Lure of the Loire
By Bruce Nichols
Wine lovers often will speak of a grape “epiphany,” some transformative wine they’ve had, walking among the vines of a revered vineyard, or perhaps the poetic passion of winemaker as he or she speaks of their land and the wines they produce. I’ve had a few over the years, quite a few come to think of it, but the latest awakening took me by surprise. It was a sauvignon blanc, a grape, as a writer, I have not been especially kind to.
Somewhere along the way, I began lumping all sauvignon blancs together as if this grape grown in so many far corners of the world could possibly be evaluated based on any one style or place of origin. It must have all began more than a decade ago when I had my first sip of Cloudy Bay, the iconic sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. I remember thinking that it was unlike anything I had ever tasted - full of explosive grapefruit flavors and cutting acidity. What followed was a decade and a half of Cloudy Bay wannabe’s, and they seemed to get progressively tarter and increasingly boring. So I stayed away.
Sure I had the occasionally exception – sauvignon blanc is grown in a number of countries of both hemispheres and a few at the high-end of California interpretations and Chile’s Leyda Valley seem to have found the right combination of sun, soil, and climate to make great sauvignon. But in the end, it was a Didier Dagueneau’s Pur Sang from France’s Loire Valley that brought me back to the grape.
The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is an enchanted land, the Garden of France, with historical villages, centuries-old castles, remarkable landscapes, and grand chateaux numbering more than a thousand, some dating back to the 16th century. The Loire has survived revolutions, two world wars and a mass migration of nobility back to Paris when Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles. But many stayed behind and continued to build lavish chateaux as summer homes - and plant vineyards.
More than 600 miles long, running from just beyond Lyon in Burgundy to the Atlantic Ocean, the Loire procudes wines from a wide range of varietals in a wide variety of styles. Best know for crisp dry white wines, the Loire also makes rich aromatic whites, both fruity and rustic reds, rosés, and sparkling wines. There are 68 appellations all with varying soils and climates. There are five major wine regions in the Loire, but it is three white wines - muscadet, chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc, and a single red, Chinon, that define the area.
For me though, my affection for the Loire is all about the incredible crisp dry sauvignon blancs, with their refreshing acidity, and flinty, grassy and herbaceous flavors. This land is the benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc.
While the lesser-known appellations of Menatou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly, Touraine and Cheverny can produce exceptional wines that are generally lower priced - when you can find them, the best come from Sancerre and from Pouilly Fumé – which produces Sauvignon Blanc grown on the opposite bank of the river, also known locally as Blanc Fumé, for the grey, smoke-colored bloom that grows on the skins of Sauvignon Blanc grapes.
At a recent trade tasting in Miami sponsored by The Loire Valley Wine Bureau, the host Benoit Roumet, Director of the Bureau Interprofessionel des Vins, mesmerized his audience of wine professionals and wine writers with passionate descriptions of the Loire’s diverse soils, the contrast of climatic influences, and recent vintage variation and the wines they produce.
Sauvignon Blanc is rarely blended with other grapes in the Loire Valley and it is responsible for the distinctive characters of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Touraine Blanc.
Here’s a few of the delicious sauvignon blancs from the Loire I tasted in Miami, all under $25 and all widely distributed throughout the country.
2007 Domaine de Reuilly. From the appellation of Reuilly, just southwest of Sancerre and a Kermit Lynch selection (an importer who is always a safe choice when picking wines), this is pure sauvignon flavors of gooseberry and lime, with good acidity without being overly tart.
2006 Phillipe Portier.From a small vineyard parcel on the Le Cher River, near Bourges, this wine is filed with citrus, cream, flint and herbs - all classic attributes of Loire sauvignons. Again, if I am ever unsure of a new (to me) wine, I’ll check the importer. This one is from Robert Kacher, a name to be trusted.
2007 Domaine de la Perrière2007 was generally a difficult vintage in the Loire, but a handful of vignerons like Perrier, produced wines like this one with its floral, well-balanced restrained fruit. At about $20, this is an incredible introduction to what wine that reflects its sense of place can mean.
2006 Régis Minet “Vielles Vignes” Pouilly Fumé. My hands down favorite of the eight wine flight, this wine was almost lush in texture with a certain oily mouthfeel of ripe peaches and lime. This brought back memories of my Dagueneau’s Pur Sang experience. Not that the wines were all that similar, just that both exploded onto the palate. Another incredible Loire wine forunder $25.
I find myself drinking more white wine than red lately. I’m not sure whether it’s the tropical Florida climate, the fact that I am eating more seafood and goat cheeses like the Crottin de Chavignol which comes from the same village as some of the best Sancerre, or it could be that I tend to look for lower alcohol wines that most whites provide, but I’ve definitely rediscovered sauvignon blanc from a wine region that sets the standard for those produced in all corners of the world.