The Sensible Wines of the Loire Valley
Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, once wrote of the Loire valley: “The wind is mild without voluptuousness, the sun soft without ardor; the whole landscape pretty, varied in its monotony, light, gracious, but of a beauty which caresses without captivating, which charms without seducing, and which, in a word, has more common sense than grandeur and more spirit than poetry. It is France.” He might just as well have been writing of the wines from this region, which perhaps may never compete with the grandeur of Bordeaux or the seductiveness of Burgundy, or even the poetry of Alsatian wines, but which nonetheless offer much character and pleasure at sensible prices. Theres no pretense about them. Theyre usually straightforward wines that, when well made, will complement many dishes, especially seafood and poultry.
A wide variety of grapes is grown along the Loire as it flows from its source in the Massif Central to its mouth in Nantes, covering over 600 miles. In the Upper Loire, the Sauvignon Blanc is prevalent but the Pinot Noir and Chasselas are also grown. As we go down river, to the Touraine and the Anjou-Saumur, we find the Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the Chenin Blanc, and when we reach the Pays Nantais, the Melon de Bourgogne, or Muscadet, appears. Each district has its own distinctive styles of wine and perhaps we should look at each of the four major ones to put wine matters into perspective.
The Upper Loire produces two well-known whites, the Sancerre and the Pouilly-Fume. Both are made from the Sauvignon Blanc. “Aromatic” and “fresh” are the terms most often used to describe these wines. Their nose is sometimes vegetal but can also be flinty. In fact, wine writer Jancis Robinson has even characterized them as “reeking of nettles and cats pee.” Both wines are similar, but the Pouilly-Fume is the firmer, drier and more elegant of the two due largely to the soil in which it is grown and thus will usually age better. The Sancerre is slightly fruitier. Both wines make great accompaniments to seafood, poultry and white meats. The most reliable communes for Sancerre are Bue, Chavignol, and Verdigny. Leading producers in this region are Didier Daguneau (known for Pouilly-Fume), Henri Bourgeois, Lucien Crochet, Joseph Mellot, and Vacheron. 1997, 1996, and 1995 are all good vintages. To the west of Sancerre, you will also find similar wines made in Reuilly, Quincy, and Menetou Salon, but these may be a little difficult to find.
The next major district is the Touraine, sometimes referred to as the “garden of France.” Here the stark Sauvignon meets the flowery Chenin Blanc and we also find reds made predominantly from Cabernet Franc and Gamay. Perhaps the best known white wine from this district is the Vouvray, which has multiple personalities. Made exclusively from the Chenin Blanc, Vouvray can be dry (sec), semi-sweet (demi-sec), or honey-sweet (moelleux) depending on when the grape was harvested. The later and riper the grape, the sweeter the wine will be. Vouvrays also age quite well and when cellared properly will continue to develop over time. Indeed, a young dry Vouvrays high acidity can make aging a must. Among the best producers of Vouvray are Aubuisieres, Gaston Huet, Clos Naudin and Prince Poniatowski. Good vintages are 1997, 1996, 1995, 1993, 1992, and 1990. Among older vintages, look for the 1983, 1978, 1976, and 1975. (Even older vintages like 1959 and 1947 are very good. But, when buying older vintages, be sure these wines have been cellared properly and only buy from reputable merchants.) More westward in the Touraine, we find the Loires most well-known reds, the Chinon, the Bourgueil, and the St. Nicolas de Bourgueil. These wines are made mostly from Cabernet Franc and occasionally from some Cabernet Sauvignon. They are all characterized by red berries and currants and have some similarity to Medocs. The Chinon is known for its finesse or elegance; the Bourgueil is usually more meaty and backward and requires some aging; and the St. Nicholas is a little lighter and more forward. When buying, look for the names Druet, Joguet, and Olga Raffault. Good vintages include 1996, 1995, 1993, 1990, and 1989.
The next district is the Anjou-Saumur. Here one finds the Rose dAnjou and Cabernet dAnjou, which are semi-sweet wines, the latter being made only from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon and also the newer appellation Anjou-Villages, which is also made exclusively from the Cabernets. Two jewels of this region are the dessert wines Coteaux du Layon and Coteaux de lAubance made exclusively from botrytized Chenin Blancoverly ripe grapes that develop what the French call “noble rot” and that make long lived sweet wines. Good producers include Bablut, Richou, Delesvaux, and Ogereau. Good years include 1997, 1996, 1995, 1993, and 1990. These wines, however, can be very expensive. Possibly the best known dry white is the Savennieres made exclusively from Chenin Blanc. These can be backward and acidic when young but can mature to a fragrant, elegant white for a special occasion. One of the best Savennieres crus is the Coulee de Serrant, which can take 15 to 20 years to develop to its fullest potential. Look for Chateau Pierre-Bise, Vincent Ogereau, and Chateau de Chamboureau. Good years include 1997, 1996, 1995, 1993, 1991, 1990, 1989, 1988, 1985, and 1983. (Have your credit card ready and be prepared to wait.) The Saumur also produces some sparkling wines, the Saumur Mousseaux and the Cremant de Loire. These can be delightful sparklers, but although they may look like Champagne, they do not taste like it, being made from Chenin Blanc. Finally one red that has gained popularity, and is the rage in Paris, is the Saumur-Champigny, made from Cabernet Franc. The wine has plenty of fruit and is smooth and full bodied. One good producer is Filliatreau. Good years are 1997, 1996, and 1995.
We end our tour of the Loire at the Pays Nantais in the Muscadet region. Muscadet is made from the Melon de Bourgogne also known as Muscadet. It’s relatively light in alcohol (12.3%) and low in acidity. The better Muscadets are produced sur lie. That is, the wine is left on its sediment after fermentation rather than being transferred to new barrels or tanks. This is done to reduce its exposure to oxygen (given the wines acidity and alcohol level) and to extract as much flavor as possible from the grapes. These are simple, dry, affordable white wines, the best coming from the Sevre-et-Maine region. They are perfect with oysters and other seafood and also make good summer sipping wines. I like these wines young. Good producers are Landron, de Goulaine, Guindon, and Sauvion. Good years are 1997, 1996, and 1995.
For more information on the Loire and its wines, check out Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine, Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, and Clarke & Spurrier’s Fine Wine Guide. I found all three helpful in preparing this feature. (Click on the title to order from Amazon.com)
Now on to the tasting. We tasted eleven wines with a simple pork roast.
1996 Sauvion, Muscadet, Sevre et Maine ($5.99). Pale yellow in color with hints of green and with an almost sweet grassy nose, this wine is crisp and dry. It delivers clean, very dry flavors with some acidity on the finish. One taster felt it had a “nectar-like essence.” This is a text-book Muscadet and a real bargain given its price. Try it with some raw oysters or even with some chevre.
1996 Paul Vattan, Domaine de Saint Romble,”Grande Cuvee” ($12.99) Almost clear in color with slight hints of yellow and green, this wine has a fragrant, floral, herbaceous nose with some hints of flint. On the tongue, there are good grassy flavors. It’s full bodied with nice acidity and a good crisp finish
1996 Lucien Crochet, Sancerre,”La Croix du Roy” ($19.99). Pale yellow with hints of green, the wine has a big herbaceous nose. It’s full bodied and has good acidity. On the palate, it delivers dry, crisp, clean, citrusy (lemon) flavors and has a good finish. This wine would be perfect with grilled salmon. One taster questioned whether it was worth $7.00 more than the Vattan. The Crochet does seem to have a little more finesse.
1996 Jean Claude Dagueneau, Pouilly-Fume, “Compte de Berge” ($12.99). The wine is straw colored with a clean fragrant sweet nose with hints of melon. The entry is smooth and the wine delivers fruity yet dry flavors. It has plenty of body and a good crisp finish. This wine has what one taster called “flavor stamina.” It’s an excellent value for the price.
1996 Chateau Soucherie, “Clos de Perrieres” Savennieres ($22.99). This wine is too young to drink now. Pale yellow in color, its nose is confusing. It has a subtle sweetness that’s not quite there yet. One taster found its aroma totally off-putting and likened it to a litter box. Upon returning to it the next day, I found that the nose began to open a little and showed some honey. Right now the flavors are smoky. It has plenty of fruit and good acidity. This wine needs time and might develop into a lovely Savenniers. It’s a gamble though.
1996 Chateau Soucherie, Coteaux du Layon Beaulieu ($14.99). This is a lovely wine. It has a light yellow straw color and a sweet nose with hints of licorice. The wine is silky on entry and full bodied with plenty of fruit. There’s some honey and even some fennel on the palate. It is not cloyingly sweet and has a beautiful finish. It would go well with poultry or fish–especially when served with a cream sauce. A real bargain at this price.
1997 Sauvion, Vouvray ($8.99). Light gold in color with a fragrant bouquet of apricots and pears and even some walnuts, this wine is extremely smooth and silky on entry. On the palate, there’s a lemony acidity followed by mildly sweet fruit. It has a good mid palate. This wine would be an excellent accompaniment with poached salmon or roast chicken. Another bargain from this reliable producer.
1996 Huet, Vouvray, “Clos du Bourg” (Demi-Sec) ($23.99). This wine has a gold green color and a fragrant berry nose of raspberries and honeysuckle. It’s an enticing bouquet. A silky entry is followed by vanilla and toasty flavors that burst on the tongue with a nice acidity. It also has an excellent finish. This is a beautiful wine and well worth the extra money. It went extremely well with the pork roast.
1995 Clos Baudoin, Vouvray, Clos de l’Avenir (Moelleux) ($17.99). The wine has a pale green celery color and a wet wool nose. A smooth entry is followed by pleasing honey-like vanilla flavors that linger on the palate. However, we found the wine a little thin and short on the finish.
1996 Gasnier, Chinon “Vieilles Vignes” ($12.99). One of two reds we tasted. Reddish purple in color, the wine has a smoky nose of red berries and currants. It has a smooth and silky entry and dry, tannic, currant flavors. It’s a little flat on the palate and leaves a tannic, leathery aftertaste.
1995 Joguet, Chinon “Clos de la Cure” ($17.99). This Chinon has a garnet color and an earthy nose. One taster thought it was a barnyard nose. It delivers plenty of flavor on the palate–loamy leathery flavors and black fruit. A fine example of Cabernet Franc. This wine is full bodied with a good mid-palate and finish. It still needs some time to develop. A fine example of the Loire’s most famous red wine.
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