Thanks to a confluence of sauvignon blanc, melon de bourgogne and chenin blanc, the soul of the Loire Valley runs whiter than Willie Nelson’s rump.
But the heart of the region—Chinon—is red. Boiled lobster red; red as Christian wrath; redder than Nicklas Lidström’s jersey; redder than a horny baboon on a Saturday night.
On the Loire’s left bank, directly in the center of the appellation, surrounded by a virtual Posse Comitatus of caucasian-colored juice, Chinon defiantly raises its red flag. Nearly 95% of all Chinon is brilliantly red, aggressively red, incontrovertibly red, and wonderful domaines like Couly-Dutheil, Bernard Baudry and François Chidaine produce red wines of great decadence, beauty and depth. These are blood-rousing wines saturated with iron-tinged summer berries and often touched with elusive herbal notes like mint, tobacco and green peppercorn. Equally, violet and anise are descriptors that pop up regularly in Chinon tasting notes.
That’s down to cabernet franc, Chinon’s rock star. By law, 10% cabernet sauvignon is permitted in the wines, and you’ll find pockets of gamay throughout the region, but nearly all the idiosyncratic Chinonois denominators that fans gleefully sniff around for come from the small-berried cab franc, an early-ripening varietal perfectly suited for the cool inland climate of the Middle Loire. The area’s unique terroir contributes immeasurably to the grape’s age-worthy performance as well. The soils are mostly alluvial sand, with clay underscored by tuffeau—a strange sedimentary limestone that’s only a little heavier than water. Nearby Bourgueil makes similar wine with similar strengths.
Locally, cabernet franc is called Breton—nicknamed for a tough local clan, the le Bretons.
Another moniker inevitably associated with Chinon is François Rabelais. If, perchance, you are not a student of French Renaissance literature, you may not have heard of him. He’s worth a web search, though: the 15th Century iconoclast Rabelais was in many ways the father of fantasy, satire and all things grotesque; subjects dear to the hearts of most thinking cynics like you and me. You may or may not agree, but in my book, any writer banned by the Vatican while owning a winery (Clos de l’Echo) gets an uncontested seal of approval.
Despite Chinon’s red badge of courage, its neighbors are mostly white, or shades thereof. Among them, some live in trailer parks—off-vintage chenin blanc produces Mohave dry wines that taste like sulphuric acid smells. Some live in little pink houses— Cabernet d’Anjou is an extraordinarily long-lived rosé—and at least one, Vouvray, lives in a big stankin château overlooking the meandering Loire river.
Vouvray is most definitely the Laird of the Middle Loire, producing spectacular, age-worthy wines that range from crisply dry to skull-crumblingly sweet; some sparkle (look for ‘mousseux’ on the label), some just sit there and smell good. It’s here, to the east of Chinon, that the apogee of chenin blanc is reached, especially in heat-stroke years. As in all of northern France, in Vouvray, vintage is everything. This is the outpost of winemaking, nearly the fringe of where grape cultivation is even possible. But when the stars align and the greenhouse effect blooms, Vouvray is a remarkable beast. The drier version offers a gripping minerality (there’s so much tuffeau here that wine is aged in caves hewn from it) backed by concentrated tangerine peel, cantaloupe and Bosc pear flavors while the sweeter Vouvrays—many nudged along by botrytis—are honeyed and hallowed warhorses capable of living for a hundred years, through several generations of cellar masters. True Vouvray zealots—and they are legion in France, though not so active here in the States—will always place the quality level of, say, a century-old Huët le Haut-Lieu over that of the storied Sauternes Château d’Yquem.
Touraine Syndrome: Cross-Channel Branding
Microsoft Word, Ralph Lauren, Type ‘E’ mothers—you know who I mean: Moms and monopolies who can’t seem to ‘filter’, who insist on being everything to everybody. That’s Touraine, sitting east of Vouvray, where frenetic tradition produces red wine, white wine, pink wine, sparkling wine, and not only that, but where vignerons can’t even settle on a chic varietal. Regulation permits cab franc, malbec, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon—even gamay (which tend to suck in Touraine, as they do everywhere on the planet outside of Beaujolais). The list of allowable whites is equally long, and includes chardonnay along with a local grape called menu pineau. The wines are good, not great, but the photo ops are great, not good: Most of the Loire’s most admired and picturesque grand châteaux dot the Touraine countryside.
Ain’t No Cure for the Saumur-Time Blues…
…Except for the Saumur-time reds and whites. Or for that matter, the pinks from nearby Anjou. These two regions, to Chinon’s cartographical left, are often mentioned in the same alcohol-soused breath. They form a neat little triangular farewell to this surface-scratch of the Middle Loire.
Here, it’s a return to basics: First, the reds are mostly cabernet franc, at which the sub-appellation of Saumur-Champigny excels, especially those of Château du Hureau. Saumur-without-the-hyphen dabbles in red wine, but is most celebrated for its chenin-based mousseux, the best of which are found in the sub-appellation Crémant de Loire.
Anjou—Saumur’s blushing bride—is synonymous with rosé, and these discreet, sweet, salmon-colored jewels are made from cab franc and the indigenous fickle-but-high-yielding grolleau noir. But that’s only half the story. The other fifty percent of Anjou production is decisively non-pink, and a particular nod goes to the mineral-rich whites of Savennières (notably those of biodynamic winemaker Nicolas Joly) and the dessert wines of Coteaux du Layon, especially Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume.
And by all means, don’t overlook Anjou-Villages, an appellation created in 1987 to showcase the area’s unique, shimmering, fleshy reds. Grown in shale and gravel, these cabernet franc/cabernet sauvignon-based wines possess a savor unique to the AOC, showing nuances of iris, leather and licorice.
In fact, why not spend the upcoming summer sampling every single thing that the Middle Loire has in the shop window? Touraine to Anjou, east to west, start to finish? You’re guaranteed a remarkable, multi-hued, G-force-filled rollercoaster ride of highs and lows and peaks and valleys during which you’ll find yourself in the pink like white on rice, eyes sparkling while you paint the town red.
Of course, then when your French lit teacher asks what you did over summer vacation, you’ll have to reply: “I really don’t remember.”