An Essential Guide to the “Garden of France”
Long ago in the time of Louis the XIV this area was given the name ‘le Jardin de France.’ This ‘garden’ was thus named as the playground for the royal court, where they hunted, played and entertained themselves during and long after that era. That is the Loire Valley of France. The Loire is the longest river in the country and through the eons has carved out and deposited unique soil formations that give rise to the most diverse mosaic of terroirs and wine styles to be found in all of France. I recently spent almost a week hunting for the best wines in the region and found so much to love.
Let us begin at the river’s mouth in the area known as Pays Nantais for the port city of Nantes. This is Muscadet country. Muscadet is the name of the appellation made with the grape Melon de Bourgogne. There are a myriad number of appellations that include the name Muscadet.
When you drink Muscadet, expect freshness, lightness and purity. The type of wine you can drink on a warm afternoon with salads and shellfish. The best ones, which are age-worthy and can compete in the same arena as Grand Cru Burgundy, come from the top three Crus: Gorges, Clisson and Le Pallet. These are named for each village that showcases unique soil types including granite, Gabbro and schist. These volcanic rock deposits give the wines additional warmth and verve. By law they must have additional aging on the lees and a higher minimum alcohol level and lower yields in the vineyards.
They can be earthy, something akin to Chablis and every bit as serious. My favorite by far is Bregeon who known for making Ã¼ber-serious super cuvÃ©es that would make some Grand Cru white Burgundies blush; his are wines worth the search.
Moving east we come to the City of Angers and its sister city Saumur. This is the Anjou, home to one of Chenin Blanc’s most scintillating expressions in the appellation of SavenniÃ¨res. SavenniÃ¨res is always dry-bone dry in most cases-and expresses a unique mÃ©lange of schist, sandstone, granite and other volcanic soils unlike any other wine in the world. There are two special vineyards in SavenniÃ¨res that even have their own appellation: La CoulÃ©e de Serrant and La Roche aux Moines. Some believe La CoulÃ©e de Ser-rant from Nicolas Joly to be the greatest expression of Chenin Blanc, period. But if you want to delve deeper, you must try the SavenniÃ¨res from ChÃ¢teau d’EpirÃ©.
This estate’s first vintage was in 1868 so they have some expertise. Their CuvÃ©e Speciale is from a parcel of deteriorated lava just above La CoulÃ©e de Serrant and it sings with minerality, tropical fruitiness with a long and penetrating Thnish.
Touraine is home to ChÃ¢teau de Chenonceau the second-most visited Castle in France after Versailles. Its walls and spires hover over the Loire River with an air of nobility. Touraine is also home to the Loire Valley’s noblest of red wines in the area of Chinon. Based on Cabernet Franc, Chinon combines the rich gutsiness of what red wine drinkers want with a unique fioral component. And for my taste, there is none better than Domaine Charles Joguet. What makes this domain so special is not only the fact that they have some of the choicest parcels within the appellation, they are not afraid to express them. A tasting at the domain is a true thesis on terroir. Do not miss out on their bottling of Clos de la Dioterie from 70- to 80-year-old vines grown on a North-facing slope of sandstone, clay and limestone. flis is sexy, minerally and reThned-top class juice to say the least.
Another star in the constellation of great whites in the Touraine is Vouvray. Easy to say and easier to drink, it is made entirely from Chenin Blanc and grown on Tufa soils. Chenin Blanc shines, literally, in these wines with a greenish golden hue. It smells like honey, honeysuckle, beeswax and soil. It can be bone dry (sec) to luxuriously sweet (doux). Domaine Huet is one of my favorite producers. fleir wines hit all of the hot spots on my palate. But the one I drink most of is Domaine Champalou.
This tiny family estate produces the most charming version of Vouvray. It is airy but not watery and simply satisfying and a wine that is extremely versatile with food.
It is impossible to speak of the Loire Valley whites without including perhaps the two brightest jewels in its crown- Sancerre and Pouilly FumÃ©. These sister appellations are the darlings of the white wine world and the icons for any Sauvignon Blanc producer the world over. Sancerre lies on the west bank of the Loire while Pouilly FumÃ© is on the east. They share a similar geology with mixed soils of clay/ limestone filled with sea fossils and flint, which the French call silex. This combination gives these whites their verve, zest and complexity. The cult producer of the region is Dagueneau. Their whites sell for the same prices as Grand Cru white Burgundy and are as hard to find. But for me, Sancerre and Pouilly FumÃ© should be about serious refreshment. And the producer that typifies this style for me in Sancerre is Domaine Hippolyte Reverdy. Michel Reverdy makes the most buoyant and cleansing Sancerre.
It is the type of wine you can drink from noon to night, especially the warm ones. On the other side of the bank is Regis Minet’s Pouilly FumÃ© Vieilles Vignes (old vines from 30 to 80 years old). This Sauvignon Blanc is a bit creamier with more shades of green flint. It begs for oysters, clams and fish with creamy sauces. One night we had several bottles of both of these producers with freshly shucked Fine de Claire oysters with a squeeze of lemon-a flawless pairing.
In the Loire Valley, the white wines can lift your spirits and the reds will keep you warm. And I barely mentioned all the wonderful food: different Chevre cheeses, oysters, fresh fish and more. With all the great choices for wines, food and the beautiful scenery, it can make you feel, well, like royalty.
TERMS TO KNOW
For Muscadet it means that the wine has remained in contact with the sediment (yeast, lees, etc.) over the winter giving the wine more depth and complexity.
BONNEZEAUX, QUARTS DE CHAUME AND COTEAUX DU LAYON Phenomenal sweet white wines made from Chenin Blanc grapes are picked by hand in several passes known as “tries” in French. Often botytized, these grapes are unctuously sweet and result in a delec-table wine similar to Sauternes.
An appellation known for Sauvignon Blanc similar in style to Sancerre JasniÃ¨res-a tiny appellation on the banks of the Loire River (small tributary to the Loire) based on Chenin Blanc. They are dry and refreshing.
PINEAU DE LA LOIRE
Synonym for Chenin Blanc
An appellation in the Touraine region based on Sauvignon Blanc but allowed to blend a little bit of Chardonnay. Great values.
Limestone rock found particularly in the Touraine region. This is the same limestone quarried to make local churches, castles and buildings. There are homes still occupied along the riverbanks that have been built into the rocky Tufa outcroppings today.
ST. NICOLAS DE BOURGEUIL AND BOURGEUIL – Red wines based on Cabernet Franc.