Tag Archives: Loire Valley

Loire Valley Love

Angers, FranceAngers, France – It’s quite a contrast; the university town of Angers and the countryside around it. From a tidy, nearly shiny, university town exuding white washed, business-like utility to rolling vineyards along wide and lazy rivers overseen by magnificent chateaux depicting a gilded age. These remarkable edifices, confidently bold, were once the seasonal homes for royalty and their treasurers. Today they might be held and maintained by the state; some still remain the possession of the uber-wealthy. A few centuries ago, Ben Franklin famously wiled away his ambassadorship chasing skirts in one of these castles, to the enduring distaste of John Adams. Today, these monuments still rule over the vineyards and grain fields stretching in every direction.

But the contrasts don’t end there. The Loire Valley’s agricultural lands are marked only by tawny roads, often straight, often following the contours of the gentle slopes, adding to the measured look of vast order. There is a distinct lack of visible buildings. Here in the midway point of the river’s languid flow to the Atlantic, many of the wineries utilize caves for their wine storage – ancient, humble caves carved from the soft tufa. A friable, sandy soil bound together by sticky limestone, tufa provides a distinct soil underpinning the Loire’s venerable vineyards. These caves have held not only wine, but people too. For millennia, these inhabitants of these porous dwellings have been called troglodytes. It’s not a loaded term here; it’s merely a description of a way of existing, and some caves still provide shelter for the downtrodden or even a few seeking a simpler way.

Instead I’m touring caves where wine is made and stored for sale in international markets. In these parts, Chenin Blanc is the white grape of choice for most.  For enthusiasts like me, it’s a grape capable of greatness primarily (if not solely) in this part of France.

In the central part of the Loire Valley, Chenin rises to remarkable excellence; often on the tufa soils, but other times with slate underpinning the best vineyards, especially with wines such as Savennieres, dry, earthy and powerful. But ubiquitous in American stores are Chenin Blancs labeled as Vouvray. Some are dry, most are slightly sweet and some are even produced as sparkling wines, sappy and refreshing, without all the bombast and richness of classic Champagne. That gentle character may explain why Sparkling Saumur and Cremant de Loire, as these bubblies are labeled, have never been a big factor in the U.S. market. It can’t be the prices; they’re quite reasonable.

That’s true of all Loire Valley wines: from the tart, bracing Muscadets made at and near the Atlantic coast to the fragrant, nearly lusty Sauvignon Blancs produced near the other of the river in Sancerre and Pouilly Fume (the 2012 vintage is particularly fat and lush). Aside from a few cultish brands, none of these wines will set you back much (see prices below).

It’s part of the reason I was keen to visit. But as usual, I learned far more than I expected: I thought Muscadet a pleasant wine, even interesting at times. It’s usual devoid of personality, or so I have foolishly thought over the years. It’s subtle stuff, yes, but I found here great Muscadet, even though I would have scoffed at those words before my visit. Made from a grape that announces its ├⌐migr├⌐ status in its name, Melon de Bourgogne (of Burgundy, that is), it’s more at home along France’s sea-sprayed northwest coast. Notes of salt, lemon, lime skin and tart, green apple prevail. With the region’s oysters, mussels and other shellfish, it’s as if a simple lemon squeeze has been transformed into a sauce, a garnish and a counterweight.

Even this breadth of grapes and places doesn’t begin to describe the variety of wines the long Loire Valley produces: spicy, tart red wines, tangy roses, and the most lush and unctuous of dessert wines. Despite stark contrasts between wines and styles, the wines all represent excellent value and if you thirst for some crisper and lighter styles in wine, you need to slake that thirst with some of these.

July 2005

In July, I left for Greece. It was a short trip, but that’s fine since my family couldn’t come along. Athens, Santorini, the Pelopennese, Athens, go home. No one feels sorry for me, I know.

Santorini is one of the truly remarkable places on the planet. It’s an ancient volcano, all blowed up, as they might say, now a sunken caldera.

The remaining hillsides are populated with those famous Greek homes of white plaster, or with vines. The vine training is something I’ve never seen before. The canes are twisted and woven into a round form, like a basket. The grapes spill onto the dry ground, volcanic dust and broken rock. There’s no rain to speak of, so there’s no harm in letting the grapes rest on the earth.

The basket of canes protects the vines from the sun and wind. The vines drink what little they can find from the ground and then soak up the fog and mist that appears most evenings as the moisture condenses out of the Mediterranean Sea and air. At night, the walls are wet and so are the leaves of the vines. By morning, everything is dry again.

The Assyrtiko vine may have been grown here, in this fashion, since before the last volcanic explosion, the one that pretty much killed everything, except the grapeseeds and legends. Large rocks from Santorini are found on islands hundreds of miles away, blasted into the air when in the 4th century BC all hell broke loose.

It’s a vanished and sunken bowl of a volcano. My room faces into the interior of the caldera. Perhaps three miles away is the center, still active, though I don’t see anything. The hills are brown and red and the white homes hang above the cliffs like exposed bone sprouting out of the hide, like teeth, baby teeth. The sea is darkening; the sun has disappeared into the ocean.

A line of darkness follows the base of each cliff, just shadows, but it’s as if each cliff is floating slightly above the water. There are two ships in the center of the caldera’s sea; one is an almost Chinese skiff, like a sampan, the other looks like a pirate vessel. They circle each other, occasionally a flash bulb glows as they take pictures of each other. Are they disappointed with their selection?

There is a steady glint on one of the hills. I’m thinking of a rifle.

The swallows which give my hotel its name, Celladonia, swerve and twitter across my vision. My laptop sits like a black hole on my legs.

Two cruise ships have been lazing about, like fat men in a tub. But now the lights are coming on. Music comes and goes from all quarters of the warren about me and from the ships in front of me.

When it first blew up nearly 4000 years ago, it’s thought that this was a mighty city. Then two thirds of it just went up in the air and down into the water. Some people think that this was Atlantis. Now we float above its aquatic grave.

I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Paras Sigalas and his wife Antonio. He’s the winemaker Jancis Robinson calls the best winemaker in Greece. He might well be; he’s certainly got my attention on Santorini. His Assyrtikos are fantastic. He makes a red from the Mavrotragano grape; it too is delicious. It’s a 2003, and black plum, vanilla, rose hips and saffron, a touch greenish. “Yes,” he says, “if it’s not ripe enough, it has green tannins, so I let the alcohol go to 14%.” It smells like Grenache meets Pinot Noir in some ways as well.

He offers two dessert wines. One he calls Vin Santo. It’s deliciously honeyed and nutty and I have a good chuckle about the name. He shows me the bottle; it says Vin Santo. How do the Italians feel about that label, I ask?

Oh, we invented Vin Santo, he says. In the 1450’s the Venetians bought the wines of Santorini and called them VinSanto, which is short for Vino Santorini. That’s why the Italian haven’t been able to stop them from naming the wine.

Back then the wines were sent in goat sacks. In the 19th century, barrels were used to move the wine to Russia. The craftsmen of Santorini were famous for their great woodcrafts but there was a problem; there was no wood on Santorini. So the barrels of wine went to the Black Sea and they sent back wood. “We traded wine for wood,” Paras says.

I’ll have to add more of Greece later.

Early summer saw some tasting as well, especially from the Loire Valley. There’s great stuff afoot there these days. Pascal Jolivet is always trustworthy; all the wines are pretty and carry some elegance even in the super ripe 2003 vintage. And their 2004’s are very fine as well. The Chateau du Nozay Sancerre is far more complex than all but the very best California Chardonnays. Yes, I know they’re different grapes; I’m serious that comparing them in this way ends up with Sancerre and Pouilly Fume as the more compelling actor in this conflict.

Henri Pelle Menetou Salon – okay, you haven’t heard of it, but that’s your fault. Try it; first rate Sauvignon Blanc, even in a warm vintage like 2003. Another Henri, Henri Brochard has some delightful 2004 Sauvignon Blanc to offer from both Sancerre and Pouilly Fume.

Even white Burgundy seems to have handled the heat of 2003 fairly. Bouchard’s Bourgogne Blanc ’03 won’t change anyone’s world, it’s far too simple for that, but despite the richness and alcohol, it still carries pretty earthiness.

As usual, Jaffelin is completely reliable. The Macon Fuisse 2003 is textured and fine. Chateau Fuisse’s St. Veran is probably short of acid, but who cares? So it won’t live a long time, compared to most of the wines Chateau Fuisse produces. I’ll drink it sooner and enjoy it more.Bouchard’s St. Veran 2004 has richness; Jaffelin’s St.Veran is even better. It’s richness comes from the fruit only; no support from oak is required. Drouhin’s St. Veran 2004 is similarly pretty. And I continue to be impressed by Chateau de Davenay. Bouchard’s Beaune Premier Cru 2003 isn’t too rich to loose its traditional personality, but it’s a close battle between ripeness and earth.

A lovely Spanish discovery in summer as well: Casta Diva Cosecha Miel 2003 – A pure, bright and floral orange muscat nose, the floral notes are surrounded by flavors of lemon, orange, and honey; the mouth is round, very tasty, and very well balanced. This is what people mean when they call a wine “pretty”. A wine for light desserts, such as fruit pastries, or just a bowl of fruit.