Values from France's charmed stepchild
Uncorked by David Marglin
For years, maybe even centuries, the Loire Valley has been France's number five
wine region. (The top four are Burgundy, Bordeaux,
Champagne, and the
Rhône Valley.) But being down at number five doesn't mean being in the
cellar, as it does in professional sports -- or rather, it does mean being in
the cellar, but in a good way. In its many distinct
subregions, the Loire makes a bundle of wines worth laying down in your wine
cellar, as well as a boatful of winners ready to drink now.
Three primary grapes are grown near the Loire River (pronounced "lou-are"):
the main white grapes are chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc, and the main red is
cabernet franc. The best-known appellations are Muscadet, Anjou, Chinon,
Vouvray, and Sancerre, but there are more than a hundred different wines
produced here: full-blown reds, rosés,
sparklers, dry whites, and
unctuously sweet whites.
These last, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, are
all the rage right now.
The Loire offers some real values at the moment, because the region doesn't
have the same cachet -- in America, at least -- as the other major regions. In
the 1970s, Sancerre became the darling white of Paris wine aficionados, who
took to the sauvignon blanc-based wines of Sancerre and its neighbor across the
river, Pouilly-Fumé. (Pouilly-Fumé, incidentally, gave rise to
the Mondavi name for sauvignon blanc: "Fumé Blanc.") As more and more of
the bourgeoisie turned to Sancerre for their white dinner wine, the price was
driven up. Now, however, the broad range of white wines available, including a
plethora of sauvignon blancs from around the world and the abundance of ripe
fruit from two stellar recent
'95 and '96, have brought Sancerre back to earth.
In many years, winemakers in the Loire Valley must make do with underripe
fruit, owing to the less-than-ideal weather conditions and to archaic French
laws governing the harvest. But both '95 and '96 yielded fruit that was both
copious and perfectly ripe. Couple that mature fruit with the New World style
of fruit-forward winemaking being adopted by many of the region's winemakers,
and voilà, beaucoup des vins terrifique. Indeed, the ample supply of
ripe chenin blanc (along with its quality) has created a corresponding demand
for the sweet whites made from the highly
chenin blanc grapes grown near the Layon, a Loire tributary.
Chenin blanc generally creates super-sharp (and slightly sour) Vouvray and
other starkly dry white wines, as well as numerous
sparkling whites that are
lighter and far less refined than Champagne. But when the fruit gets really
ripe, it's made into wine classified as demi sec (partly
sweet) or moulleux
caused by the noble rot, botrytis, that grows on the grapes in
October). The demi-sec wines, such as those suggested below, go well with spicy
foods; the sweet wines,
including the Domaine Des Baumards Quarts Des Chaumes
that I reviewed two weeks ago, are like honey when drunk by themselves, and are
also great with dessert.
Muscadet, near the Loire's mouth (and the Atlantic), makes a light, refreshing
white wine that can be slightly pétillant (an almost-fizzy
feeling in the mouth). Look for those labeled Muscadet de
Sèvre-et-Maine. Meanwhile, Anjou's rosés are as famous as its
pears, but red gamays (the Beaujolais grape) of gentle fruitiness are produced
here as well. Chinon reds, made mainly from the
acidic and intense cabernet
franc, compete with those from Bourgueil across the river for the mantle of
best red Loire. Both are worth trying, either young or old.
One store that's long and strong on Loires is the Wine Cellar of Silene. It
didn't fit into my last column on the area's best wine stores, but it belongs
in their company: with depth in French, Italian, and American wines, it draws
customers from well outside its Waltham location. General manager David Bergman
and his staff are almost religious about wine, which might explain the mythical
figure in the store's name (Silenus was Dionysus's wine steward). I've always
been impressed with their ability to suggest quality California wines -- for
example, they turned me on to the Lockwood Merlot and "discovered" Philip Togni
long before the vaunted Robert Parker did. The address is 475 Winter Street, in
Waltham (Exit 27B off Route 128); hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to
9 p.m. Tastings, organized by region, are held Fridays from 5 to 7 p.m. and
Saturdays from 2 to 4:30 p.m.
**1/2 Sancerre 1996 Cuvee des Moulins Bàles ($12.99, Wine Cellar
of Silene, Brookline Liquor Mart)
Crisp, fruity, edgy, with lush pineapple stripes and a nose of green apples.
None of the vegetal characteristics that sauvignon blanc is famous for, but
some hints of what the French call pipi de chat in its aroma. A summer
supper wine to serve super-cold, perhaps with cheese and fruit.
**1/2 Vouvray Domaine Bourillon D'Orleans Sec ($9.99, Wine & Cheese
Crisp and dry, with clean flavors (and a touch of Granny Smith-apple bite)
that will freshen up any summer day. Serve cold on a picnic or by the pool with
fish from the grill. A solid value.
*** Chinon Les Varonnes du Grands Clos 1996 Joguet ($22.99, Wine
Cellar of Silene)
Excellent cab franc/cab sauvignon blend, chock full of lush, dark berry fruit
mixed with earth and coffee. This wine, though still awfully young, is
reminiscent of a pastoral meadow after a long spring rain. One that I would
hold for a while, but it can be drunk now with an hour or so of air.
David Marglin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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