France's Loire Valley Offers Many Wines with Great Appeal for American Palates
Tourists know the Loire Valley in western France for its regal assemblage of castles, chateaux and cathedrals, and epicures count the Loire among France's greatest wine regions--up there with Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Despite the region's reputation for cultural and gastronomic richness, the wines of the Loire are relatively scarce here in the United States.
Even humdrum restaurant wine lists are likely to offer a Macon-Villages or other basic white Burgundy, one or two name-brand Bordeaux along the lines of a Mouton-Cadet, and the requisite bottle of Champagne (I'm amazed how many otherwise worthless wine lists include $95 bottles of Dom Perignon). But how often do you see, among the whites, the likes of Vouvray, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume or, among the reds, a Chinon or Saumur-Champigny? Such labels are rare commodities even in the best-stocked liquor stores and wine shops.
The discrepancy between the generally high quality of Loire Valley wines and their diminished status on the American wine market is especially puzzling considering that the Loire produces the very types of wine that are most appealing to American wine drinkers: steely dry whites for the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc set, lightly sweet whites for the white zinfandel crowd and simple, fruity reds for health-conscious converts in search of the "French paradox." There's even a delightfully fruity sparkling wine for those who find Champagne a bit too severe.
It's occurred to me that this extraordinary diversity of styles may be the very reason American wine drinkers find it difficult to identify with Loire wines. When we think of red Bordeaux, we think of an identifiable style--what the British call "claret." In the case of white Burgundy, we're always talking about variations on the theme of chardonnay.
But with the Loire, we're dealing with at least three major white grape varieties (sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and melon de Bourgogne, better known as muscadet), two red grapes (cabernet franc and pinot noir), and a half dozen or more winemaking styles, ranging from the light and dry to the decadently rich and sweet.
Of course, the fact that so many Loire wine names are hard to pronounce doesn't help matters either. The word "Loire" itself is something of a tongue-twister, pronounced more or less like "lwahr."
The wines of the Loire are also distinguished by a remarkable ability to enhance the flavors of food. The whites, in particular, have a loving affinity for various types of seafood.
This I confirmed first-hand at a wine dinner held last month at Stage Left: An American Cafe, in New Brunswick. Muscadet, a simple enough dry white wine on its own, reaches unexpected heights when paired with crab meat. And a Pouilly-Fume made from old vines had flavor and body to spare when matched with a savory preparation of sauteed trout served on a bed of mashed potatoes that were flavored with smoked trout.
While the Loire isn't noted for its red wines, a Sancerre rouge, made from the pinot noir grape and tasting much like a young, vibrant red Burgundy, was wonderful with roasted squab. For a deeper red wine better suited to beef or lamb or venison, I might go with a Chinon or Saumur-Champigny (both made from the cabernet franc grape of Bordeaux fame).
The region responsible for these wines takes its name from the Loire River, the longest in France, which winds its way roughly east to west from its headwaters in southeastern France, crossing the middle of the country just south of Paris and emptying into the Atlantic near the city of Nantes.
Each type of Loire wine comes from one of dozens of vineyard areas, or appellations, that spread out along the river, from Muscadet in the far western reaches, through the chenin blanc-producing appellations of Savennieres, Coteaux du Layon and Vouvray in the central Loire, to the famed sauvignon blanc vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume well to the east.
If you're interested in "touring" the wines of the Loire, here are some to look for:
Muscadet ("moose-keday"). This is the best-known and usually least expensive of the Loire Valley whites. Originating as it does near the Atlantic Ocean, this mouth-puckeringly dry wine is the perfect choice for raw oysters and other shellfish. (Muscadet is not to be confused with the muscat grape, which is used to make sweet dessert wines in France, Italy and California.) Among the several sub-appellations in the Muscadet area, the one to look for is Muscadet de Sevre et Maine. Two excellent producers are Domaine de la Borne and Domaine de la Quilla.
Vouvray ("voo-vray"). The fruity chenin blancs made by some California wineries take their inspiration from Vouvray. But while the California versions tend to be relatively sweet and dull, good Vouvray possesses natural acidity that focuses the fruit flavors and leaves the wine tasting dry. This may be the ultimate picnic wine, perfect for pairing with mild cheeses and the salty flavors of smoked fish and caviar. A good producer whose wines I've seen in the area is Domaine de Vaufuget. The appellation is also known for a fine sparkling wine that combines the fruit of Vouvray with the yeastiness of Champagne. One I've tried that's very good is Foreau Brut.
Savennieres ("sah-ven-ee-air"). Although made from the chenin blanc grape, Savennieres is the stylistic opposite of Vouvray: dry, full, rich, profound. The experts say good Savennieres needs 10 years of aging before it's ready to drink. I haven't been so lucky to experience older Savennieres, but the young ones I've tried are awfully impressive. Surely, this is one of the most underated of all French wines. A fine, readily available example is from a producer named Closel.
Sancerre ("sahn-sehr"). This is one of the two renowned sauvignon blanc-based wines of the Loire Valley (the other being Pouilly-Fume). With a pronounced herbaceous quality and a tart fruitiness comparable to grapefruit, Sancerre is the prototype of many California sauvignon blancs. Given its exaggerated flavors, Sancerre is perhaps best sipped as an aperitif or served as an accompaniment to bold-flavored seafood dishes. Two good producers to look for are Clos de la Crele and, perhaps the best Sancerre available in the New York City area, Lucien Crochet.
Pouilly-Fume ("pwee-ee foo-may"). Although based on the same grape variety as Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume is a sauvignon blanc of an entirely different stripe. Where the flavors of Sancerre are pronounced to the point of being obvious, Pouilly-Fume is more subtle and refined, displaying an ideal balance of fruit and acidity. For this reason, Pouilly-Fume is the better food wine, capable of working with poultry just as well as seafood. An excellent example is the Marc Deschamps "Les Loges" Pouilly-Fume.