White Hot: The Loire Valley’s Racy Whites
“You can always spit into your body, no?”It was just after 10 a.m., and as the last of the morning mist dissipated from the Loire Valley fields near the city of Nantes, I was being encouraged to swallow rather than spit by winemaker André-Michel Brégeon. Considering I had several other producers to visit by day’s end, I deferred to the safety of the spittoon. Expectorating is much preferable to expiring on wine marathons like this one through France’s Loire Valley.
The Loire River meanders some 1,020 kilometres through the central part of France, making it the longest in the country. The Valley itself, strewn with ancient cathedrals, châteaux and bridges, covers just over 71,000 square kilometres and houses roughly six million people. The gastronomic cradle of France, the Loire Valley is also one of the most diverse wine regions you are likely to find.
This makes writing about Loire wines a bit tricky, especially when trying to comply with the fiendish “word count” that one’s editor mercilessly enforces. Sacrifices, dear reader, must be made. So, seeing as how we are finally moving into warmer weather, we’ll focus on what the Loire is best known for, namely, the invigorating dry white wines crafted from the region’s Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne grape varieties. This isn’t to say the region’s Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir-based reds should not be explored or that a flute of ethereal Crémant de Loire wouldn’t be a welcome start to any meal. It’s just that moderation is often in order when it comes to both wine and words.
of melon and muscadet
The Nantes region, centred around the eponymous city, is home to Europe’s largest single-variety white grape vineyard. The grape is Melon de Bourgogne (referred to synonymously as simply Muscadet), a variety originally from Burgundy that up and left (with the help of monks) in the early 17th century in favour of the cool Atlantic breezes of the western Loire. This massive 12,000-hectare vineyard is home to four distinct appellations d’origine contrôlée (AOC). All are planted with the same grape, and all make a single white wine: Muscadet.
Sometimes referred to — rather disparagingly — as “the poor man’s Chablis” due to its zingy acidity and minerality, Muscadet is not a wine to thrill those seeking whites wrapped in oak, alcohol and in-your-face fruitiness. However, the wine shines in the right setting and with the right food. The best of the bunch typically bear the distinction sur lie, an aging method that imparts complexity, freshness and in some cases a slight spritz to the wine.
Allowing a wine to rest on its lees (spent yeast cells) is by no means unique to Muscadet as it is a technique practiced in fermentation cellars around the world. However, for the wines of Muscadet the sur lie designation is strictly controlled. To be labelled as such, the wine must rest on its lees for several months and can be bottled only between the first of March and the 30th of November in the year following the harvest. But, as with any wine law, there are some twists.
“A wine grower can mature Muscadet using the sur lie method longer than the required period,” informs Antoine Waels, assistant chef de marché export for Interprofession des Vins du Val de Loire (InterLoire), the organization responsible for the promotion and development of the region’s wines. “This is the case for the démarches communales” — loosely speaking, village wines — “designation (such as Clisson, Le Pallet, Goulaine, Rubis de la Sanguèze and Gorges), which require a maturing of more than 17 months — usually 24 months in practice. You can also find Muscadet matured over five years! There is no maximum limit, legally speaking; you just can’t write sur lie on the label if the aging period exceeds the legal specification … but you can write it on the back label.”
Brégeon, for one, is big into exceeding legal limits. Along with a handful of like-minded artisan winemakers, Brégeon is attempting to establish several Muscadet crus with a 24-month aging term being the minimum. He’s hoping that his “Cru Gorgeois” — named after the nearby village of Gorges — will eventually earn AOC status.
Though he does market excellent (and legal) Muscadet “sur lie,” I also tasted several numbers that had rested on lees for up to five years. The 1996, for example, was bottled in 2001 having spent five years sur lie and a total of 13 years aging. Packed with mineral, lime zest and sea-spray notes, it tasted like it had been bottled yesterday. And a flinty/smoky, lemon-and-almond-nuanced 1989 was tasting decidedly more like Chablis — or something out of Alsace — than the “light, acidic and fairly neutral” wine that typifies a so-so Muscadet.
That well-made Muscadet can age is confirmed by Pierre-Jean Sauvion, whose family is an important player in the region. When asked if Muscadet’s ability to age is often overlooked, Sauvion, winemaker and façonneur de plaisir of Château du Cléray-Sauvion, states “definitely, yes,” adding that consumer education via winemakers like himself is key to broadcasting this fact.
Brégeon’s wines helped me to come to grips with the (up till then) contradictory term “aged Muscadet.” They also went a fairly long way in helping me to bend my brain around another seeming oxymoron: “aged Sancerre.”
the sauvignon of sancerre (and pouilly fumé)
From atop the 14th century watchtower of the Maison des Sancerre I was able to view the remarkable contrast the eastern edge of the Loire presented against its Atlantic periphery. Where the Nantais is relatively flat, the eastern winegrowing region (referred to as the vineyards of the Centre-Loire and located a good two-and-a-half hours’ drive south of Paris) sports undulating vine-wreathed hills and valleys sculpted by the Loire and Cher rivers. The total vineyard area covers over 5,242 hectares and is home to seven AOCs, the most familiar of which are undoubtedly Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, its sister AOC across the river. Though five different grape varieties can be found planted in the Centre-Loire vineyards, the Sauvignon Blanc is the undisputed king of the land, covering 70 per cent of the vineyard area.
While many wine aficionados have been smitten (or repulsed, depending on what side of the table you sit) by the hair-raisingly in-your-face style of some New World Sauvignons — yes, New Zealand, I’m talking about you — those of the Centre-Loire are somewhat less shrill and tend to offer more complex aromas and flavours with notes of gunflint, acacia, peach, white flowers and herbal nuances.
Some of the region’s best producers, including Domaine Masson-Blondelet in Pouilly Fumé and Domaine Vincent Pinard, Domaine Michel Girard and the certified organic (and, as of the 2008 vintage, certified biodynamic) Domaine Vacheron in Sancerre, have an intimate understanding of the varied soil types in the region, some of which can be traced back over 150 million years, and craft wines that reflect this diversity. For instance, Masson-Blondelet’s 2008 Pouilly Fumé Les Angelots, grown on chalky soil (calcaires durs) was noticeably flintier and slightly more aggressive in style than the Pouilly Fumé Villa Paulus of the same vintage, but coming from fruit grown in marnes kimméridgiennes (limestone/clay/shells).
Like Muscadet, the whites of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are outstanding with raw oysters and other shellfish — while having a particular affinity for the tangy regional goat cheeses like Crottin de Chavignol — when young. And like Muscadet, the best examples age remarkably well.
“It’s a shame for Sancerre to be considered a wine to drink young,” laments Jean-Laurent Vacheron of Domaine Vacheron. “Not all Sancerre wines produced benefit from aging,” he cautions, citing such variables as the quality of fruit harvested and the volume of wine a producer chooses to make as influential factors. “But a good producer can surprise consumers.” His sentiments are echoed by Florent Pinard of Domaine Vincent Pinard, also a producer of white and red Sancerre. “We can do wonderfully age worthy wines in Sancerre. With yields kept low, the best cuvées age as well as those from anywhere in the world.” And indeed, I was rather surprised to see how much freshness and youth could be found in Vacheron’s 1998 Domaine Sancerre Blanc, Pinard’s 1996 Harmonie Sancerre Blanc and Masson-Blondelet’s 1983 Les Bascoins Pouilly Fumé.
Of course, there is one Loire Valley white wine whose ability to age is legendary. In fact, some producers not only recommend extended aging but go as far as to suggest decanting far in advance of serving.
white gold of savennières
Unfortunately the sun had just set over the picturesque countryside when I rolled through the village of Savennières, located about 15 kilometres southwest of the city of Angers. The AOC of the same name is one of the smallest in France at a mere 145 hectares. And within this small vineyard area lie two additional appellations: Savennières La Roche aux Moines (33 hectares) and Savennières La Coulée de Serrant (7 hectares). Once again, the landscape, soils and grape variety has changed. The vineyards, perched on rocky outcrops composed of a mix of sandstone schist and rhyolite and overlooking the Loire River, are planted with a single grape variety: Chenin Blanc.
Quite possibly the most underappreciated noble white grape on earth, Chenin Blanc is responsible for some of the finest dessert wines to be had — and if you are looking for them, they can also be found in the Loire Valley. Most Loire Chenin wines, when not sparkling, tend to be off- to medium-dry — a style personified by the wines of Anjou and Vouvray. However, those of Savennières are (with the exception of rare vintages) bone-dry, yet they age as gracefully as their sweeter cousins.
In an AOC that has been around since 1952, with a single grape variety to work with and soil types less diverse than those of the Nantais or Centre-Loire, one can’t help but wonder what, if anything, has changed over the past fifty-odd years.
“We have come to see that the soil is a living organism and we treat it as such,” reveals Evelyne de Pontbriand of Domaine du Closel Château des Vaults. “The soil structure has begun to completely change. It’s loose and soft and the vines are now producing more expressive and concentrated grapes. We have also been experimenting with biodynamic preparations [Closel is certified organic] and I am amazed at the results — the vines are bearing fruit with more finesse and complexity.” She also notes that the fruit is being given longer hang time than in the past, and this is resulting in wines which are fuller in structure and less herbaceous. This trend, which began around 2001, results in fruit with higher sugar levels and subsequently higher alcohol. Indeed, wines that were typically vinified to around 12.5 per cent alcohol are now routinely hitting 14 per cent. Fortunately, the Chenin Blanc grape’s naturally high acidity ensures that balance is retained.
Things are also changing in the cellar; the use of natural yeast, less sulphur and longer aging prior to bottling is resulting in wines with increased complexity and power. Closel’s 2006 Savennières Clos du Papillon, one of many Savennières I had the pleasure of trying (including those of Domaine aux Moines, Château d’Epiré and Damien Laureau) was classic, with intense baked apple, peach blossom, quince and almond on the nose combined with a rich, beautifully balanced and mildly spicy palate.
a final sip
Whether it’s moving further into the realm of biodynamic winemaking, establishing new designations for superior wines or striving to extract the best nature can offer, the vignerons of the Loire bring together passion, knowledge and a relentless quest for perfection, though none would be boastful enough to claim they’ve attained it. There is still mystery in much of what they strive for, mystery that is eloquently captured by de Pontbriand. “Every day I find wine-producing more exciting, more mysterious. I have the feeling there are still so many things I can learn and that I will need several lives to accomplish my dream. Winemaking forces you to penetrate deep into nature and its secrets, its rhythms. This is fascinating and very moving. You discover the soul of beauty.”
Racy whites are but one of the Loire Valley’s vinous offerings. Red, rosé, sparkling, medium sweet and dessert wines are all equally represented.
For a clinic in classic Cabernet Franc-based reds, check out the wines of Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Saumur and Saumur Champigny by top producers like Domaine Fabrice Gasnier and Domaine de Noiré (Chinon), Le Clos des Cordeliers (Saumur Champigny) and Domaine Yannick Amirault (Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil). Red Sancerre, made from Pinot Noir, is also worth consideration. All the producers of White Sancerre mentioned in the main story also produce a range of Sancerre Rouge.
Loire Valley bubblies are also plentiful and offer a high-quality, affordable alternative to the country’s other famous sparkler. Crémant de Loire, produced in the AOCs of Anjou, Saumur Touraine (as well as Saumur Brut and sparkling Vouvray) offer a bevy of traditionally made sparklers both white and rosé. Look for those from Louis de Grenelle, J.M. Monmousseau, Bouvet-Ladubay and Langlois-Château — among many others — to get the party rolling.
The off-dry to sweet wines of the Loire are also legendary for their honeyed, mildly earthy style and ability to age. Producers of quality Anjou, Vouvray, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux should be researched. Or you can just visit Château Moncontour in Vouvray that offers red, white (dry, medium-dry and sweet) and sparking all under one roof. And don’t forget the rosés from throughout the Loire that are as plentiful as they are refreshing.