Appreciating Loire’s Valley Wine Region
By Mike Rosenberg
The Loire (pronounced luh-WAHR) Valley wine region is a long, skinny stretch of land that lies along the river of the same name in France. Some of the first evidence of winemaking in France dates to the first century A.D. in the evidence of vines planted by the Romans in the Loire. The river meanders north-northwesterly from its head in the Alps in south-central France near Ardèche for a couple hundred miles before taking a hard left turn near Orleans, about 80 miles south of Paris. (This is about where the grape growing begins in earnest.) From there, the river heads almost due west, eventually emptying into the Bay of Biscay on France’s west coast at Saint-Nazaire.
Much of the area surrounding the Loire in northern France is relatively cool. Too cool, ordinarily, to ripen many wine grapes. Luckily, the river exerts influence on the climate, raising the average temperature within a few miles on either side of its banks by a couple of critical degrees. Within this “growing zone,” lie some of the most densely planted vineyards in the country. Even so, an extra cool summer can prevent the grapes from ripening fully in some vintages. In those cases, some winemakers add extra sugar to the juice before fermenting. This occasionally necessary process, called “chaptalization,” is illegal in other parts of Gaul.
The Loire region boasts a broad spectrum of grapes. As with most French wines, the name you see on the label indicates the area in which the grapes are grown. The Upper Loire, which includes sub-regions such as Sancerre Pouilly-Fumé, trades heavily in sauvignon blanc with a little pinot noir grown in certain areas. The Middle Loire wines – Vouvray, Chinon, Saumur and Touraine are the most common regions you’ll see – are predominantly chenin blanc among the whites and cabernet franc among the reds. The Lower Loire, mostly around the town of Muscadet near the mouth of the river, is best known for white wines made from the melon de Bourgogne grape.
Loire wines – red, white and rosé – are known for high acidity and relatively low alcohol content. This combination makes them excellent pairings with broad varieties of dishes and excellent “just for drinking” choices. I think I drink more wines from the Loire than any other French region – partly because of their flexibility, but also because there are some real steals because of the region’s relative anonymity. Here are a few offerings from the Loire that I’ve enjoyed recently:
Chateau de Fontaine-Audon 2010 Sancerre – Sancerre is the most prominent region in the Upper Loire, which is the wine growing region just south of Orleans. Most of the whites, as I mentioned before, are largely sauvignon blanc and are considered some of the finest examples of that grape in the world. Unlike many sauvignon blancs with heavy fruit or grass notes, Sancerre is known best for the mineral character of its wines. This particular bottle is a delicious example. The first sip starts with plenty of pineapple and lemon flavors and a little undertone of flint. The general body is crisp with just a hint of creamy at the end. I poured this with both a goat cheese appetizer and a red snapper ceviche. With the cheese, the “metallic” piece of the mineral taste and the sour of the cheese negated each other, leaving a very nice rich flavor from the cheese, and a peachy flavor from the wine. Lovely. With the ceviche, the acidity of the wine merged with the lime juice in the ceviche. The fish tasted wonderful, as did the wine, which displayed a tasty flavor that reminded me of a melted lemon ice. Excellent. ($18)
Remy Pannie 2008 Vouvray – Vouvray is a small parcel of land in the Middle-Loire outside of the city of Tours; an area known for growing wonderful chenin blanc. Not the chenin blanc you’ve seen in jugs, mind you, but the genuine article like this bottle. The nose reminds me of Rosh Hashanah: apples and honey – a flavor that translates directly from nose to palate. Unlike many crisp, light Loire whites, this one offers quite a bit of richness. It tastes like there’s a hint of residual sugar, but it’s more of honey flavor than a sugary one. There’s a little bit of acid underneath the richness, but the tartness is well hidden. The finish has just a twist of crisp at the end. It is an exceptionally nice wine to just sip on while sitting on the porch one afternoon. It made a lovely food wine. Alongside fish tacos, it managed to stand up to Mexican-style spices without a problem. ($15)
Domaine de Noiré 2010 Chinon – Chinon, in the Middle Loire, is known for reds, particularly cabernet franc. Most chinon reds are 100 percent cab franc, rather than the blends you’ll commonly find elsewhere in France. Cabernet franc is the chardonnay of red wine in that it can grow where many other grapes cannot. It reflects terroir strongly. Much like other Loire wines, cab francs from Chinon are light bodied and highly acidic – rather than strong and tannic as you might find in a California cabernet franc. If you’ve wondered how “pencil lead” in a tasting note translates to actual taste, this bottle is a solid illustration. There’s a “graphite” smell on the nose, which carries through to the palate along with some light blackberry and cherry flavors. The body reminds me of a fat Beaujolais. The finish is tart, mineral-y and reasonably soft. One of the classic pairings with Chinon is grilled salmon. I now understand why. The smokiness of the grilling brought out lovely smoke flavors in the wine, while the acidity made a great counter to the oiliness of the fish. Definitely worth a try just to try that pairing, at about $15. Let me know what you think…
Domaine du Haut Bourg 2009 Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu – As I mentioned, “Muscadet” is the area near the mouth of the river where this wine is made. Muscadet is made from the melon de Bourgogne grape. Melon de Bourgogne is so inextricably linked with this region that the grape is now commonly referred to as Muscadet. On many bottles, you’ll find the words “sur lie.” Sur lie means “on the lees.” Lees are the dead yeast that settles to the bottom of a fermentation tank. Leaving a wine “on the lees” for a time gives a wine some creaminess and additional texture. Many Muscadet, if not made a little “thicker,” would have an almost watery body. The du Haut Bourg starts off with a crisp blast of lemons and a flash of honey in the back of the mouth. Like most Muscadet, the wine has a very mineral – almost metallic – character, but that flintiness bounces effortlessly off any kind of shellfish. For the sake of full disclosure, the flavor of Muscadet is so different from most other wines that we actually recoiled the first time we tried it. It has so much mineral character that we didn’t know what hit us. Since then, the grape has grown on us – especially once we discovered how well it went with the aforementioned shellfish. I fooled around in the kitchen for a bit and created a delicious brothy stew of bay scallops, calamari and shrimp with peas and lemon juice, topped with mint and goat cheese. Seriously, this was one of the best meals I’ve whipped up in a while. It’s a magnificent pairing, especially for $10.
Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at MikeRosenberg@DaytonCityPaper.com or visit his blog at www.TheNakedVine.net.