The Loire Valley, known as the Jardin de la France because of its abundance of vineyards, orchards and fields of fruits and vegetables, is one of those wine regions that doesn’t immediately come to mind.
As much as I’d like to tell you it’s one of the most popular regions in France, I can’t … but I would bet you drank a wine from one of its mainstay grapes at least once this summer — and I’ll bet you another guinea or two that it’s from the place that made it even more famous: New Zealand. By now I’m sure you’ve figured it out, the main grape in this region is Sauvignon Blanc; but that’s not the only thing they grow. In fact, the big three are all white (not surprising considering its northern situation). Along with Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll find Chenin Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne also flourishing in these soils as well as some minor red production using Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir.
The appellations are almost household names too — or at least, are very familiar to wine lovers. Running east to west, they are Muscadet, Anjou, Saumur, Chinon, Vouvray, Touraine, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé just to name a small handful … 87 appellations in all.
A couple of things you may not know are that the Loire is second (in France) only to Champagne for sparkling wine production. Here they call it Crémant de Loire. The history of winemaking in this region dates back to the first century — that’s a mighty long time to be fermenting grapes continuously.
The Crémant designation is given to any sparkling made in the Loire that is made in the traditional method no matter the appellation — while the label of Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France refers to any varietal vinified outside its designated AOC regions’ regulations (e.g. Chardonnay is grown and may be used, but is not a recognized variety of the appellation).
The region itself can be divided into three main parts: the Upper Valley, where Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé exist, is Sauvignon Blanc dominated; the Middle Valley, where Chinon and Vouvray are located, have both Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc being pressed; and the Lower Loire is made famous by the Muscadet appellation, where Melon de Bourgogne is king.
The Valley has in excess of 185,000 acres of planted vineyards, and because it is in a marginal climate zone for grape growing, has similarities to many northern regions of Canada, such as the struggle to achieve minimum sugar levels. It is able to do this because the Loire River acts in much the same manner as the Great Lakes, providing protection to the regions’ vineyards and keeping the temperature a few degrees warmer than in the surrounding areas. Areas both north and south of the Loire can’t sustain vineyards.
Loire Valley Wine Regions
But enough about what makes the region able to grow the building blocks of delicious wines. Let’s look at the finished product — from the red and whites to those with bubbles.
Domaine Bellevue Touraine Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($13.95)
This wine sits in the anti-New Zealand camp of Sauvignon Blanc with sweet grass, grapefruit pulp and some peach nuances to round it all out, but everything here is subtle.
Clos les Montys Vieilles Vignes Muscadet Sevre & Maine Sur Lie 2013 ($14.95)
Hay and quince with a touch of mineral backing it all up, pretty smooth across the tongue with a nice lime zest on the finish. Perfect accompaniment for mussels.
Pascal Jolivet Sancerre 2013 ($29.95)
Sweet grass and grapefruit dominate this Sancerre with lovely hints of floral that keep swinging in for added depth.
Jean-Max Roger Cuvée les Chante-Alouettes Pouilly-Fumé 2013 ($28.95)
Nice complexity with mineral taking charge of the herbal and lemon pith; this wine just keeps on giving especially on the long finish; not sure if I’d want to pair it with anything except a sunny afternoon — it’s just that good.
Roger Champault Les Pierris Sancerre Rouge 2013 ($23.95)
Gentle yet inviting on the nose with smoky-raspberry notes. Palate shows beetroot, cranberry and peppery goodness all the way to the finish; comes off as very Pinot-esque.
Clos Le Vigneau Vouvray 2012 ($19.95)
Pleasant sweet/dry ratio of pear and green apple that combine to make this one of those wines you just wanna keep sipping on.
Domaine du Petit Métris Les Tétuères Coteaux de Layon-Chaume 2009 ($38.95)
There is a pretty floral note reminiscent of orange blossoms along with apricot and some mango; but what makes this really enjoyable is the sweetness to acid balance.
Domaine de Vaugondy Dry Vouvray 2012 ($16.95)
Here you have a wine that has so much in the way of apple qualities you’ll look at the label to make sure it’s really a wine, and not something from your kid’s juicebox, you’ve been poured.
Henri Bourgeois Petit Bourgeois Sauvignon Blanc 2012 ($15)
Herbal zesty-ness with a real grassy backbone, the mineral undertones elevate both and comes across more lemon pith and seed than pulp.
Château Moncontour Tête de Cuvée Brut Vouvray ($17.95)
There’s a certain amount of praline nuttiness in this bubbly that gives it a fun, toasty sweetness along with apple, orange zest and well-balanced acidity.
Domaine Chauveau Pouilly-Fumé 2013 ($23.95)
Gooseberry, grapefruit and herbal notes take charge on the nose; the herbal backs off the palate helping to round out the pleasant mouthfeel and long finish.
Joël Delaunay Sauvignon Blanc Touraine 2013 ($14.95)
Definite signs of grass in here, but this one leans more heavily on the tropical side of Sauvignon Blanc from the get-go. There’s also a citrus mid-palate and a pith-y finish; these swings make it a wine hard to find boring.
I just checked another spot off my bucket list — and this one was long overdue.
My first encounter with this region was in my very first wine class, back in Montreal, some 20 years ago (yes, I am dating myself). Because of the French population, it only makes sense that the wines be omni-present in the Quebec market. As for Ontario, we don’t see many renditions, as the LCBO’s thinking and purchasing has long been trained elsewhere — a very sad state of affairs if you ask me. Even more frustrating is the fact that there has been a trio of great red vintages (2009 to 2011) that we haven’t even seen a smidge of! Coupled with insanely low pricing, especially when compared to its more famous neighbour to the north, Bordeaux. I can only be referencing the still silent area of South-West France — the bastion of bargains.
As your plane descends upon the region, the first thing you will notice, other than the massive Airbus plant, is the surrounding terrain, which can essentially be described as a Lays potato chip — undulating. The rolling hills start south of Bordeaux and finish at the Pyrenees Mountains/Spanish border. The second thing you notice is this region isn’t only about vines — as opposed to some of the more famous French wine regions. On this massive swath of land, only 16,000 hectare are dedicated to the vinous craft. Other agricultural pursuits include orchard fruit, corn, wheat, duck/foie gras farms, black truffles (Périgord) and Roquefort cheese … to name a few.
When looking at the SW wine map, you can roughly divide the styles of wines by location. The areas closest to Bordeaux produce doppelgangers and, for the purpose of this story, are uninteresting. The real jewels in the crown are those to the south, which rely on their indigenous and historic grapes.
South West France Wine Region
One of the earliest histories of viticulture of ancient Gaul was based in Gaillac. Since the first century AD, Roman traders shipped the wines to the north and east. Archaeological digs confirm this. Post-Romans, viticulture dried up as the region fell under Barbarian rule and wouldn’t return until the arrival of the Benedictine monks in the 10th century. It was the monastic orders, with time on their hands, who documented and developed viticulture and vinification during the Middle Ages, since wine was needed for the sacrament. The strong wines of Gaillac also found favour in jolly old England, much to the chagrin of Bordeaux.
Today, all colours of wines and styles are made. Red wines account for 60 percent of production and are made from any combination of Braucol (Fer Savadou), Duras, Prunelard (father of Malbec) and Syrah. It is well documented that they can age upwards of a decade. Rosés are made from the same grape tandem. There are also some Primeur (Nouveau) wines made from Gamay.
As whites go, there are dry, sparkling and dessert versions. Mauzac (seven different clones), Len d L’El, Ondenc, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle are the options. It is worth mentioning that the Len de L’El, historically, was used for dry wines, but is now relegated strictly for dessert wine production. 20 years ago the vignerons realized that the grape benefited from the “vent d’autan,” a dry, warm wind in the autumn. This helps to raisin (passerillage) the grapes, in turn producing concentrated dessert wines. These singular stickies must be tasted to be believed.
Producers of note: Domaine Rotier, Domaine des Terrisses, Château Lecusse, Domaine de Perches
Cahors is where you find terroir Malbec, known locally as Côt or Auxerrois. Even though the grape might be synonymous with Argentina, it is in Cahors where its passport was issued, and for my taste, the best renditions. Furthermore, the French versions are dry, not sweet, like many of their South American cousins.
Before phylloxera ravaged the vineyards in 1884, there were over 40,000 ha planted, making it one of the biggest vineyards in the world at that time. By the time it received AOC/P status in 1971, only 300 ha remained. Today, the number of plantings has reached 4,300 ha, as investment has returned to the promised land. Ironically, some of the main investors are the Argentineans (see page 28). Why? Limestone and price! The symbiotic relationship between the varietal and soil is undeniable, and the cost of one hectare in Cahors is only $20,000 where in Argentina it is $30,000.
In recent years, the region has refined their wines into three distinctive styles as they relate to the location of the plantings and the Lot River. The vineyards closest to the river, with the least amount of slope, tend to be soft and fruity, with prices hovering around the $15 price point. At mid-slope, things start to become interesting. With better exposure, the wines become richer and more powerful, and prices range between $20 and $30. The top of the slopes and plateaus is where you find the most intense and complex wines. Prices easily surpass the $30 mark and the juice is long lived. These latter two categories are, without a doubt, the best.
Law has always mandated 70 percent minimum Malbec for basic Cahors AOP wines, with the remainder being Merlot and/or Tannat. Recently, a new designation, Cahors Malbec AOC was created to recognize wines that are at least 85 percent of the grape, but in practice they usually are 100 percent. This designation applies to the previously mentioned mid and high slope wines. If you are passing through Cahors and don’t have time to visit some wineries, don’t fret. In the heart of the town, you can visit the purple neon tinged Cahors Malbec lounge, which could easily double for a night club after midnight. For a nominal fee, you can enjoy a selection of wines in a relaxed atmosphere.
Producers of note: Château Lamartine, Château Lagrézette, Château du Cèdre, Clos Troteligotte, Château Eugénie
Côtes de Gascogne IGP and Brulhois AOP
The largest region in South-West France, it shares the same borders as Armagnac, known for its famed brandy. When spirits sales started to dry up in the 1980s, producers turned their sights to dry table wine production, notably white, which were the majority of plantings. Today, these dry aromatic whites include Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Petit Manseng and Sauvignon Blanc. To preserve the freshness, the law mandates night harvesting, when the acid levels are at their peak. These bargain priced, crisp whites are ideal with shellfish, ceviche, fresh water fish, milder cheeses and chicken dishes. There are also some reds and rosés that do the job.
Brulhois is a small appellation of 200 ha that abuts Côtes de Gascogne. There are 35 producers and one rather large co-op, which has seen its greatest success in the Quebec market. AOP production is only red and rosé. When white is made, it falls under the CDG IGP designation — got to love idiosyncratic French wine laws.
Here you find the Abouriou grape, which is high in tannin and low in acid, as well as Tannat, Malbec, Fer Savadou and the three main Bordeaux varietals.
Producers of note: Château de Cassaigne, Domaine de Joÿ, Domaine de Pellehaut, Domaine de Millet
I am usually sceptical when I find out that a co-op produces an appellation’s entire production. More often than not, the quality is lacklustre. Happily, after tasting the portfolio of Plaimont, I can say that quality is their ethos. Furthermore, they are attuned to their vinous history. They are the caretakers of 150-year-old pre-phylloxera vines and manage a vineyard museum, with 29 old-school varieties, many of which have no name and which are being studied for future propagation.
Whites are made from Petit Courbu, Arrufiac, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng. The first two, which disappeared after phylloxera, found new life in the 1970s under André Dubosc, the legendary South-West producer, who set about resurrecting the wines of Saint-Mont and other neighbouring appellations.
Reds are made from a minimum of 80 percent Tannat and Pinenc (Fer Savadou) combined. You may have noticed that there are many different synonyms for Fer Savadou, which is known for its richness and fruitiness. During the Middle Ages, there were two main pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostole and the shrine of St James the Great. Both ran through different parts of South-West France. During this journey many pilgrims discovered Fer Savadou, but with multiple stops, languages and dialects, it was inevitable that many synonyms would arise.
Madiran AOP and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOP
The local grape, Tannat, is renowned for its elevated levels of tannin. Historically, the rule of thumb was that a great Madiran shouldn’t be touched for at least a decade — unless you had masochistic tendencies.
Then, in the 1980s, the vignerons realized the importance of working with the vine so as to obtain better ripeness. Part of this awakening included leaving the grapes on the vine as long as possible, taking full advantage of the Foehn, a warm southerly wind that provides warm autumns and a late harvest. These viticultural changes really took hold in the 1990s and today, the wine shows more depth, complexity and rounder tannins, allowing for younger drinkability, if so desired. Possible blending fodder, for softness, includes both Cabs.
It is also interesting to note that the majority of the world’s Tannat is divided between Madiran and Uruguay.
White wine does also exist, but once again, a singular French wine law comes into play. These wines are labelled as Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh. The two main grapes are Gros Manseng, which is used for dry white production and Petit Manseng, for dessert, due to smaller berries with higher sugar capabilities. Combined with the Foehn, the grapes shrivel up to make some delicious liquid gold.
Producers of note: Château de Viella, Château Montus, Château Bouscassé, Domaine Berthoumieu, Château du Cèdre, Domaine Laougué
Now that you’re more familiar with the Loire Valley and South West France, it’s time to whet your palate. Here are some suggestions to get your started.
Jean-Max Roger Cuvée Les Chante-Alouettes Pouilly-Fumé 2013, Loire ($29)
A floral nose with citrus, tangerine, lemon-lime and minerals. The Sauvignon Blanc fruit is rich and ripe on the palate with lemon, gooseberry, grapefruit, jasmine and an interesting finish. (RV)
Domaine La Haute Févrie Muscadet Sèvre-&-Maine 2013, Loire ($13.95)
Muscadet from the Loire Valley is a very versatile food wine, and it’s great value compared with the neighbouring Sauvignon Blanc of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Pale straw in colour with a nose of grapefruit rind and green apple, it opens on the palate to flavours of green pear and almond. It’s medium-bodied, fresh and lively. (TA)
Domaine du Tremblay Jean Tatin 2012, Quincy, Loire Valley ($21)
Very pale. Grassy nose with citrus notes, typical of Sauvignon Blanc; distinctive. Sharp attack, nice freshness. Light body, but the intense flavour fills the mouth. Ready to drink on its own or with seafood or light cheeses. (GBQc)
Jean-Max Roger Cuvée Les Caillottes Sancerre 2012, Loire ($26)
Just a lovely Sauvignon Blanc with a nose of guava, grapefruit, herbs, minerals and subtle grassy notes. Wonderful freshness on the palate with citrus-herb overtones, an earthy-mineral feel and a tangy, zesty finish. Great with spaghetti alla puttanesca. The capers will allow the wine to pop. (RV)
South West France
Brumont Gros Manseng/Sauvignon 2013, Côtes de Gascogne ($13)
Pale yellow. Floral, citrus and grassy notes combine in a fully fresh nose. Light on the palate but very tasty, it satisfies the palate and cleanses it with its vivid acidity and residual CO2. Drink now with salads or white fish. (GBQc)
Les Vignerons de Buzet “Red Badge” Merlot/Cabernet 2010, AOC Buzet ($14)
A “Bordeaux” blend, but definitely a southern experience. Fresh berry, red apple, cocoa, cinnamon, dried herbs and mint all make an olfactory appearance, with juicy berry, dried herbs and wet slate capping off the flavour profile. Nice complexity and a long, coffee-tinged finish. (TS)
Domaine du Tariquet Classic 2012, Côtes de Gascogne ($13)
This blend of Ugni Blanc and Colombard offers a nose reminiscent of Sauvignon Blanc plus a hint of exotic fruits. Light and refreshing on the palate, it has a great fruity taste and a clean finish. Drink now. (GBQc)
Château Tour des Gendres Moulin des Dames 2010, Bergerac SEC ($33)
Golden colour. Seductive fruity nose of apricot and quince; slightly herbaceous with fine herb notes and a touch of caramel from the oak aging. Very smooth, round on the palate, invigorating acidity leading to a full, energetic finish. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. (GBQc)
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