Thursday, March 9, 2023

France Series: Loire Valley & Rhone Valley

There is hardly a spot in France where wine is not made. From the sparkling wines of Champagne in the northernmost region to the wide array of table wines and bubbly along the southern parts of the country; France is awash in wine.

Spanning across the country's midsection, the agriculturally important Loire Valley has earned the reputation as the "Garden of France." The Loire is both an east-west-oriented valley and a river.  And the Loire river supplies irrigation for the valley's many crops and vines and is a means of river transportation. 

Situated in southeastern France, the Rhone Valley has earned its renown as the source of some of the country's most highly regarded red wines, as well as an impressive wine blend with an ecclesiastical history. 

Along the narrow river valley, the Rhone is home to an impressive selection of wines, that in their uniqueness rival any in the world. 

There's a lot more to say about the Rhone Valley and its wines, but first, there's this about the Loire Valley and its wines.

Loire Valley

No fewer than 30 wines are made in the Loire Valley, a verdant corridor that runs west to east across the center of France.  In the tradition of great wine that comes from areas adjacent to a body of water, the Loire river is the climactic tempering force that helps wine grapes to thrive. From the river's source in the eastern Massif Central, the Loire river runs 625 miles before forming a delta and then emptying into the Atlantic ocean. 

Along the way numerous wine districts are woven into the natural fabric of the valley alongside orchards, flower gardens and a seemingly endless variety of grand estates with picturesque castles.  To travel along the Loire is to satisfy all of the senses.

Loire chateau

The most important Loire wines and grapes are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume (Sauvignon Blanc), Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), Anjou-Saumur (Cabernet Franc), Muscadet (Melon), Quincy and Reuilly (Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris).

One other Loire wine that seems to escape Americans is Saumur Mousseux, a high acid sparkling wine made mostly from Chenin Blanc.  Cabernet Franc is the base for Saumur Rouge, a refreshing light and frothy red bubbly with good fruit.  And then there's the Chenin Blanc-based sparkler Saumur-Champigny. 

Rhone Valley  

It is hard to overstate the value of Rhone wines to the history of French wine. In the past, when Bordeaux found it difficult to ripen their grapes, robust Rhone wines came to the rescue. Syrah and Grenache, to name a few Rhone varieties, deepened the color and helped build the body of anemic Bordeaux wines. 

The Rhone Valley has a long and storied history. Long before the Christian era, the Gauls were moving wine up river deep into the valley. The Rhone river flows for more than 500 miles, starting at Vienne in the north and flowing south through four distinct wine regions before emptying into the Mediterranean at Arles. Along the way, are were many ports of call.

In terms of quantity, the Southern Rhone is the largest producer with such noted wines as Tavel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape (more than one million bottles annually), Gigondas and Beaumes-de-Venise. Red varieties of the Southern Rhone include Mourvedre and Carignan, with Grenache the dominant red grape.  

Remains of the "chateauneuf"

Chateauneuf-du-Pape takes its name from the summer home of the Avignon popes in the 14th century. The law allows 18 red and white grapes in the blend, although in practice contemporary blends consist of varying amounts of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault.  There is also a white Chateauneuf made mainly of Grenache Blanc.

Southern Rhone is one of the few places in France that makes a vin doux naturel, or natural sweet wine.  Beaumes-de-Venise, made from Muscat, is a fragrant nectar with a lovely golden, slightly pink color.  It's sweet!  But like all great sweet wines, Beaumes-de-Venise is balanced nicely with good acidity.

The wines of the Northern Rhone -- Cote Rotie, Chateau Grillet, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Cornas -- are the most prestigious and longest lived Rhone wines. Amounting to less than 5% of the total Rhone production, Northern Rhone wines are geared to the fine wine collector and not the mass market. 

Syrah is the only grape permitted in Northern Rhone red wines.  At its greatest,  Cote Rotie and Hermitage are at the top of this class, while for value, it's hard to beat St. Joseph and Cornas. Viognier is the grape of Condrieu and the tiny exclusive Ch. Grillet.  Other Northern Rhone white wines are made from Marsanne and Roussanne.

Value seekers are in luck with Cotes du Rhone, the Rhone's other appellation.  Made mainly from Southern Rhone varieties, Cote du Rhone reds are blends, of which Grenache must be 40%, with Syrah and Mourvedre at 15%.  Viognier and Carignan may also be included in the mix.

When you're thinking of trying a French wine, there is a wide variety available.  Dry to sweet, still to sparkling, few regions offer more than the Loire and Rhone.


Next blog: Paso Robles Reds

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