Whistle stop tour of the Loire

Masters of Wine probably don’t often buy wine in a supermarket, not even a rather well-stocked branch of LeClerc in France. But that’s exactly what Martin Hudson did to demonstrate the remarkable range of wines which are made along the length of the Loire valley.   So while his last tasting for Andover Wine Friends featured some of the world’s top wines from famous Bordeaux chateaux, this one scored top marks for the number of appellations covered and the low cost of the wines.  The wines ranged from £2.75 (!) to £11 – all the wines were bought in French with euro prices converted into below into pounds.  And from ten wines bought untasted, there was just one dud and several real revelations.

NV Saumur Brut ‘Perceval’ Caves de Grenelle Made from a blend of Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, this was a very good example of the Loire’s huge sparkling wine trade, the second-largest in France after you know who.  The fizz is aged in about a fifth of the 1000km long of caves along the Loire, with a mountain of mushrooms as neighbouring tenants.  This wine, unusually from a family firm, spends 18 months on the lees, twice the minimum required period, has bright fruit, a pleasantly yeasty nose and, thanks to the Chenin, a refreshing zip on the palate. 

Muscadet de Sèvre & Maine sur lie, 2009, Gd Fief de l’Audigère  Made from the notoriously bland Melon de Bourgogne grape, this gets its interest from ageing on lees, with a resulting slightly appley and yeast flavours. The grape variety owes its success to hardiness. Having arrived in its seaside home from cold, inland Burgundy around 1630, it alone survived the hard winter of 1709 and inherited the kingdom.  But a drinkable, food-friendly wine at £3 a bottle?  Yes, please. 

Cour Cheverny Cuveé Salamandre 2006, P. Loquineau  A real rarity.  While plain ‘Cheverny’ will be made from Sauvignon Blanc, which you will have heard of before, ‘Cour Cheverny’ is made from the last 70 hectares planted to the Romorantin grape.  Like Chardonnay this is the result of a cross between Gouais Blanc (the Casanova of the grape world) and Pinot Meunier; unlike Chardonnay, it didn’t go on to rule the world. But, with barrel ageing, it does produce a very worthwhile white wine of some substance, with apple flavour, this example a bit madeirized, very good mouthfeel, rather short.  But it would be good with duck or oily fish. 

Sancerre Sancerre Grande Réserve 2009, Henri Bourgeois, Sauvignon Blanc  From a rarity to a world-famous appellation, Bourgeois’ Sancerre is excellent and reliable, striking a balance between French reserve and New Zealand grassiness.  Good gooseberry and flint nose, gorgeous in the mouth, good persistence, classy, the most expensive wine of this parsimonious evening at £11.  Janet and I are very much looking forward to visiting Henri Bourgeois next week – French strikes permitting of course. 

Vouvray Cuvée de Silex, 2009, Domaine des Aubuisières, Chenin Blanc

If Sancerre is the famous name on the restaurant wine list, Chenin Blanc is the second great white variety of the Loire and much better value.  Enormously versatile, it comes in every shade on the dry-sweet spectrum and has great ageing potential.  This particular example is what used to be called, rather romantically, vin tendre, that is, not sweet enough to be demi-sec, but not entirely dry and so it would be misleading to simply call it sec, around 6g of residual sugar per litre.  But there was enough sweetness to offset the trademark acidity of Chenin and produce a richer wine. Slightly floral if modest nose, lovely palate, great with cheese.

Valençay Vielles Vignes Rosé 2008, Domaine A. Fouassier Made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay grapes, this was a disappointment, even at £2.75.  The best two things about it were the colour and the label!  The next  best thing Roséwas that it meant that we had ticked off the Valençay appellation – you are beginning to get the idea.  The nose had a sort of synthetic fruit and floral note, the palate was distinctly dull and a bit tired.  Perhaps it was just over the hill but 2008 should still be with us.  Last year was a ‘pink letter year’ in France according to Martin when the French actually drank more rosé than white and I am sure that most of it was better than this.  Martin explained that he had bought it because of the ‘old vines’ designation which usually gives more concentrated, lower yields … but you still have to make good wine.  Moving swiftly on …

Coteaux d’Ancenis VDQS, Eglise St Pierre, 2009 Gamay is grown in the Loire along with the much more characteristic Cabernet Franc and some Pinot Noir.  The point of interest here was that the grapes were actually grown in Brittany, more famous for cider apples than vitis vinifera, the grapevine. So here we are just about at the northwest limit of red wine production – though a very small handful of English and Welsh producers may beg to differ.  Great purpley colour and lovely fruit, little length, but not bad at all at under £4. 

Pale ruby And just to prove I am not making this up, the eagle-eyed can see my tasting note which said ‘lovely fruit’ of the Gamay through the pale red (tipped) glass of Pinot Noir which followed. 

Menetou-Salon, Domaine du Gaec des Brangers, 2008, Why grow Pinot Noir on the Loire?  Light red fruit, fresh, simple, best served cool with a picnic. Slightly crunchy tannins pointed to a bit of over-extraction in a zone which is pretty marginal for reds.  Good but rather expensive for the quality (?£8)
Saumur-Champigny Clos Cristal Hospices de Saumur 2009  The great red grape of the Loire is, of course, Cabernet Franc.  Like many of the Loire grapes, this can be made in a number of styles. This had a nice fragrant nose, red fruit followed by some black fruit, very good acidity, plenty of ageing capacity.  Even though this Cabernet needs less heat Hospices to ripen it than its more famous sibling, it can be a bit stalky, but not so in 2009 which was a good year.  Martin tells the story of local ingenuity to deal with the lack of heat, including one owner who built a kilometre of stone wall with the vines planted on the north side to retain moisture while the plants go through holes in the wall to fruit on the warm and sunny side, with the added bonus of stored, reflected heat from the wall.  An ingenious if expensive solution.  In recent times, this level of intervention has not been needed as global warming in this relatively northerly location has been a bonus.  What with modern viticulture and warmer summers, Cabernet Franc in the Loire has never had it so good.

We finished a highly memorable evening with one of the Loire’s other glories, sweet Chenin Blanc.  Coteaux du Layon Vielles Vignes, Logis de Noël, 2006  Chenin is the perfect grape for botrytis affected wine being prone to noble rot and having high acidity.  The other great advantage here is relatively high yields.  The legendary Chateau d’Yquem in Bordeaux produces a miserly nine hectolitres of wine per hectare of vines, a Premier Cru Sauternes yields 15 but Chenin in the Loire can manage 20 hectolitres. This means that with generally low prices for sweet wines (while being expensive to make, they are unfashionable) sweet Chenin is affordable (£9 for a full-sized bottle), delicious and highly ageable.    This bottle had a pear drops whiff to start with (nail varnish remover if you prefer), pure fruit and floral flavours/aromas as it is not oak-aged, and then a great waxy character.  It would develop layers of complexity over the decades.  And, despite its sweetness, it is highly versatile with food. 

Many thanks to Martin Hudson for this excellent evening – MWs shopping for wines in supermarkets may just catch on!

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