Cortney Roudebush joins our team this week, sharing her insight into the wines of the Loire Valley of France as part of the Tasting Tour of French Wine
When I think about the Loire Valley, visions of historic chateaux and rainy afternoons come to mind. Yes, it is a beautiful area of central France, but it’s certainly not the warmest part of the country. Despite the cooler climate, the Loire Valley is home to an abundance of vineyards, fruit orchards, asparagus and artichoke fields. As a wine growing region, it is about two-thirds the size of Bordeaux and is most often identified with Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Cabernet Franc.
The most common grape growing hazard throughout the region is that the cool climate can prevent the grapes from ripening fully. When the sugars don’t develop as they would, in say Bordeaux where it’s warmer, the resulting wine is particularly high in acid. Winemakers in this region are also decidedly opposed to barrel ageing their wines or encouraging the process of malolactic fermentation. Thus, most wines from the Loire are lighter in body with bright acidity.
The lightest wine is in the Upper Loire
Sancerre is located in the Upper Loire, where Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are the principal varieties. Sancerre white wine is characteristically light-bodied and very crisp with flavors of gooseberry and grapefruit. What helps me remember that it is the Sauvignon Blanc grape for white Sancerre is alliteration; they both start with S. The classic Sancerre pairing is raw oysters and delicate cheeses. Pinot Noir made in this region is also very light in body and color and can easily be enjoyed with salmon or seared ahi tuna.
Pouilly-Fumé is also located in the Upper Loire and produces only Sauvignon Blanc in a richer, fuller-bodied style than Sancerre. This style of wine is interchangeable with Chardonnay; enjoy it with roast chicken or dover sole with a beurre blanc sauce.
Rhyming varieties [that both start with C] in the Middle Loire
In the middle of the Loire Valley, the village of Vouvray is the largest appellation. Chenin Blanc is the only grape grown here and the finished wine can vary in sweetness from bone dry (referred to as “sec” on the wine label) to sweet (demi-sec) to very sweet (moelleux), which are often infected by noble rot. The soil in Vouvray is a mix of limestone with excellent drainage for the vines, which in the Loire are planted particularly close together.
A great example of California Chenin Blanc is from Foxen Winery in Santa Barbara. Aged sur lie, it is matured in mostly stainless steel and a small percentage of neutral French Oak. This is a dry style with citrus, pear and melon notes.
The Chinon (pronounced shee-known) appellation is also in the Middle Loire where Cabernet Franc is king. The red wines are mostly soft and easy to drink with exotic spice notes; stylistically, there are also a few more sturdy, age-worthy examples as well as rosé wines made throughout this region. Cabernet Franc is much less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, so keep this in mind as far as food pairings go. Cab Franc is an awesome pairing for lamb, pork tenderloin, or mushroom pasta.
Although Cab Franc is becoming more widely planted on our continent, it is made in a more robust style here than it is in France.
Mostly Muscadet in the Lower Loire
The Muscadet (sounds like musk-ah-day) region is the largest of the Lower Loire, which leads to the mouth of the river’s entrance to the Atlantic Ocean. The vineyards here are all planted to the Melon de Bourgogne (pronounced berg-oh-nya) grape, which is not to be confused with Muscat grapes or the varieties grown in Burgundy (which are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir). Muscadet wine varies in style; some producers bottle without racking or filtering the wine first, which can create cloudiness in the bottle as well as a fuller bodied style with lots of complexity.
Someone once told me that Muscadet tastes like the sea—it’s true! Muscadet usually offers a floral bouquet with minerals and notes of sea salt on the palate. This wine is the perfect complement to seafood dishes. Melon de Bourgogne isn’t a grape that you’ll see on wine store shelves here in the US, but French Muscadet is usually a good value (priced $15-$25/bottle).
Hopefully with the use of rhyming and alliteration, you can impress your friends with your new knowledge of the Loire Valley. These wines are extremely food friendly and more affordably priced than Bordeaux or Burgundy; you might even think of Sancerre, Vouvray, Chinon and Muscadet as the “perfect party” wines!
Join us in two weeks when VineSleuth Contributing Writer Steve Gross shares his tasting notes from wines of the Loire as we continue the Tasting Tour of French Wine.
Cortney Roudebush is a published author, wine blogger, and social media specialist. Her first book, Where I Want to Be: A Wine Country Novel, is about living in Napa Valley and working in the wine industry. Learn more about the novel and read Cortney’s wine blog recommendations at www.authorcortney.com.