Brahms in a bottle

Wine - Roger Scruton takes a nostalgic trip along the Loire valley

As a young man, I rode my motorbike - a 500cc AJS called Geoffrey - from Paris to the Pyrenees. For 50 miles or so, the road followed the Loire, slipping through the vinous villages and skirting the walls of castles where claquemures old aristos were still holding out. Architecture, landscape, vegetation, even the strong, broad flow of the river, seemed to glow with the idea of France, and Orleans, lying on the northern apex of the Loire, endowed the river with a mystic air of nationhood. The right of France to exist had been fought for and won in these parts - won in defeat, through the martyrdom of St Joan. The Loire recalled that most shameful of English crimes, and stirred the impossible hope that, one day, I might become a Frenchman. I wore a beret basque, smoked Gitanes, and travelled with a pocket full of symbolist poetry. But the AJS was a giveaway, and my French pretensions followed all my other pretensions, waving goodbye through a drunken haze somewhere in the region of Cahors.

Since then, tourism has besieged the chateaux and ransacked the villages; roads have been unconscionably widened and high-speed trains have abolished distance - that precious commodity without which people no longer belong where they are. Nevertheless, some local loyalties remain, and the first among them is the tetu attachment to the Cabernet Franc. We all know the white wines of the Loire, from the snail-coloured Muscadet to the green and glittering Sancerre. But the locals have a greater fondness for their reds, to which the Cabernet Franc imparts its special garnet colour and musky aroma. Red Loire produces some of the last genuine bargains in the new wine economy, and most of them are to be found between Saumur and Tours.

After the First World War, the vineyards were neglected, and the Loire's reputation has gained nothing from the global market, which prefers new wine to old, and varietals to local saints. Cabernet Franc has no reputation apart from that bestowed by the Loire; and it produces wines that need keeping if their shy and subtle aromas are at last to steal from the bottle. Now, thanks to local enthusiasm and adventurous buyers, these wines are available on what I assume to be New Statesman terms - that is, good enough for solitary drinking, but cheap enough for guests. Almost all that I have tasted would benefit from a few more years in the bottle; but if opened in good time, they can still make a credible fanfare on the lips.

All praise to our local merchant, Yapp Brothers of Mere (01747 860 423), which has devoted time, energy and love to discovering the dedicated small producers. Its Saumur-Champigny 2000 from the Domaine Filliatreau (a father-to-son business for three generations) has all the tannin needed for the years to come, and a sumptuous taste like - well, like Saumur-Champigny, but not entirely unlike the slow movement of Brahms No 4. Yapp's list gives a full education in the reds of the Loire, and the firm's 1996 Bourgueil Les Cent Boisselees at £9.95 is an affordable way of learning why these wines should be kept. Bourgueil is in fact famous for its keeping qualities, and the wines from 1976 are still said to be developing.

The heart of red Loire is the 5,000 acres around the old fort of Chinon, amid country described by Rabelais in Gargantua and Pantagruel. Berry Bros has superb examples from 1999, including "Les Varennes" at £12.45 - a quiet, subtle wine that testifies to the love and care with which Chinon is usually made. Chinon is by no means standardised; indeed, it is as prodigious as Rabelais, producing smooth wines for every day and also bottles of immense depth and subtlety which will, when mature, match the leading growths of any other region. As an example of the first, try the 1999 Chinon Les Garous from Majestic at the ridiculous price of £5.49; as an example of the second, try the 1997 Chinon Les Cornuelles from Frank Ward of Deal (01304 369 317), at the equally ridiculous price of £11.95.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher and countryside campaigner as well as an author and broadcaster. Widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading right wing thinkers, his publications include the Meaning of Conservatism. He has also written on fox hunting.