year. We had met Katherine only a couple brief times before, but we figure if she is brave enough to travel with us, we will probably be a fun group. We eventually find each other in the maze that is the train station, sit in a great pod on the train to Tours, and catch up on each other’s lives. After almost exiting the train at the wrong station, we make it to Tours, meet our trip manager and receive our bicycles. We have signed up for a self-guided tour and therefore are also given maps, directions, hotel names, restaurant suggestions, etc.

Tours is a cute even if touristy city. Many consider it as the main passage way from eastern to western Loire Valley. We cover most of the city after walking around for about thirty minutes, in which time we walk into the town’s 12th century cathedral and through its old city. There is a picturesque square in the old city where we find a cafe, order a couple drinks, and reflect on the French youth sitting around us.

Tours, France

Day 2: Tours to Azay le Rideau

Accommodation: Hotel de Biencourt in Azay le Rideau

Meandering through bike paths, the three of us stumble upon a small town where we find some more of the usual bread, cheese, and pommes. And after a short break, we continue on to our first chateau of the trip, Villandry. The castle is nice, but not as nice as the gardens with their well manicured mazes, vegetable gardens, and water presentations. Although most of the rooms come with descriptions of how and why they were used, we decide that it will be more fun to speculate about each room’s use. As a result, we end up passing through places such as the billiards room and the wine-tasting room. The rest of the ride takes us to Azay le Rideau, a very small and photogenic town where we enjoy a great dinner and a very nice hotel called Hotel de Biencourt.

Gabe on a bike

Villandry, Loire Valley

Day 3: Azay le Rideau to Chinon

Accommodation: Hotel Diderot in Chinon

Now with soarer butts from spending copious amounts of time aboard a bicycle, the tour through Loire continues on day three. Disappointed by our lack of degustation yesterday, we begin the day by tasting wine within the first hour of our ride. We stop at Pascal Pibaleau Vineyard, located at 68 route de Langeais just outside Azay le Rideau, and instead of trying several wines, we are poured a sample of what seems like 15 wines. The wines are locally grown, so we buy a bottle because the bottles are inexpensive and the tastings are free with a purchase. Afterwards, to be careful not to bike under the influence, we walk around the vineyard for a little while enjoying the sunshine before continuing on our way.

Next stop is Château d’Ussé. The approach to the castle is as magical as even Disney could’ve dreamed. We bike down a long straight road surrounded by green on every side and the castle growing as we near. And any castle that inspires one in a Disney movie is worth at least checking out. As we walk through the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle, we are bit concerned by the excessive use of manikins in each room, but eventually we realize that the displays help us piece together what we remember from the old movie.

After arriving in Chinon but before finding our hotel, we stop for one more degustation in a wine cellar that has been carved into the mountain next to Chinon’s large fortress. As we taste the big red Cab Franc wines from M Plouzeau Vineyard, which is located next to the Chateau de la Bonneliere, Katherine chats with the server in French and Gabe and I try to stay warm in the chilly cellar. One château, two degustations and a day filled with more bread, cheese, and pommes makes us very happy as we arrive at Hotel Diderot in Chinon , from which we can see pieces of the Vienne River.

Playing in the vineyard

Chateau d'Usse

The view from the bike

Day 4: Chinon to Saumur

Accommodation: Hotel de Londres in Saumur

We get a bit lost at the beginning of today’s journey; however, we make sure to at least keep biking in the correct direction and eventually we find the path. Our first stop is at the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud and its surrounding town, where we meet an aesthetic refugee. He enthusiastically approaches us with a book in one hand and his other outstretched, and then immediately offers that he labels himself as an aesthetic refugee. The three of look at each other, think the same thing, and then ask what exactly that means. Apparently, when he has lived in other parts of the world including northern California, walking around felt like having forks stuck in his eyes. The architecture was all haphazard, ugly, and incoherent. France on the other hand, and even more specially Fontevraud, is his escape from all that is aesthetically unpleasing. After a short talk about what makes French architecture so appealing, we part ways confused as to what has transpired because he did not try to sell us anything, convince us of anything, or capture any of our contact information.

The clouds loom as we leave this small town, but just as it starts to rain, we find another conveniently located degustation, where of course we stop for a taste. With pouring rain outside, we taste a couple more Loire Valley Cabernet Franc wines. We try to buy a bottle and set up a picnic in the winery; however, this apparently is not allowed (the picnic-ing that is). We are then forced to put on our rain gear, mount our bikes, and ride maybe 100m to the nearest cafe, where we each enjoy a hot drink with our previously purchased bread, cheese, and pommes. Our French touring meals had a very distinct pattern– bread, cheese, pommes, repeat.

We finish the afternoon by bicycling through the Saumur-Champigny vineyards before arriving at the medieval town of Saumur where we enjoy one more degustation before going to the grocery store to purchase some food for dinner at our hotel.

Wine tasting in the Loire Valley

Day 5: Leaving Saumur

Katherine, more than anyone, is a bit anxious to get back to her long lost love, Paris. Gabe and I could’ve used some more Saumur (pun intended), but we are flexible and so we all board an early train as we leave the Loire Valley behind us.

Three Amigos on Bikes

Figuring out France

Deciding where to go in France is not an easy task as France is about 80% the size of Texas, and Texas is a big state. Not only that, France also has enormous variety in its different regions and the only narrowing factor I began with was that I wanted to go somewhere that included wine. In France, this criteria is only slightly limiting. But then the challenge became to decide between the many regions that served such historied wine: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Cotes du Rhone, Languedoc-Roussillon, Loire Valley, Provence, and Corsica. Before deciding where, in my bad habit of being distractingly methodical, I needed to figure out how I was going to pick. Should I choose based on the type of wine? Was I more interested in the big Bordeaux reds or in the classic Pinot’s from Burgundy? Should I choose based on scenery, on ease of travel, on reputation? Maybe choose Burgundy because my favorite wine tasting fact is that they have long-necked bottles, and when I see them I immediately guess Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, depending on white or red. I’m kidding about this one, but figuring out where to go was initially a struggle.

Therefore, it felt natural to take a step back and instead of deciding where to go, I should decide what I wanted to do for my tour de France. And that’s when I realized what I had just said! It’s my tour de France, and it probably makes most sense to do something that involves being on top of a bicycle. Ever since the “extra bone” in my right foot got too much for me to run, I’ve gotten more and more into cycling. Also, having lived in the Bay Area for a while, it turns out that bicycling is the thing to do, so in the year before this journey, I got myself a pair of those attractive compression shorts, a bright cycling shirt, and a bike. Taking this passion to France made a lot of sense and I was going to try and see if I could make it work. My first step, as it has been for many areas of my life recently, was to consult I found Lonely Planet’s “Cycling France”, hit Add-To-Cart, and with my Amazon Prime account, the book showed up on my doorstep two days later not having to have paid tax or shipping. (Sorry for the Amazon endorsement, but I’m a bit of a fan.)

Back to the issue at hand, I figured out how my new book was organized, stared at the map on the front cover for way too long, and continued to narrow down my options. When all else fails, my practice with standardized testing has taught me that I should start with the process of elimination. Although Champagne will always be one of my go-to drinks, the region for which this sparkling wine is named did not offer the diversity in terrain that I was looking for. Maybe if Dom Perignon was having a sale, I might be able to be convinced otherwise. I could rule out Lorraine because why go visit the side kick when I could go to the main event, Alsace. Who chooses Robin when Batman is an option? The Bordeaux region was also eliminated early because although it probably offers my favorite varietals, it will probably also be the place where many wineries require reservations and no price tag looks anywhere near reasonable. Also, the climbs in the Pyrenees region were probably more than I was hoping to scale. This left the following possibilities still in the mix: The Loire Valley, Alsace, Burgundy, and Provence. Somehow, I was I able to condense the whole of France into four regions. Now for the hard part.

A couple days after narrowing my choices down, I was watching my favorite television show, Chuck, and it became obvious. My favorite C.I.A. Agent had his next assignment take place in the Loire Valley of France. Coincidence? Probably, but I went with it anyway because at that point I needed some arbitrary way to choose.