Saturday, January 30, 2021

Loire Valley: A Collection of Chenins

"Your stomach is your wine cellar, keep the stock small and cool." Charles Tovey, British wine and spirits writer.


When wine lovers plan a trip to France, Bordeaux and Burgundy are usually at the top of their must-see list.  In the rush to go where everyone else goes, these wine trippers miss one of France's great treasures. 

Along the verdant Loire Valley, you'll find diversity in wine and sights, like no where else in France.  From Saint-Nazaire, where the Loire river meets the Atlantic Ocean, east for 625 miles to the wine towns of Sancerre and Pouilly sur Loire, the valley offers plenty of opportunities to sample wine.

Castle, Chambord, Loire Valley
 Chateau de Chambord

Known as the "Garden of France," for its abundant orchards and vineyards, the Loire Valley is also famous for its many castles, like the massive Chateau de Chambord with its 426 rooms and Chateau de Chenonceau, a 16th century castle with an impressive moat.

Although it is uncertain when the first wine was made in the Loire Valley, records do show that viticulture was well established by the 5th century. Today, the Loire produces the third biggest volume of wine in France, after Bordeaux and the Rhone Valley. 

The Loire is known for its great diversity of still and sparkling wines, with Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, the leading varieties.  The array of grapes also includes Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Malbec. 

Wine making in the Loire mostly follows the same techniques employed elsewhere in France, with two notable exceptions: a minimum use of malolactic conversion and mostly no oak contact.

Aside -- The malolactic process converts stronger sharper malic acid (think Granny Smith apples) into softer lower acidity lactic acid (as in dairy products). The goal of a malolactic conversion is to lower the wine's total acidity, help to stabilize the wine and improve its aroma and flavor.  The process is often referred to as malolactic fermentaion, although it is not a true fermentation, but a conversion of one type of acidity to another.  

Although the use of oak is not fashionable in the Loire, a few Loire wineries employ barrel fermentation for both red and white wine. More common is pump over (the movement of red wine from the bottom of a fermenter to the top, to help keep the cap moist while extracting coloring and tannins from the skins in the cap). 

Chaptalization, a winemaking technique named for Jean Antoine Chaptal, its French developer, whereby the wine's alcohol strength is increased by the addition of sugar or grape juice before or during fermentation is even more common.  Chaptalization is used in northern Europe where grape sugars may be low at harvest, however with climate change, the practice is becoming less common.

In recent years, the popularity of Loire wines on Sancerre, Muscadet and Vouvray. Other Loire wines, and there are quite a few, are not that well known outside France.  With that in mind, here is the first of a two-part overview of Loire wines.  Heading up river:

Muscadet --  The Muscadet region is southeast of Nantes, near the mouth of the Loire river.  Muscadet is made from the somewhat neutral Melon de Bougogne. Because of its neutral character, Muscadet is often left on its gross lees for extended periods.  Enterprising winemakers will also use lees stirring and barrel fermentation to add extra flavor and texture.  The main area of production, and an appellation to look for on Muscadet labels, is Muscadet-Sevre et Maine.

714 Anjou France Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

Anjou -- This western district is one of the most varied in the Loire. The main grapes are Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.  Anjou is known for, at least by Americans, its rose wines, marketed as Rose d'Anjou.  A few steps up in pink wine quality is Cabernet d'Anjou, made from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. There is an effort underway to establish a red wine appellation, Anjou-Villages, based on Cab Franc.  Anjou Blanc is the main white wine, made mainly from Chenin Blanc, but it can contain small amounts of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Savenniere --  This distinctive, and somewhat controversial white lies within the Anjou region.  The wine can be concentrated and tart when young and will age for decades.  Advocates of Savenniere, especially the single vineyard biodynamic-grown Coulee de Serrant from Nicolas Joly, attest to it uniqueness and high quality.  Critics claim the wines are mostly undrinkable.  As always, it is up to the individual's personal judgement of Savennniere, but the discovery can be costly.

Bonnezeaux -- A small appellation in the Anjou district, that is exclusively sweet Chenin Blanc.  At its best, a Bonnezeaux Chenin is attacked by the "noble rot" resulting in a golden nectar.  When the noble rot doesn't develop sufficiently, grape pickers are sent through the vineyards on a number of runs, gathering the ripest grapes.  This inferior process yields a sweet Bonnezeaux but it lacks the character and depth of one graced by the noble rot.  Bonnezeaux is a rare and delicious Loire wine worth the search.

Saumur -- The town, upriver from Anjou, gave its name to a wine district with several appellations. The most important is Saumur Mousseux, made in both white and sparkling rose styles, from Chenin Blanc.  Some Saumur Mousseux goes into Cremant de Loire, perhaps the best known Loire sparkling wine. 

1,908 Pouring Sparkling Wine Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from  Dreamstime
Pouring Mousseux

Sparkling Terminology -- "Mousseux" is the French term for "sparkling wine." Cremant is the tern used for France's finest sparkling wine not called Champagne. The name was created in the late 1980s when the EU stopped the use of the Champagne term methode champenoise on any sparkling wine that was not made in Champagne. It was replaced by methode traditionnelle. Cremant de Loire was created in 1975 and is made from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

This brief first part on Loire wines has brought us upriver to the middle of the valley.  In Part 2, we pick up at Bourgueil and Chinon, pass by Vouvray and Quincy, then end the journey at Sancerre and Pouilly Fume.


Correction:  The previous posting of "My Life in Wine Episode 10,"  scheduling of "Next Blog: While your attention was elsewhere...," was incorrect.  That posting is scheduled for March 2, 2021.

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