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The Lure of the Loire

Which other region of France produces wines with so much variety? The Loire Valley can effortlessly fulfill all our drinking requirements with sparkling wine and fresh, dry whites all the way through to more full-bodied whites and a host of sweet wines. The reds are just as varied, with Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Malbec exhibiting a range of flavors from light and fruity to serious, substantial wines benefiting from barrel aging, and needing bottle aging. The only gap in the region’s repertoire is a fortified wine, as an alternative to port and sherry.

And what a beautiful region it is to visit. Not for nothing is it called the Garden of France. The Loire is the longest river in France; it rises in the Massif Central and flows more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) to meet the Atlantic Ocean near the city of Nantes. The scenery is accordingly very varied, but the heart of the region lies near the towns of Tour and Angers. This is the area that was favored by the kings of France for the favorite royal sport of hunting; consequently, the châteaux are numerous and beautiful. Best of all is Chenonceaux, built for a royal mistress, with arches that span the river Cher.

A dramatically varied landscape

The Loire has many tributaries, which have had a marked effect on the vineyards. Nor is this a region of monoculture; the vineyards form little islands amid fields for arable crops and pasture land, interspersed with woods and fruit orchards. I was lucky enough to be taken for a 30-minute flight by a friend who was a member of the Saumur flying club. It was enormous fun, but it was also highly instructive. We had the château of Saumur and the surrounding vineyards at our feet, and you could see the dramatic tufa cliffs, which are riddled with cellars that provide the ideal conditions for aging the sparkling wine. Further upstream on the Vienne is Chinon, which played a large part in English history, and today is known particularly for its red wine.

My pilot spotted the vineyards of Domaine de la Noblaie, and the next morning we went to taste with Jérôme Billard. He explained how from the same grape variety, Cabernet Franc, he can make four completely contrasting styles of wine. The first is Chinon rosé, a delicate, refreshing rosé, made from grapes that benefit from an earlier harvest than his red wines. His entry-level red, with an élevage in vat, was redolent of cherry fruit, balanced with fresh tannins. More serious were three selection of grapes, from specific terroirs, based on limestone. Careful vinification and 12 months of barrel aging make for more substantial and longer last wines, in cuvées such as les Blancs Manteaux and Pierre de Tuf. Jérôme explained how methods have improved in vineyard and cellar, with riper grapes and more careful wine-making. And finally, he makes a sparkling wine with his Cabernet Franc; by the Champagne method, it was fresh and biscuity, with soft easy bubbles.

At the seaboard end of the Loire are the vineyards of Muscadet. Sadly, Muscadet is in the doldrums. The global competition for light dry wines is fierce, and Muscadet is lost in the crowd. However, there are growers working hard to raise its reputation. Take Domaine de la Fruitière, now the property of Pierre Lieubeau with a talented winemaker, Nicolas Ganichaud. Tasting with them certainly made me look at Muscadet with new eyes. An élevage on the fine lees adds fruit and stony minerality and above all, depth of flavor. And they even proved that Muscadet could age, with a 2007 Château-Thébaud, one of the new crus of Muscadet, which surprised me with its complexity.

Surprising Chenin Blanc

At the other end of the Loire are the dry whites of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and others, all made from Sauvignon. These can offer delicious drinking, with fresh minerality in the hands of Pinard or Vacheron in Sancerre, or Dagueneau for Pouilly-Fumé, but to my mind it is Chenin Blanc that provides the unexpected, as a tasting with Jacky Blot at Domaine la Taille aux Loups in Montlouis illustrated. First of all, we tried his sparkling wine, a pure Chenin Blanc called Triple Zéro, as there is no added sugar, not at chaptalisation, nor in the liqueur de tirage, and not even in the liqueur d’expédition. So we had a wine that was rich and creamy, that had benefited from some yeast autolysis during the 24 months aging period. Jacky observed how you need precision in the vineyard and the cellar to make good dry white wines. He explained how he goes through the vineyards twice at harvest, with a two week interval between pickings, depending on the weather forecast, of course.

All his white wines are fermented in oak, with a slow fermentation so the dry wines acquire weight and body. A selection of different cuvées showed wines that were rich, with dry honey and balancing acidity. The oak was beautifully integrated, with concentration and weight. And my only regret was that the TGV train to Paris called, and there was no time to taste his sweet wines from barrel in the cellar. The vineyards of Montlouis with their proximity to the river have the ideal conditions for the development of noble rot, and I do know from a tasting in London that Jacky’s Montlouis and Vouvray moelleux, and even richer liquoreux, can rival and indeed surpass Sauternes any day.

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.

Photo: Chinon castle in the Loire Valley, France. Credit: Charles Sydney

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.