Those of you that know me or read this blog on occasion know that I am all about French wine. I really do appreciate wines from every wine region in the world but appreciation doesn’t always extend to fondness. It’s difficult to imagine a world without French wine because virtually every other region on the planet, at one time or another, attempted to emulate French wine and even today winemakers from many ‘new world’ regions do their best to create wines that have the same qualities and profiles as their French counterparts.
At a recent trade tasting for Loire Valley wines, I was again reminded of why this is the case and fell in love with Loire wines all over again. I have always enjoyed these wines but in my life they have often taken a back seat to Bordeaux, Rhone, and to a much lesser extent, Burgundy (I love Burgundy but have intentionally kept the region at arms length). This back seat thing has come to a sudden end.
Apart from being host to many of France’s most spectacular castles, the Loire River runs some 300 miles from approximately the center of the country all the way out to the Atlantic, with vineyards planted on both banks of this beautiful estuary. Some of the more important appellations of Loire whites include Vouvray, Anjou, Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Muscadet, and Quarts de Chaume. Although you may like Loire reds they’re not my personal favorites but I do have to admit that some of them would make very good everyday table wines to have with a meal, especially Cabernet Franc from Touraine.
In terms of wine styles, almost anything goes from crisp, dry, thirst-quenching whites to multi-dimensional mind-blowing dessert wines, from still to sparkling, and earthy reds to dry and off-dry rosé. Really something for everyone! In terms of grape varieties whites tend to be predominantly Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, which I consider to be amongst the best expression of these grapes anywhere, with Muscadet being made with Melon de Bourgogne (considered generally to be of lower quality by some, but I still think they’re very good). Red grapes consist mostly of Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir with a bit of Gamay and a few other obscure varietals planted.
A couple of things really came to light from this tasting. First and foremost, these wines are just downright delicious, have great character and expression without being necessarily complex. As with great music, great wine demands your attention, meaning that if you are going to have a conversation, it better be about the wine you’re drinking and hopefully sharing. Otherwise you’ll miss all of the greatness the wine is serving up to you. In other words it would be tragic to be drinking First Growth mature Bordeaux and have to talk about sport scores, the weather, how work is going, or virtually anything other than how great the wine is. All of the wine’s complexity would be lost if the senses are not allowed to focus. With Loire wines, I can take a sip, acknowledge, if only to myself, how good it is and carry on normally. It likes your attention but doesn’t demand it.
Secondly, these wines are honest. They are made with human care and attention, often with little technology or intervention. If the region has a bad vintage, they just hope the next one will be better rather than bring in reverse osmosis, micro-oxygenation, spinning cones and other technical ploys commonly used to manipulate wine. And you know what? You can taste a difference. There is more purity of fruit, greater expression of terroir, that sense of place, and flavors that are more natural and not always found in new world wine.
Beyond this is the remarkable value. Everyone complains about French wine being too expensive but pretty much only a few percent of France’s wine output qualifies as ‘expensive’. There are some amazing wines from the Loire region that are under $30 retail, many of which can be found for less. Here are a few to look for with appellations noted in bold:
- Château de Montfort Vouvray Old Vine 2009 – $12
- Vincent Vatan Pouilly-Fumé Silex 2009 – $17
- Château de l’Oiseliniere Muscadet Sévre-et-Maine 2009 – $10
- Jean Vincent Sancerre 2009 – $18
- Domaine Cherrier Sancerre 2010 – $20
- Domaine Pichot Vouvray 2010 – $12
- Domaines Guy Saget Pouilly-Fumé 2009 – $12
- Domaine François Cazin Cour-Cheverny 2009 – $20
- Château de la Roulerie Coteaux du Layon 2010 – $20 (dessertwine)
- Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec Le Haut-Lieu 2010 -$26 (might benefit with a couple years in the cellar)
About the multi-dimensional mind-blowing dessert wine? Domain des Baumard Quarts de Chaume 2005 – $70 (also at about $35 per half bottle) is probably one of the most expensive wines from the whole Loire region but is truly a great wine (Wine Spectator rated it 98 points) with comparable quality rarely to be found at this price. Made in a tiny appellation where botrytis occurs, just like in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux, this dessert wine is made with Chenin Blanc and from good vintages will age for 25 to 30 years easily, all the while developing complexity with bottle age. At a small fraction of the price of Château d’Yquem, you’d be surprised how close these wines are to that level of quality, although grapes and styles between them are different.
There is much more depth of information at this website, which I encourage you to check out at www.loirevalleywine.com. This post has barely even scratched the surface of this grand region but it’s worth noting that Loire wine is what the French drink. These are on every table, in every restaurant, in every home, in every cellar. Everyday fantastic wines: expressive, dimensional, beautiful, honest. That’s what I mean by title: More French!
Illustration: Loire Valley Wine Region, used with implied permission but not real permission.