If you love the world of wine, there’s no corner of its territory that’s without interest – not a single one you wouldn’t care to explore if you had the time and the money. A field of vines set in orderly array has the same aesthetic appeal wherever it’s found, yet every vineyard is somehow one-of-a-kind, too – with its very own own topography, geology, and ampelography if only you care to learn it.
I admit to being so smitten with this aspect of wine that I have found it very hard over the years to focus my attentions on a single place, grape, or winemaking approach for long. A confirmed monogamist in marriage, I’m a serial philanderer when it comes to wine.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have my preferences. For a very long time now I have cherished a fondness for the wines of France’s Loire Valley that even surprises me at times. This warm feeling was rekindled last week at Central Bottle when at our Saturday tasting table I was pouring a trio of chenin blancs I thought were really splendid: an Anjou Blanc from Château Soucherie, Le Rocher des Violettes “Cuvée Touche-Mitaine” Montlouis, and Yves Guégniard’s lovely Savennières.
Each showed qualities I most admire in dry Loire chenin: cool, clean, austere orchard fruit (of a kind that is matched only by certain high-latitude chardonnays cut from the same sturdy cloth), breadth and solidity, shimmering acidity, and – here’s the real magic – a distinctly warm, sunny core.
The experience set me thinking back to the early 90’s when we were traveling pretty regularly to Paris. Our game then was to suss out about the young men (kitchens were still overwhelmingly male) who had left fancy hotels or Michelin starred restos to take their first steps on their own. Typically a charming and capable wife managed the dining room which had been decorated on a dime, and the food was simple and good and appealing in that unexcelled French way. It was a nifty approach and did well by us.
Perhaps this Loire-ish identity is something accomplished by the imagination.
Early on we noticed something interesting about the wine lists in these modest spots: they were overwhelmingly comprised of those Loire Valley stallwarts: chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, and cabernet franc. To keep in step with the prix fixe that were always a key feature of these places, they were all low to medium priced bottles – what we would call value wines. They were tasty, satisfying and perhaps above all appetizing – and they turned our heads. Back home we tried hard to apply what we had learned and little by little the cellar began to take on a Loire-ish bent.
In the intervening years, the prices have gone up, but so has the quality – and the interest. Many young winemakers have found a home somewhere in the long stretch of vineyards that runs from the Atlantic coast to the dead center of the country and brought their enthusiasm for organic/biodynamic farming and for experimentation with some of the regions lesser-known varietals (folle blanche, pinot d’aunis, cot (malbec), grolleau). Unlike corporate-riddled Champagne or Bordeaux, In the Loire –its the family-run, family-sized property that’s the rule.
But hold on a bit. All this talk about what Loire wines seem to have in common suggest that within this long, drawn-out chain of vineyards — ambling for more than a thousand kilometers –there is something that deserves to be thought of as a single, if rather generalized, terroir; otherwise how could the likeness I claim to observe exist?
Look again at the map then, in your mind’s eye, erase the river from it. Without it, what is there that suggests these individual pockets of winegrowing activity have anything in common? Perhaps this Loire-ish identity is something accomplished by the imagination. It’s the thin blue line on the map that seems to make Sancerre the head and Nantes the tail of one very long dog, when in fact, there is just a pack of hounds.
The soils and weather are certainly at odds, with the east end (Sancerre, Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly, and Pouilly) perched at the outer edge of the Paris basin on the same sort of cretaceous limestone that’s found in Champagne and Chablis and with a continental climate, while at the western extremity the bedrock and soils are granitic and the atmospherics decidedly maritime. In between, the variations are almost too many to enumerate.
All those tour promotion photos of turreted, fairyland chateaux glistening in the sun make it easy to lose sight of the degree to which the whole region lies at a uniformly and surprisingly high latitude – very close to 47 degrees along the river’s entire length. Nantes, the home of the brisk, saline white known as Muscadet, is perched rather higher than Quebec City. At the river’s eastern extremity, the villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume — known as benchmarks of quality in Old World sauvignon blanc — lie a couple of degrees north of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
It’s latitude, in part, with the accompanying variation in diurnal and nocturnal temperatures, that keeps the acidity brisk in the whites here and flecks the cabernet francs of Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and Bourgeuil with those herbal and vegetal notes that give these red wines their special – some might say quirky — charm. Perhaps it’s here that an answer to our conundrum lies – but honestly, who knows?
I’m not even sure what happened to some of those restos we discovered in Paris years ago. Some, like dear little Jules on the Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau near the cookware shop Dehillerin, where Balzac might have shopped, are shuttered now. But what we learned there continues to pay dividends . . . and keeps us loving the Loire.
Four to make the heart skip a beat
2012 Domaine de la Bregeonnette Gros-Plant du Pays Nantais. Pale silver hue; piquantly aromatic in the floral-citrus segment of the spectrum – elements that are echoed on the palate with a bit of spritz to boot. This is real warm-weather picnic wine. A wee charmer. 100% folle blanche. $17
2011 Château Soucherie “Cuvée les Rangs de Long” Anjou Blanc. Pale yellow-gold hue; pronounced flinty, earthy aromas; very solid, crisp apple-pear fruit flecked with wet wool notes and a drop of something honeyed. Nicely round feel and spritely acidity. Appetizing, versatile little wine. 100% chenin blanc. $21
2010 Chateau de l’Eperonnière “Croix Picot” Savennières. Medium gold hue; Marvelously attractive and dazzlingly complex aromas – just you try to tease out the medley of scents that leaps from the glass. Lovely, thrillingly dry chenin fruit is weighty, rich, unctuous, crunchy. Solid structure and some mouth-watering acidity. What a treat. $28
2010 Domaine Serge Laloue Sancerre Rouge. Yes, it’s red Sancerre. Medium ruby hue. Lightly perfumed nose of black cherry and loamy earth. Bright, brisk, red fruits, good depth of flavor and nice even, persistent length. Great zip and freshness. So appetizing. Will be versatile. 100% pinot noir. $25