Part I: How White is My Valley?
The wild Loire is the longest river in France, and its associated winemaking ward covers a whoppin’ 185,000 acres. 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.
How white? Pillsbury Doughboy white. University of Mississippi before-the-fire-hoses white. White enough to say to Johnny Winter, ‘Nice tan, dude’…
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.
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, damp-stone minerality, and supposedly, smoke. 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 Sauvignons
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 flowering herb aromas and tastes.
Of course, generalizing 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 the above seems to suggest 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 embarrassingly weird with an odd rhubarb and blood profile.
Nonetheless, with a recommendation to first investigate the vintage, I humbly backtrack and point out that there are a handful of drinkable red Sancerres from de Ladoucette, Cotat, Château de Tracy and Crochet.
Mighty white of me, isn’t it?
Part II: Seeing Red
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 Lidstrom’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 straw-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
. 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’s 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.”
Part III: Raise Expectations By Going Lower
The final leg of the Loire junket takes us into the land of the melon-heads—the often neutral, occasionally notable and rarely (if strikingly) superlative world of melon de bourgogne.
Having been drummed out of its native Burgundy in the 18th Century, this frost-resistant grape found a new home in the western Loire, around Nantes. It appears to be a medieval clone of pinot blanc and a simple, acidic grape called gouais blanc, which also happens to be one of chardonnay’s parents.
Melon (emphasis: ‘meh’) didn’t do much in Burgundy, and for the most part, it’s been pretty forgettable in the Loire-Atlantique, used in the past by the Dutch as a base for their distillate brandewijn, much as ugni (emphasis: ‘ugh’) wine is distilled to make Cognac. Today, melon finds its raison d’être almost exclusively in the production of the Western Loire’s most famous and most copious wine, Muscadet. So associated is melon with this generally unassuming wine that the grape is often mislabeled ‘muscadet’, since virtually all French wines are named after a region or varietal. Not so Muscadet—an anomalous moniker that refers to the wine’s supposed quality of muskiness—something I have never tasted in its profile (nor, for the record, have I ever tasted ‘smoke’ in Fumé Blanc). But these are subjective snorts—what’s botanically evident is that melon is not related to the overtly musky muscat grape, but offers—and in its most elegant incarnation gushes with—a supple, perfumed and often salty minerality dusted with dried herbs and citrus scents that make it an ideal companion to the fresh seafood dishes of Brittany, and most especially, briny Briton oysters. Melon with a belon, therefore, can be sublime.
Muscadet is divided into four separate appellations, the largest and most generic wines are labeled simply Muscadet AOC, and are not allowed to employ the aging-on-the-lees technique that tends to distinguishes the breed. Sur lie is a vintner protocol in which wine is allowed to rest on the sediments cast off during the fermentation process, generally dead and residual yeast particles, then bottled without a secondary . In the great wines of Montrachet and Champagne, this process allows the sediments to interact with oak molecules during barrel aging and lends the brioche and toasted bread richness often associated with the nose and finish; in Muscadet, sur lie adds creaminess and texture to wines which might otherwise prove too sharp and thin. Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire and Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu are the regions that produce sur lies wines, and each possesses its own microclimate, soil structure and vinification styles, lending their representative Muscadets personalities ranging from crisp and still to slightly effervescent.
Arguably France’s most diverse wine growing area, the Loire stills flutters gently around the periphery of most wine consciences; a lot of new school fans of wine see France wearing Burgundy and Bordeaux blinders. That’s fine—part of hobby honing is looking back and exploring details you may have overlooked. In fact, that’s most of the fun.
And regardless, whether you knew it or not along your vinous voyage, your heart has never been far from Loire.