By Bill St. John, Special to Tribune Newspapers
March 27, 2013
The Loire Valley makes more types of wine than any other winemaking region of France. It produces the tricolor of red, white and rose wines; much sparkling wine; and a raft of wines that range in sweetness from as dry as a mouthful of cotton to as sugary as honey.
The Loire pushes the upper geographic limit where wine grapes will grow. But that cool climate also guarantees its wines a pronounced acidity that frames them with both verve and nerve. That is especially true with Loire whites.
Two well-known white grape varieties in the Loire are sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc; they go to make, many believe, the world's quintessential examples of their respective wines. A third, less familiar grape, the melon de Bourgogne, produces the valley's most underappreciated wine, Muscadet.
As for food, the ubiquity of Loire whites on the restaurant tables of Paris suggests that few other French white wines go so well with meals, especially those centered on fish and shellfish.
You'll find wine from sauvignon blanc along the eastern half of the Loire; some regions in the far eastern quarter, such as Sancerre, are synonymous with the grape.
Sauvignon blanc from the Touraine, Sancerre, Pouilly and other eastern Loire regions is possessed of a notably acidic edge and the memorably piercing aroma of one or more of these: gooseberries (admittedly not something with which most Americans are familiar), grapefruit rind, lime zest, fresh-cut green bell peppers or passion fruit.
2011 Domaine Vacheron Sancerre: Surprising how a white so light and delicate in body can deliver such piercing acidity and wide-open flavor. If you're having healthy portions of fatty fish or briny oysters, tame what might weigh the palate down with this cleaner-upper. $30-$35
2011 Patient Cottat Sancerre Anciennes Vignes: Supersoft, almost plush texture for a white (lots of extract), but lean, "green" frame; great price for Sancerre. $20-$22
2011 Pascal Jolivet Sancerre: Accents of lemon and lime rather than grapefruit, with piercing acidity and great length of flavor. $30
2011 Domaine Alain Assadet Menetou-Salon: Extraordinarily fat, rich texture (superseductive), with a snap of green herb at the finish; 100 percent sauvignon blanc; great value. $22
2010 Vincent Vatan Pouilly-Fume Selection Silex: Full-throttle sauvignon, with lots of herbs and a lactic character as the scaffolding for a creamy texture. $22-$25
2011 Francis Blanchet Pouilly-Fume Vieilles Vignes: Pretty difficult to believe the price for a wine so generous of flavor, structure and persistence; classic sauvignon citrus, acid and perfume. $18-$20
For much of the world, chenin blanc is but a workaday grape; it's the big box white to chardonnay's boutique. But in the Loire, it surpasses chardonnay any day.
There, warmer, traditional fermentations, often in neutral wood, retain the grape's high acidity and lean, precise fruit. Some Loire winemakers, in fact, need to tone down that acidity through malolactic fermentation or stirring the wine on its fermentation lees, or both, in order to enrich the wine's texture in the mouth.
Though South Africa is coming on strongly, the globe's greatest chenin blanc is Loire chenin blanc.
2011 Domaine Pichot Vouvray Domaine le Peu de la Moriette: Off dry, for extra juiciness and savor, with countervailing high acidity for balance; an electric wine for so little outlay; really gorgeous. $15-$20
2011 Laurent Kraft Vouvray Sec: Here you get signature Loire chalk and wet sand notes under the apple and camomile aromas and flavors; terrific energy. $18-$20
At more than 30,000 acres of vine, the melon de Bourgogne and its Muscadet wine takes up more than any other appellation in the Loire. From this region flows a river of dry, light-bodied, mineral-laden and very crisp white wine.
It is a wine that ages into layered nuance, like mica rock made liquid.
It is ridiculously inexpensive for all it gives you. For centuries it has grown up near the rich oyster beds of the Atlantic, and perhaps no better wine from all of France exists for shellfish of any preparation.
2009 Domaine Les Hautes Noelles Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu: Where can all this flavor and intensity come from for so little money? Gobs of minerals, lemony acidity and apple-and-pear flavor. $12-$14
2011 Domaine de la Quilla Muscadet Sevre et Maine: Lemon curd, minerals, taut acid; everything, for just $11.
2011 Chateau de la Ragotiere Muscadet Sevre et Maine Old Vines: On the soft side of Muscadet, but no stinting on lemony, mineral aromas and tastes; has the acidity for cleanup too; great price. $11-$12
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.
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