In a modern world of macho, flashy wines, it’s pretty tough for a wine region as subtle and understated as the Loire in France to draw much attention to itself.
The whisper of its sleek,vivid whites and lean, fragrant reds is nearly indiscernible over the shouts of the raucous wines that dominate today’s market. It’s a sad reality but one that is unlikely to change given society’s common thinking that “bigger means better.” But for those willing to buck the trend and explore the modest wines of the Loire, there is raw beauty and mind-boggling diversity that will both thrill and astonish you.
The Loire is perhaps best suited to whites, crafting them in every conceivable style, from sticky sweet to bone dry and exuberantly sparkling. With spring upon us and the phenomenal 2009 vintage just released, now seems like a perfect time to discover Loire wines.
Most Loire wines are crafted from one of three primary grapes: the anonymous Melon de Bourgogne, the quirky Chenin Blanc and the fashionable Sauvignon Blanc. The Loire is a large region, ripe with value, and there’s an abundance of great wine currently available in our market. There are so many great examples of this wine that if you drank nothing but Loire Valley whites for the entire summer, I’m certain you would neither get bored nor overextend your budget.
The Loire’s most central area contains two of its best-known and successful regions, Sancerre and Pouilly (pronounced poey) Fumé — both of which are home to Sauvignon Blanc. For the past decade or so, New Zealand has been stealing most of the limelight when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc, which is a real head scratcher when you start to look at the price-quality relationship. Although New Zealand entered the market as a value-priced alternative, its prices have slowly crept up and these days they’re pretty much on par with what you pay for good French choices.
So what’s the difference? Well, both deliver vibrancy and a fresh punch of acidity, but the real difference is in the character of the fruit. Where the New Zealanders deliver grapefruit, herbal notes and gooseberry (often ad nauseam), their French counterparts offer more mineral and stony examples, usually in a more subtle and compelling way. If you find the New Zealanders just a bit too intense on the herbaceous side, you may find Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé to be more to your taste.
As we follow along the banks of the Loire, we arrive next in the Touraine and the stunning wines of Vouvray, the spiritual home of the increasingly rare Chenin Blanc. Here, Chenin knows few rivals for its ability to age effortlessly for decades. The 2009 version is going to be one of the longest lasting, but for those of you who would like to drink the wine during its natural life cycle, it’s best to focus on the dry wines. These are bright and spicy with exotic notes of ginger and jasmine, the perfect stuff to throw back with some grilled trout on a warm spring day. And unlike so many of France’s top white wines, the best of Vouvray ranges from $17 to $40.
Next there are the nearly forgotten vines of the Anjou-Saumur, home to Savennieres and Saumur, two hidden treasures both made entirely from Chenin Blanc. These are vibrant and disarming wines that deliver scents that somehow remind you of springtime. They’re delicate wines but also thrilling and they exude character and charm beyond their meagre price tags.
Finally, just before the Loire spills into the Atlantic we come to the Nantais, home of the most misunderstood of all Loire wines — Muscadet. Made from the humble Melon de Bourgogne grape, this region crafts lean and citrus-laden wines that scream out for a plate of shellfish. Muscadet is bone-dry; its charm lies not in its weight or power but in its subtle mineral flavours and lively freshness. They may seem lean and tart at first glance but there is something lurking beneath, a blast of energy and spirit evident to those willing to pay attention.
Loire wines may not be as flamboyant as many of France’s white wines and they certainly don’t scream out to get noticed the way many a New World wine might; but for those seeking real value and wines you can grow to love, there is no better place on Earth to discover than the Loire.
Some highlights to get you started:
2009 Reserve des Vignerons Saumur ($18) — Lemon scented and positively brimming with “drink me” freshness.
2009 Chateau l’Oiseliniere Muscadet Sevre et Maine ($18) — Classic example, lean, crisp and exhilarating.
2009 Huet Vouvray Sec ($34.95) —If you can find it, this will redefine what you knew of Vouvray.
2009 Domaine du Salvard Cheverny ($17) — A blast of herbal aromas.