Sunday, July 31, 2011

LOIRE VALLEY: Four(4) Gardens of Wine

No other wine growing region in the world produces so many unique benchmarks for so many grape varietals in such a majestic landscape. Throughout their long centuries of monastic nurturing, Loire Valley wines were among the most prized in the world during the Middle Ages, more revered than even Bordeaux or Rheingau. Around the early part of the 18th century the wines from this Garden of France began a fall from grace as the influence of Bordeaux grew and the sun king moved court to Versailles. Yet, the 600 mile lazy river highway continued to feed agriculture and transport goods across France, from the continental interior climates of the Massif Central to is cooler maritime arrival in the Atlantic, just as it did for the earlier Valois kings.
Loire Valley: a Garden of Castles

Today, the Loire region totals around 185,000 vineyard acres, about 2/3rds the size of Bordeaux, with its soils unfolding across 87 appellations, from gravel and limestone in its interior, to alluvial's, then shale and granite towards the sea. Mostly a white wine region, it is home to perhaps the greatest grape expressions of gunflinty Sauvignon Blancs, delicate, high acid Chenin Blancs, early ripening Cabernet Franc, and dry, but spritzy Muscadet(Melon de Bourgogne). Dry, sweet and volumes of sparkling, more white wine is currently produced in the Loire than any other region in France. Due to its annual dance with the Atlantic weather and levels of ripeness, it can be said that in this place it is Mother Nature who makes the wines.

Situated on opposite banks of the river in the Upper Loire or Central Vineyards, sits two of Sauvignon Blancs greatest appellations. On the eastern banks stainless steel fermented Sauvignon Blanc, with its pronounced gooseberry notes creates the rounder Pouilly Fume AOC, and the Chasselas grape becomes designated Pouilly-sur-Loire AOC. Grown around 15 villages on the opposite western banks, Sancerre AOC produces focused, world class Sauvignon Blancs, as well as Pinot Noir reds and rose's in its limestone soils. Heading further west  into the river Cher department are Quincy AOC, a Sauvignon Blanc only appellation, and Reuilly AOC and Menetou-Salon AOC, producing fine Sauvignon Blancs as well as reds and rose's from Pinot Noir.

A region of fertile farmlands, bountiful forests and summer castles, here within the downriver Tourain is found Cabernet Franc's greatest expression. On the regions eastern edge the diminutive Cheverny AOC produces mostly whites from Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, in a range of sweetness levels; an annual response to its grapes variable seasonal ripeness levels. Generic still wines of the region are available to the Touraine AOC designation. Grown and even cellared in chalky limestone, known as tuffeau, high acid sparkling(mousseux) wines are also made in a light sparkling(petillant) white, rose and even red styles. Closer to Tours, the important Vouvray AOC also produces a range of dry to sweet white wines, principally from workhorse, late-ripening, Chenin Blanc(locally called Pineau). On its western flank, the notable Touraine appellations of Chinon AOC, Bourgueil AOC and St. Nicolas-de-Bourgueil AOC present the sweet earth and raspberry notes of age-able Cabernet Franc, producing the Loire's best reds. Gamay and Malbec are minor red blending grapes in this part of the fertile Touraine, where you can also find early release nouveau's, just like in Beaujolais. Coteaux du Loir AOC produces the regions best Malbecs, and Valencay AOC specializes in Gamay wines.

Vouvray tuffeau wine cave

Every style of regional wine is produced in the maritime climates and varied soils of Anjou-Saumur to the west. Here, Cabernet Franc is typically labeled Anjou-Villages AOP, the best being produced in the fruity, red wine designation, Saumur-Champigny AOC. Anjou produces a significant amount of rose' wines, a result of unreliable ripening of red grapes in the coolest years. Saumur AOC finds blended whites and reds within its appellation, as well as volumes of Cremant de Loire AOC, traditional method sparkling wines. Further towards the Atlantic, Savennieres AOP, is a sub-region specializing in some of the very best dry Chenin Blancs. Additionally, from numerous tributaries flowing through its southern banks, the important schist soils sub-regions of Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux and Quartes du Chaume AOC's harvest Chenin Blanc late in the season, hopefully with a noble rot benefit to produce some of the worlds greatest and long lived sweet wines.

Loire Valley winter pruning
One of the largest white wine appellations in France, Pays Nantais AOC, sits at the cool mouth of the Loire, producing perhaps the worlds greatest expression of a grape taken from Burgundy. Few wine region grapes can mark the year of their birth, but Melon(Muscadet) or Melon de Bourgogne, was the variety that survived the terrible frost of 1709 and found itself primed for the expanding Dutch appetite for exported distilled wines. Of the 23 villages growing Melon, the appellation Muscadet Se'vre et Maine AOC produces about 80% of the regions entire output. Its best wines are labeled sur lie, coming from one of three sub-appellations and youthfully bottled directly off their sediment(lees) between March and November following the year of harvest. Even with a regulated maximum alcohol of 12%, these wines can be freshly neutral, tart and even spritzy. As such, they are perfect partners for the coastal regions oceans of fresh and farmed sea foods.

Sitting on the northern edge of where grapes can ripen presents a constant challenge in the grape and soil diversity of the Loire, so chaptalization is widely practiced. Each of these four regional gardens produce world class high acid wines at the whim of nature, with a firm anchor to tradition and fed by the endless sweat of those who farm the land. It seems here in the Loire to be about making the most out of what you are given, and the 'Garden of France' continues to do just that. Today these wines produced in a region that is easy to understand remain generally under appreciated for their benchmark qualities. Yet, for informed wine consumers the wine of the Loire Valley represent terrific gardens of value in the right vintage.  Throughout much of France as in the Loire, 2009 was just such a vintage. Raise a glass to the king!


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