Apartheid white. Pillsbury Doughboy white. University of Mississippi, pre-1962 before-the-fire-hoses white. White enough to say to Johnny Winter, ‘Nice tan, dude’…
I’m talking about the wine.
The wild Loire is the longest river in France, and the associated winemaking areas are vast. Originating in the deep south, virtually in the Rhône appellation, it scrambles up through Orléans (Jeanne d’Arc-ville) and hooks over toward Tours in the country’s heartland. It’s here, in central France, in the northeastern limit of the Loire Valley, that the anointed whites of the Upper Loire are born.
During the Middle Ages, these wines were more highly prized than those of Bordeaux or Burgundy—though on the other hand, contemporary 13th Century whizbangs also thought the Black Plague was spread by cats, killed them all, then found out that the Plague was actually spread by rats, whose numbers increased geometrically without any cats. So their judgment may be called into some question—the survivors anyway.
Nonetheless, these vivid, crisp, hauntingly aromatic and almost supernaturally focused whites are arguably the pinnacle of their particular varietal, which in the case of the region’s two most revered names, is sauvignon blanc.
100% sauvignon blanc, too, merci beaucoup—none of this Bordelaisean nonsense with the semillon and the muscadelle and the ugni (emphasis: ‘ugh’) blanc.
And the names?
On the Loire’s right bank, punching through silex—a peculiar, pulverized soil made of powdery flint above a base of clay and limestone—is the commune of Pouilly Fumé, known for a singular pale wine whose elusive aromatics suggest musk, smoke and damp-stone minerality. The profile is so unique that Robert Mondavi attempted his own version in the late 1960’s, meaning to drag himself from the whirlpool of mediocre, overtly sweet sauvignon blancs then dominating the California wine market. Dubbed ‘Fumé Blanc’, it was (and is) a textured, elegant, smoky and nuanced wine, and was, in some ways, the house upon which Mondavi quality was built.
In the Loire, the history of Pouilly Fumé is a soupçon more colorful than the wines; the largest holding, in the hands of families Comte Lafond and Ladoucette, was purchased from the bastard daughter of debauched Louis XV, while the vineyards themselves have undergone several scorched-earth blitzkriegs, including their total destruction in the 9th Century by Charles the Bald—a guy who was probably about as fun as his name suggests.
Sancerre’s Sincere Sauvigons
Meanwhile, on rocky hills on the opposite bank of the Loire, the sixteen villages of Sancerre AOC glance over at Pouilly Fumé with a sort of supercilious smirk. Here, the wines are more finessed, showing less minerality and more fruit, less smoke and more herbs-in-flower aromas and tastes. Of course, such a generality is gross—in fact, Sancerre is comprised of a varied geology, and wines from individual terroirs express one-of-a-kind characteristics. To the east, flinty soils produce wines of almost steel-like elegance and austerity; the central vineyards are chalky and the wines are more floral and delicate and almost Chablis-like; in the gravelly northwest, Sancerre tends to reflect an array of unusual fruits, many exotic—passion fruit, quince and lychee. All three plead a pretty respectable case that, Marlborough, Willamette and Graves notwithstanding, the Upper Loire is sauvignon blanc’s purest sanctuary.
In ways, throughout Loire’s culture, purity is the hallmark, and the folks who live here are reputed to have the purest of all French accents—despite being assured that, no, Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther did. Loire’s goat cheese (which, like the wines, have its own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) reaches such heights as coagulated ruminant casein can.
And as a wine-tourist destination, it’s hard to beat: The thousand chateaux, medieval cathedrals and pastoral countryside scenes are heartbreakingly beautiful—and that’s before you visit the vineyards.
Now, if I suggested that no red wine whatsoever comes from the Upper Loire, my bad; pinot noir is grown on select sites throughout the region, though in less-than-perfect vintages it tends to be pale, acidic and almost embarrassing with an odd rhubarb and blood profile; perfectly acceptable if you happen to be a hillbilly vampire.
Nonetheless, with a recommendation to first investigate the vintage, I humbly backtrack and point out a handful of drinkable red Sancerres from de Ladoucette, Cotat, Château de Tracy and Crochet.
Call it white flight?
(The following represent rationally affordable, reasonably available examples from both communes. By no means are these the best, but they are extremely typical of the similarities and differences between the two, and both are solid, well-made Upper Loire sauvignon blancs)
Domaine Berthiers, Pouilly Fumé , 2009, about $27: Maturated on the lees without malolactic fermentation, the cream and crispness that characterize this wine are the pure, natural expressions of the fruit—exactly what you’d hope for in a Pouilly Fumé Hazelnut, wood smoke, dust and orange on the nose; an oily, almost sappy richness in the body; beyond the mouthfeel, apricot, pear and orange predominate with nuts and honey on the finish.
Domaine Patient Cotta, Sancerre Vielle Vignes, 2009, about $27: Laser-sharp and exuberant, saturated with minerals, fruit and flowers. The wine’s nose pulls all elements together: Wild white flowers, damp crushed stones and grapefruit mix and mingle, exploding on the palate with lime zest, lychee and a serious dried-herb grassiness; even a distant echo of brine. Likely the result of old-vine deep-roots, the finish is long and complex. It’s the flint that lingers longest on the finish—almost too long.