"Good French wine should carry the phrase: 'Mise en bouteilles au chateau,' This assures you that only the owner of the vineyard has had a chance to tamper with the wine." Richard Smith, Washington state farmer and wine lover
On the first leg of our wine journey up the Loire River, we started out east of the delta at Saint-Nazaire, then past familiar wine regions like Anjou, eventually reaching our terminus at Saumur. On both sides of the river, the land is dotted with orchards, vineyards and castles with deep moats and ornate gardens, likely the origin of the valley's nickname,"The Garden of France."
Before the rise of Bordeaux in the 12th century, the wines of the Loire, especially Anjou, were favored in England and the Netherlands. But the history of viticulture in the Loire Valley can be traced back to the 5th century. What gave Loire wines the edge then in the markets of northern Europe was the navigability of the Loire river, a major thoroughfare for commerce then in France.
In this second part, through the middle and upper parts of the valley, the wine regions have a familiar ring. Starting in Bourgueil, we continue on to Chinon, Vouvray, then a detour away from the river to Quincy and Reuilly, and finally back to the river and Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume.
Chenin Blanc is the dominate grape in the lower reaches of the Loire Valley. In the middle and upper Loire there is more of a mix, with Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc the major varieties. The exception, of course, is Vouvray, the best known Chenin Blanc in the Loire, still and sparkling.
The change from Altantic climate to continental climate and the array of soils account for the fact that Chenin Blanc grows better in the lower Loire, while Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc do best further inland.
Along the more than 600 miles of the Loire river, from the Atlantic to the river's source, in the Ardeche, soil variations dictate what grape will be grown and where it is best for it to grow. Around Vouvray, tuffeau is a common type of marine limestone with good drainage that is suitable for Cabernet Franc. Tuffeau is not the same as tufa, a rock typically associate with local springs and caves. And it is different from tuff, a volcanic rock found in southern Italy and Sicily.
|Vouvray cellar carved in tuffeau soil|
These are the seven major wines of the middle and upper Loire. There are others, but they are either of local interest or available mostly in EU markets.
Bourgueil -- This is Cabernet Franc country and Bourgueil is one of the best expressions, along with Chinon, of the grape. The wine is medium bodied with a lovely ripe berry aroma often described as raspberry. Bourgueil is best when it's young and fresh. Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, a small enclave, produces lighter reds than Bourquiel. Up to 10% Cabernet Sauvignon is allowed in Bourgueil.
Chinon -- Chinon is an historic town on the Vienne river, a tributary of the Loire. The vineyard expanse is larger than Bourgueil, and the wines, made from Cabernet Franc, are light and fruity with good structure. Chinon will take some aging, but the wines are best when young, fresh and fruity. A little Chinon blanc is made from Chenin blanc.
Vouvray -- This is the heart of middle Loire where, according to locals, the climate changes from Atlantic to continental. In Vouvray, the Chenin Blanc grape, known locally as Pineau de la Loire, shows its stylistic versatility, from dry, to soft and semi-dry, to moelleux, or rich, sweet and honeyed. The Vouvray style bag also includes petillant, with a slight sparkle, and a mousseux version, that is a fully sparkling Chenin Blanc and one of the best non-Champagne bubblies in France. More than one million cases of Vouvray are made annually, making it one of France's most popular white wines.
Wine making in Vouvray is focused on retaining the high profile fruit and crisp mouth-watering acidity of Chenin Blanc. Thus, only large neutral oak and stainless steel are used and malolactic conversion is avoided.
Quincy -- Although not on the Loire river, Quincy is considered a Loire Valley wine, since the area lies along the Cher river, which is a tributary of the Loire. Quincy is made from Sauvignon Blanc, although up to 10% Sauvignon Gris is allowed. Sauvignon Gris is an odd, but increasingly popular variety, also known as Sauvignon Rose, for lightly tinted skins. Less expensive Quincy Sauvignon can be a pleasant substitute for Sancerre.
Reuilly -- In the upper Loire, the river bends northward in a wide arch. Inside the bend is the small appellation of Reuilly, a less expensive version of Sancerre, made from Sauvignon Blanc. Red and rose wines are made from Pinot Noir and the pink-skin Pinot Gris. Quincy and Reuilly share some similarities and both are like nearby Sancerre.
Sancerre -- The town of Sancerre is a picturesque site, dramatically situated on a hilltop above the upper Loire river. Sancerre, the wine, is famous worldwide as a pungent, crisp Sauvignon Blanc. However, until the 20th century, Sancerre was mainly red wine and a neutral white made from the Chasselas table grape.
In cool years, Sancerre has a tendency toward grassy herbaceous aromas. In the best years, the wines are refreshing and lively, smacking of pure Sauvignon Blanc. Oak is not used in Sancerre although there have been some oak-aged Sancerre produced. A very small amount of light and fruity red Sancerre, made from Pinot Noir, can be found.
Pouilly-Fume -- Up river a few miles and on the opposite bank from Sancerre is the town of Pouilly-sur-Loire and its famous Pouilly-Fume wine, made entirely from Sauvignon Blanc. A slight flinty/smoky note is the most noticeable characteristic that separates Pouilly-Fume from Sancerre. The use of oak for fermentation and aging is more common in Pouilly-Fume than Sancerre.
One of the enduring myths surrounding Pouilly-Fume is the origin of the word "fume." The French word for smoke is fume and one version holds that the fume in the wine name refers to the mist that forms in the mornings above the Loire river and has nothing to do with smoke. Another explanation claims that the predominate soils of Pouilly-Fume vineyards contain some flint, which imparts a "smoky" flinty flavor to the wine.
Whatever your wine preference - white, rose, red, sparkling- you'll find it in the Loire Valley. If your local wine merchant doesn't carry the Loire wine you want, ask them to order it. Better yet, when we can all travel again, enjoy your favorite Loire wine at the source.
Next Blog: My Life in Wine Episode 11
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