Is this hidden gem finally being recognised? Raymond Blake discusses the underrated character of the wine region.
A strong case could be made for considering the Loire valley as France’s most under-appreciated wine region. It’s hard to say precisely why, but perhaps its apparent strengths – great geographical diversity and a range of styles that no other region can match – are in fact weaknesses, meaning that it cannot be easily pigeon-holed, it sings many songs. Though Bordeaux produces a wide range of styles, it is for classic reds that it is most famous; ditto the Rhône, structured reds are its calling card; and from Burgundy come world-beating reds and whites, each made from a single grape variety. The Loire’s message is more complicated.
It is France’s longest river at 1,000 kilometres and vineyards straddle it for much of that length, from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the east through Vouvray, Chinon, Saumur and others all the way to Muscadet way out west, where the salty Atlantic breeze seems to be captured in the briskly flavoured wines. Along the way there are also hundreds of châteaux, ornate concoctions, wedding cakes rendered in stone, and it was probably these, more than the vinous cornucopia, that persuaded UNESCO to add the Loire valley to its list of World Heritage sites: “The Loire Valley is an outstanding cultural landscape of great beauty, containing historic towns and villages, great architectural monuments (the châteaux), and cultivated lands formed by many centuries of interaction between their population and the physical environment, primarily the river Loire itself.”
The dazzling châteaux compensate for the river’s lack of spectacle. In truth, the Loire is a sloppy river; where others flow vigorously it dawdles along, spilling this way and that, as if unsure of what route to take. As a consequence, it is rather shallow and has never established itself as an artery in the same way as the Rhône, for instance. But its wines don’t dawdle on the palate. Despite the great diversity of styles, they are linked, not just by the river but by a tingling charge of acidity, be they red or white, dry or sweet. Generally speaking, they are also lighter in alcohol than equivalent wines from other French regions and greater restraint is shown in the use of oak barrels for maturing them. Such lightness of style did not chime with the zeitgeist of a decade ago but fresher, less hefty flavours are now accorded more respect and even with some affection. They also pair better with food, complimenting flavours rather than swamping them. Perhaps the Loire’s hour has come? If so, it’s not before time.
It never ceases to baffle me that when wine drinkers went in search of alternatives to Chardonnay, they settled in droves on Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Chenin Blanc, also known as Pineau de la Loire in its homeland, is a far superior grape to both. Aside from its extraordinary longevity, the ace up Chenin’s sleeve is its versatility; it can be used to produce high quality wines that range from bone dry to semi-sweet to lusciously so, and its acidity also makes it excellent for sparkling wines. Thankfully, there are flickering signs of a revival of interest.
THREE TO TRY
Bonnet-Huteau, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur lie, Les Dabinières 2015
Poor old Muscadet! If ever a wine style deserved rehabilitation, this is it. When the world fell in love with ripe tropical fruit, it fell out of love with Muscadet. I write of course about good Muscadet; the poor stuff is barely more flavoursome than water and less enjoyable. This example is light and lean, not thin. It starts with an elegant floral whiff, quickly followed by a bracing mineral note that contributes intensity and length. Perfect for al fresco summer dining, especially if seafood is on the menu.
Domaine Bernard Baudry, Chinon 2010
Loire valley red wines have lived in the whites’ shadow for too long. A few decades ago this was understandable; the acidity that made the whites fresh and lively rendered the reds sharp and bitter, with ‘green’ flavours dominating what fruit there was. Today’s reds sing a different tune, none more so than the superb Baudry wines. This is one of the Loire’s top domaines, as evidenced by the appealing amalgam of earthy substance and persistent fruit in this wine. Serve it slightly cool to keep the flavour focused.
Pierre & Catherine Breton, Vouvray sec ‘La Dilettante’ 2015
On the basis of its legendary longevity, Vouvray can stake a claim to being the Loire’s greatest wine, bar none. Yet its delights remain hidden, known only to a loyal band of followers, perhaps because the Chenin Blanc grape from which it is made has always been marked by a vibrant acidity that was sometimes searing. In this wine the acidity lies deep within a cloak of sweet fruit. The interplay between the two causes it to tingle on the palate: fresh, juicy and very moreish.