A common grievance among French winemakers, who inevitably live in rural parts of the country, is that there is a serious lack of restaurants to recommend to those who visit their vineyards. Importers, tourists, and restaurateurs are among the many who travel to taste French natural wines, only to find themselves stuck at a fast food joint, subpar hotel restaurant, or depressing village watering hole at the end of a day of sensory pleasures.
In addition to those who come from afar to taste Loire Valley wines, the winemakers themselves ache to have a bonne adresse nearby—a place to not only eat and drink well, but also to get out of the house and socialize when the winter arrives and rural France becomes dark, silent, and not-so-social.
Luckily the local culinary scene in the Loire is evolving and expanding at an encouraging pace. While it's always nice to grab a spot at a winemaker's table, both wine tourists and winemakers alike thrive on places to go out to eat and taste new wines. Here are a few favorite spots that are revolutionizing eating in the Loir-et-Cher and Indre-et-Loire regions.
Le Bar à Vins de Lise & Bertrand
After years of brutal losses to frost and the resulting economic strain, winemakers Lise and Bertrand Jousset began to explore different revenue sources. Inspired by their favorite wine bars in France and abroad, and the idea of bringing a cozy, bistro-style restaurant to Montlouis sur Loire, the pair decided to open a wine bar in order to generate additional income as well as diversify the dining options in the region to include a friendly spot for natural wine lovers. Open from June to August (when the bar closes to make room for the harvest teams who will soon fill the courtyard with freshly picked bunches of grapes), Le Bar à Vins de Lise & Bertrand serves the Joussets' wines as well as a selection of wine from friends and colleagues abroad, including Italy and Australia.
Having just finished its second season, the bistro is proving to be a sort of chef's residency program, with the staff changing every year, bringing new talent and inspiration from across Europe. The bistro's first year was managed under the capable hands of Dutch sommelier Lisanne Van Son, an alum of the prestigious Dome restaurant in Antwerp, Belgium. The following year the kitchen was passed to Valentine Roustit and Mathieu Griffon, a French couple returning to their motherland after years of working in London. The constant refreshing of the bistro's team—and menu—means that there is always something new to discover at this increasingly popular local spot. Cyclists and locals regularly stop by, but you're also likely to spot neighboring winemakers including Frantz Saumon, Marie Thibault, Ludovic Chanson, and Julien Prével.
When Marlène Bouron and Valentin Gasnier imagined Volupia Cave, their idea was to open a wine shop where customers could also have a snack and glass of wine at the bar. The shop, occupies a troglodyte cave and extends across the street to the banks of the Loire river, has become such a popular hangout that Bouron now admits, “we've become more of a bar/restaurant that happens to have a wine shop.” The overnight success of the spot is proof that there is demand in the region for a place to eat, drink, and hot-air-balloon-gaze on the banks of the river. Volupia's unique location, unparalleled views of the Loire, and solid food and drinks program means that the bar is packed every night of the season, which kicks off on St. Patrick's Day and closes on Halloween.
The shop features products from around the region (“if it's local, good, and made by a nice person, we'll buy it!” Bouron explains) including artisanal oils, honey, and dried goods as well as an extensive selection of natural wine and craft beer—which you can get a pint of for the price of a demi (half pint) during happy hour every evening from 5:00 to 7:00pm.
Volupia is a hangout for local winemakers including Anne Paillet (Autour de l’Ane), Grégory Leclerc (Chahut et Prodiges), Moses Gadouche (Les Capriades), and Coralie Delecheneau (La Grange Tiphaine), to name a few.
A natural wine institution since it was opened by Cécile Argondico, chef and wife of winemaker Thierry Puzelat, L'Herbe Rouge has recently changed hands and will see a second life under the management of Sophie Haudebourg. Despite the changement de propriétaire, L'Herbe Rouge maintains all the values of any self-respecting natural wine stamping ground: artwork by Michel Tolmer, locally sourced seasonal ingredients, classic bistro fare, and, of course, a large selection of vin nature.
An added bonus of L'Herbe Rouge is that it is equipped with adjoining guest houses that can be rented for the night—a convenient backup plan if you've made a few too many trips back and forth from the self-serve wine cellar. If that's the case, you're in good company, local winemakers—such as Thierry Puzelat, Hervé Villemade, or Christian Venier—are among many regulars to have stayed the night after closing down L'Herbe Rouge.
The newest arrival to the Loire region restaurant scene is Archimède, which opened in the small town of St. Aignan just in time for the winemakers to celebrate the end of the harvest. Recent transplants from Brussels, French-born Maxime Herbert and Istanbul native Sinem Usta decided to seek out a calmer life in the Loire, where they relocated after selling their respective restaurants in Brussels. Upon arrival in the countryside, the couple put their feet up for a few minutes and then dove back into the restaurant business, to the delight of the locals.
Archimède is a showcase for Usta's ease with preparing fresh ingredients, heavily influenced by the Turkish cuisine of her childhood and her professional experience at one of Brussels' best Italian restaurants, Caffe al Dente. Herbert is at home behind the bar, serving his favorite natural wines and quickly sizing up which ones to pour for each customer. The menu consists of three starters, mains, and desserts, and changes in relation to what is available at the market.
In just the few months since opening, the restaurant has already become a headquarters for local winemakers. Noëlla Morantin, Pascal Potaire (Les Capriades), and Julien Pineau, often stop by for the homemade terrine or pâté paired with a pétillant natural and end up staying for dinner, a luxury Loire residents are slowly getting used to.
Emily Dilling is a freelance journalist and based in the Loire Valley.