by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW
There was a time, not all that long ago, when we drank red wines almost exclusively.
Lately, we find ourselves drinking and writing about white wines as much as reds. Is that because the kinds of food we’re eating now lend themselves more to white wine? Or have white wines improved so much in quality that they are more interesting than before? The answer is, “Both.”
Improvements in viticulture and technological advances in winemaking over the last two decades have been phenomenal, and have especially impacted the quality of white wines. White wines have undergone a true renaissance. Sommeliers in new, exciting restaurants have helped this renaissance, by adding interesting whites from all over the world to their wine lists.
Take the Loire Valley, for example. Twenty years ago, you had to search carefully to find a decent Vouvray. But at a recent tasting of Vouvray wines in New York, we sampled nothing but good, and very good, Vouvrays. Propelled by quality improvements, imports of Loire wines to the U.S., mainly white, have grown on the average of 23 percent a year for the last decade.
The Loire Valley is the longest, most rural area of France’s wine regions. It starts in north-central France, to the south of Paris, and follows the path of the Loire River over 250 miles into northwest France to the port city of Nantes, where the river empties into the Atlantic. The Loire Valley still has many areas of great natural beauty, historic towns such as Orléans and Tours, plus stately mansions and castles—once the summer residences of French nobility—dating back to the Middle Ages. In short, it is still unspoiled, not overrun by tourists. The one drawback to the region being so extended—and this is only a drawback if you’re pressed for time—is that it’s difficult to cover the entire region in a couple of days. You really need about a week to do justice to the Loire Valley.
All kinds of wines are made in the Loire Valley—red, rosé, sparkling, and dessert wines—but white wines make up 55 percent of the region’s production, and whites indeed carry the banner for the region; in fact, it is France’s largest white wine region.
The interesting part about Loire’s white wines is that four distinctly different types of wines exist, depending upon which district of the Loire you’re talking about. And these four districts feature three different grape varieties, two of which really shine only in the Loire: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne (commonly known locally as Muscadet).
We will discuss Loire’s white wines from each of the four major districts, starting at the eastern end.
The Upper Loire
The Upper Loire district—called the Upper Loire because it is closest to the river’s source in the Massif Central, is located about 120 miles south of Paris. In the heart of this district, on opposite sides of the Loire River, are the towns of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire. Here the Sauvignon Blanc variety rules, producing some of the best wines from this grape in the world. Sauvignon Blanc originated in France, probably in Bordeaux. But the Sauvignon-based wines of the Loire are completely different from those of Bordeaux, which tend to be light to medium in aroma/ flavor intensity. For example, Sancerre—the largest-production and most renowned wine of the district—is crisp, lively, and very aromatic, with fruity and herbaceous notes, but not overly herbaceous. The Sancerre zone covers 14 communities; besides the town of Sancerre itself, the villages of Bué, Chavignol, and Verdigny have the most-renowned vineyards, and you’ll often see these village names on the labels of better Sancerres.
Pouilly-Fumé, the Upper Loire’s other famous wine, grows around the village of Pouilly-sur-Loire. Also 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc, Pouilly-Fumé is similar to Sancerre, but differences exist. Firstly, Sancerre is almost always unoaked, while the more expensive bottlings of Pouilly-Fumé are often fermented and/or aged in oak. Sancerre tends to be livelier and crisper, with more pronounced herbaceous aromas than Pouilly-Fumé—which often has more flinty, minerally aromas, and is slightly fuller-bodied and less spicy than Sancerre. Pouilly-Fumé’s prices tend to run a little higher than Sancerre’s as well.
Three other white wine districts in the Upper Loire—lesser known, but equally good in quality—deserve a mention: Ménétou-Salon, Quincy, and Reuilly. Of the three tiny districts, Ménétou-Salon, the largest, is probably the best-known in the U.S., and its Sauvignon Blancs are the closest in style to Sancerre. The Sauvignon Blancs of both Quincy (pronounced can see) and Reuilly are more floral and more aromatic than Sancerre, Ménétou-Salon and Pouilly-Fumé, and both are also lighter-bodied. Prices of these three delightful whites tend to be lower than those of their more famous neighbors, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. We are now enjoying a wonderful 2004 Quincy (see tasting notes) that retails at a real value price.
Shellfish and river fish are natural companions to all of these wines. A famous dish of the area is grilled salmon with lentils. Goat cheese, say a warm goat cheese salad, is equally ideal with these Sauvignon Blanc wines.
The Central Loire:
An incredible number of wines, of all kinds, is made in the Touraine district of the Central Loire and the neighboring Anjou-Saumur district. Here we’ll focus on the Touraine’s most famous wine, Vouvray.
The key aspect of the Central Loire Valley is that only this region is capable of producing truly world-class wines from the noble Chenin Blanc variety. Let’s face it: this grape has been less than noble elsewhere, although we’ve tasted on occasion a few decent Chenin Blancs from New World regions, South Africa in particular. But the terroir of the Central Loire has combined to do its magic on the much-maligned Chenin Blanc.
The Vouvray AOC zone is located just east of Tours, and is comprised of the village of Vouvray and seven neighboring villages. This area produces more than a million cases of Vouvray wine each year, about the same as the production of Sancerre. But the Vouvray figures include sparkling wines, which make up 60 percent of the quantity. The remaining production of Vouvray, still wines, come in three different styles of dryness, depending on the ripeness levels of the grapes in each particular vintage. Sec (dry) wines contain less than 9 grams of residual sugar (RS) per liter; demi-Sec (medium-sweet) wines have up to 20 grams of RS.; and moelleux (sweet) wines have over 20 grams of RS. In those years when botrytis (noble rot) attacks the Chenin Blanc grapes, Moelleux wines may be designated with the term Liquoreux.
In general, Vouvray demi-sec and moelleux (pronounced m’wah leuh) are of finer quality than Vouvray sec; the latter, along with sparkling wines, is made in cool years, sometimes with not fully-ripened grapes, which is fine for sparkling wines but not so great for still wines. Vouvray moelleux, considered the best, and one of France’s great dessert wines, is also the most long-lived, by far. It’s not uncommon to see some 50+ year-old moelleux wines available. They become very complex with age, very unctuous, with mellow flavors of apples and honey.
Vovray sec and demi-sec have floral, nutty, citrus aromas and flavors. Just as in most wine regions, quality varies among producers. A Didier Champalou Vouvray demi-sec we had recently (see tasting notes), for example, was outstanding. We recommend wines like this with scallops or lobster.
Since Vouvray is still a fairly quiet presence in the U.S. market, it is extremely well-priced.
The Central Loire:
Like the Touraine, Anjou-Saumur produces a prodigious number of wines. The Loire Valley’s best reds (Chinon and company), its best rosés, its best sparkling wines, one of its very best dessert wines, and many would say its best dry white wine—Savennières—all come from Anjou-Saumur.
Savennières is the current darling of sommeliers and wine critics, and with good reason. We think it’s a terrific wine; it gets our vote for the world’s greatest dry Chenin Blanc wine. Savennières is totally dry, very concentrated, with floral, honeyed aromas and flavors and fairly intense mineral notes. Its high acidity guarantees its long life. Savennières is a wine that’s good when it’s young and better when it ages.
The Savennières sub-district lies just south of the city of Angers, on the western edge of the Anjou district, and on the northern bank of the Loire. All of Savennières’ vineyards lie close to the Loire, where the warmer temperatures and morning fog protect them from frost. Stones in the soil provide much-needed stored heat from the sun, and the soil itself is mineral-rich, a combination of schist and limestone. Two vineyards in the small Savennières area hold cru status, having their own appellations: Coulée de Serrant, owned by the biodynamic specialist, Nicolas Joly, and Roche aux Moines, of which Joly is part-owner.
Coteau du Layon is another district from this part of the Loire Valley, on the southern bank of the river. Two areas within the Coteau du Layon zone are so special that they have their own AOC status: Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Along with Coteau du Layon itself, these three appellations produce some of the Loire’s great dessert wines. Because of their location, the vineyards are often attacked with botrytis cinerea, which concentrates the grape sugars yet retains high acidity.
Savennières goes well with fresh and smoked fish, and it’s intensely flavored enough to pair with white meats such as veal. All of the Central Loire’s dessert wines are best drunk on their own, as dessert, or with a not-too-sweet dessert, such as pear with almonds.
The Lower Loire:
Brittany, next to the Atlantic, is a province for commercial fishing, and as you would expect, its wine pairs well with its cuisine, mainly from the sea. The wine district, known as the Pays Nantais—honoring its only important city, Nantes—produces only one wine of note, a medium-bodied white called Muscadet. The wine is made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape variety, locally known as Muscadet. The “Bourgogne” in its name suggests its origin: Burgundy. Do you like “Cinderella” stories? Here’s a good one: in the 16th century, Burgundian growers, not satisfied with Melon’s performance in Burgundy, had the French wine authorities outlaw its use in the region. The Dutch started planting Melon in Brittany in the 17th century. Voila! The humble step-sister thrived in Brittany, withstanding the wet climate, inconsistent sun, and frost, for which it is particularly resistant. Muscadet’s new home near the Brittany coast led to the wine’s developing a distinct taste of the sea, which makes it an ideal companion for Brittany’s famous oysters.
Muscadet is now France’s largest white wine appellation. Most of the Muscadets we see in the U.S. carry the appellation “Muscadet Sèvre et Maine,” easily the largest Muscadet region, covering 23 villages. Also, most Muscadets in the U.S. are labeled “Muscadet Sur Lie,” indicating that the wine rested on its yeasts to the last possible moment, for greater freshness and flavor. Most Muscadet wines are best consumed within three years of the vintage; they don’t oxidize with age, but lose their wonderful freshness, the wine’s leading virtue, along with that sea tang. The great news about Muscadet is that it’s extremely well-priced.
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