Art and bubbles in the Loire Valley

Caves Monmousseau ©T. Joly
Two sparkling wine producers offer a new genre of cellar tour. As usual, visitors discover the winemaking process and taste wines, but they also dive into a brightly coloured unreal world created by contemporary artists.

[ Practical ]

Getting there
- By road
320 km from Paris to Saumur on autoroutes A6b, A10 and A85 till exit 3, then on N147 and D347 till Saumur.
220 km from Paris to Montrichard on autoroutes A6b and A10 till Blois, then on D952, D1 and D764 till Montrichard.
- By train
TGV train from Paris Montparnasse to Saint-Pierre des Corps, near Tours, or to Angers, then TER train to Saumur. The journey takes between 2 hours and 3 hours and 15 mn.
TGV or Intercités train from Paris to Saint-Pierre des Corps, near Tours, then TER train to Montrichard. The journey takes between 1 h 45 mn to 3 h 15 mn.
Hôtel Saint-Pierre, in Saumur
Hôtel Mercure, in Saumur
Auberge de l’Ecole, in Pontlevoy, 8 km from Montrichard
L’Escargot, in Saumur
Le Gambetta, in Saumur
Auberge de l’Ecole, in Pontlevoy, 8 km from Montrichard
- Address
19 rue Léopold Palustre
Saint-Hilaire Saint-Florent, 49400 Saumur
- Opening dates and hours
Monday to Saturday from 9.30am to 12.30pm and from 2pm to 6.30pm from November to February.
Every day from 9.30am to 12.30pm and from 2pm to 6.30pm in March, April, May, October and December.
Every day from 9.30am to 6.30pm from June to September.
- Admission fees
€4 for guided tour or with audioguide
Free for under 16s.
Tel : 0241530321
- Information
Caves Monmousseau
- Address
71 route de Vierzon
41400 Montrichard
- Opening dates and hours
Monday to Saturday from 10am to noon and from 2.30pm to 5.30 pm from November to March.
Every day from 10am to 12.30pm and from 1.30pm to 6pm in April, June, September and October.
Every day from 10am to 6.30pm in July and August.
- Admission fee
€4, refunded on in-store spend of €35
- Information
Tel : 0254716666
Most of the time, nothing is more similar to a cellar tour than another cellar tour. It’s indeed not easy for winemakers to differentiate themselves from their peers unless they have a cellar with outstanding architecture or dimensions. However, two sparkling wines producers of the Loire Valley offer out-of-the-ordinary tours. Ackerman and Monmousseau that entrusted artists with the task of decorating and illuminating a section of their vast cellars that were once underground quarries from which were extracted the tufa blocks used to build the castles of the Loire Valley.

Caves Ackerman © T.Joly
 Journey to the centre of the bubble
Leading sparkling wine producer in the region, Ackerman has its headquarters on the outskirts of Saumur, where its founder, Jean- Baptiste Ackerman, began making wine with bubbles in 1840. Directly behind the company’s offices and store, in a network of 8 km of tunnels dug into the hillside. Production and storage being now done elsewhere, 500 metres of these galleries have been turned into a visitor and exhibition area named "Journey to the centre of the bubble", in reference to Jules Verne’s novel " Journey to the Centre of the Earth".
The tour is divided into three parts called Royal, eXcentric and Crémantissime, each one with a different colour of light and a playful workshop where visitors learn to identify aromas of the three grape varieties grown in Ackerman’s vineyards: Chenin Blanc, Pineau d'Aunis and Cabernet Franc.

Caves Ackerman © T.Joly
 19th century advertising posters
It begins with two short films, one explaining how are done sparkling wines, the other tracing the company’s history from its origins to today. In addition, an interesting collection of advertising posters recalls the popularity of Ackerman and Loire Valley’s sparkling wines in the late 19th century. This success led to a conflict with Champagne producers that ended with the Saumur’s wineries being forbidden to mention the term “Méthode champenoise” on their bottles and required to use the term “Méthode traditionnelle” instead. The past is also evoked through an exhibition of ancient tools and a reconstruction of the office the manager had once in the cellar.
Then comes the most original part of the tour with large rooms, some of them being 20 meters high, bathed in fuchsia light and where sounds a relaxing and shamanic inspired music.

Caves Ackerman © T.Joly
 Contemporary art
They boast sculptures and contemporary art installations such as a ceiling made up of wine glasses and a monumental work combining spheres, filaments and deep sea creatures looking-like forms aiming to give visitors the feeling of diving into a bottle of sparkling wine.
As to the last section called "Crémantissime", it is more fun and gives children and adults alike the opportunity to play modern or traditional ones typical of the region. Finally, like any cellar tour, it ends with a tasting of some of the winery’s sparkling wines, our favourites being L’Origine, Crémant de Loire bio and X Noir. But Ackerman also markets still wines from all the Loire Valley and several ones are worth discovering. Let’s name Sancerre Domaine Millet, Secret des Vignes Saumur Champigny and Chinon Donatien Bahuaud Les Boires.

Caves Monmousseau © T.Joly
 Tapestry of light
Considered one of the very best sparkling wine producers of the Loire Valley, Monmousseau is located in Montrichard , just 12 km away from the famous Chenonceau castle. Overlooking the city and the Cher Valley, the cellar extends over 15 kilometres of galleries where the wines are still made and where 2.5 million bottles are stored. The tour starts outside with a small signposted path dotted with explanatory panels providing information on the Cher Valley, the climate, the vineyards and the grape varieties. It also passes by an ancient troglodyte house, once a common type of dwelling in the region. Then the visitor enters the cellars whose original function is much more visible than in Ackerman because the walls retain marks left by quarrymen when splitting off the blocks of stone. Well highlighted thanks to a raking light, they form a kind of geometrical decoration. After this prelude, walls, soil and ceiling are covered with a blue hue tapestry of light whose patterns look like aquatic plants, pebbles, fossils and arabesques formed by river currents. An homage to the Cher, Mother River of the region.

Caves Monmousseau © T.Joly
 Poetic stroll
About 250 metres long, this fresco is interrupted here and there by small rooms housing sculptures or decorated with projected images combining abstract figures, architectural elements of the Loire Valley castles and representations of famous people and queens who lived in the region. A poetic stroll lulled by a gentle music background made by mixing naturally occurring cellar sounds, noise made by people who work there and pieces of original music. The, the second part of the cellar tour is more conventional and focuses on the discovery of the various stages of the process giving birth to sparkling wines such as foam taking, riddling, disgorging and dosage. Of course, the visit ends with a tasting of Monmousseau’s sparkling wines. The company also sells still wines, but fewer than Ackerman, and if you should taste only one, go for the white Justin Monmousseau Cheverny.

May 21, 2014
Thierry Joly