Loire and orders
Monday 25th February 2013, 10:00AM GMT.
The Loire’s best-known wine is in the doldrums, with Muscadet growers going to the wall or turning to other crops. But it’s not all doom and gloom down in the valley, as Richard Alisette writes…
IT WOULD be perfectly possible to drink wines all your life from no other part of France than the Loire Valley.
Start a meal with an aperitif of sparkling Cremant de Loire, or a Savennieres if bubbles aren’t your thing – or even follow the French example and have a demi-sec (sweetish) aperitif from, say, the Layon.
Carry on with maybe a Vouvray or Montlouis, possibly a Pouilly-Fume or Sancerre (in white or pink) and progress to a red from Saumur or Chinon. End the meal with one of the world-class sweet wines of the Quarts de Chaumes or Bonnezeaux.
Now, I’ve mentioned at least half a dozen wines or so and I’ve not yet mentioned a grape variety.
As I discussed in this column last week, the whole quality control system in France (appellation controlee) is based on a sense of place, not on the grape variety – unlike the way things are done in Australia, Chile or California, though things are changing here, too. In fact it is actually illegal to state the variety on the front label in many of the appellation controlee areas.
I should point out that the appellation controlee laws do not just apply to wine but to foodstuffs as diverse as cheese and chickens.
The French (and most of Europe) believe in ‘terroir’, the uniqueness of a place that gives the wine its particular flavour and style. Grape variety comes a dim and distant second.
But in order to better understand the wines of France, it is important to get to know the grape varieties lurking behind those labels – customers are quite often genuinely surprised when I tell them that Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre are made from sauvignon blanc, for instance.
The Loire is France’s longest river, so it is not so surprising that such a diverse range of wine styles is made there, and in great quantity, too – some three million hectolitres of AC wines each year.
It is probably best if we start in the west in Nantes and head east along the river until we reach central France and the vineyards of Sancerre.
Near the town of Nantes, you will find a grape that does actually gives its name to a wine – muscadet – though locals often refer to it as melon de Bretagne. Muscadet is going through tough times at the moment, with dozens of growers going to the wall or simply giving up and turning to other crops as the price they receive for their grapes plummets.
Thankfully, there remains a handful of really great growers producing excellent wine from muscadet, but you need to pay decent money to find them – forget the two-euro ‘bargains’ you sometimes see for sale in Britanny’s supermarkets.
As you travel east, muscadet gradually gives way to chenin blanc, which in my mind is the greatest white-grape variety grown in the Loire Valley.
Although chenin blanc makes very good dry whites, it also makes some of the greatest and most long-lived sweet wines in the world, near the Layon river south of Angers.
From a great producer and a great year (and there have been lots of those in the past 20 years), these are some of the most sublime sweet wines in the world. They are sometimes best sipped on their own before a meal and other times best enjoyed with savoury foods rather than puddings – Coteaux du Layon and foie gras is one of the marriages in an admittedly not very politically correct heaven. But try one with a French blue cheese like Bleu d’Auvergne, too. They are true bargains.
Further east along the river, you come to the towns of Vouvray and Montlouis, where the chenin blanc still holds sway but is made into dry, white wines, too. I like the ‘sec-tendre’ wines – literally ‘tenderly dry’ – particularly when eating river fish cooked in a beurre blanc sauce, or even at the end of a meal with a soft French cheese.
Just one word of warning with chenin blanc – it does get the teenage sulks, so you need to drink it young (within three years of harvest) or old (say, after seven years or so) because it goes to sleep for a while and tastes of very little at all. Eventually it blossoms into a complex amalgam of flowers, honey and hay (much nicer than it sounds).
As you head towards the city of Tours, the sauvignon blanc starts to make its presence felt – this should be drunk fairly young.
Sauvignon blanc reaches its pinnacle in the towns of Sancerre and Pouilly sur Loire (home of Pouilly-Fume) but if you want to save yourself a couple of quid a bottle, it is worth looking out for sauvignons from less fashionable areas in the eastern end of the Loire – Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Reuilly produce excellent wines in the right hands.
Most Loire white wines are (thankfully) made without the use of oak – so that is one complication you don’t need to consider.
If you find a wine with a starry-sounding name, in a funny shaped bottle and selling at a starry price, it’s quite a good bet that the vigneron has decided to invest in a few oak barrels – but very few get the balance of fruit and oak right, in my opinion.
We’ve only looked at the major white appellations in the Loire – there are dozens more to explore.
Next week we’ll look at what the Loire valley offers red-wine drinkers.