By Sharon Kapnick
At some 630 miles, the Loire is France’s longest river, flowing through France’s most diverse wine region. It’s the region that sets international benchmarks for three important varieties–Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. While the French certainly appreciate Loire wines–they’re the most popular wines in restaurants in France–they don’t get the attention they deserve in the U.S.
Indeed the Loire is perhaps France’s most overlooked region here. That’s a shame because many Loire wines are delicious, especially food friendly and also offer excellent value (as wines from underappreciated regions do).
And, this time of year, its sparkling wines and Cabernet Francs are perfect for celebrations, Thanksgiving and other holiday meals.
The Loire Valley is France’s second-largest producer of sparkling wines, known as fines bulles. They come from six appellations: Anjou Mousseux, Crémant de Loire, Montlouis sur Loire, Saumur Brut, Touraine Mousseux and Vouvray. The méthode traditionelle, the same process used to make Champagne, is used. And there are other connections to Champagne: In 1811, Jean-Baptiste Ackermann, whose family owned a famed Champagne house, began making Saumur’s first sparkling wines. Over time other Loire sparkling wine houses came to be owned by Champagne producers. In fact, until the 1930s, Loire sparkling wines were usually called Champagne, even though they tend to be fruitier, less effervescent and are made from different grapes (although Chardonnay is often allowed).
Today Saumur, in the central Loire, produces almost as much wine as the other five appellations combined. Made mostly from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, Saumur’s bubblies are generally fruity, fresh and aromatic. They’re among the most prestigious of the Loire. Sparkling Vouvrays, made only from Chenin Blanc, come in two styles: pétillant, or slightly sparkling, and mousseux, fully sparkling. These wines have good acidity due to the cool climate, fruity flavors from the Chenin Blanc grapes, and mineral qualities imparted from the soil. Some of the best sparkling wines are Crémants de Loire. In her excellent book A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire, Jacqueline Friedrich describes their “bead [as] elegant, the structure firm, the flavors subtle, the finish long and toasty.”
The Loire also offers lovely red wines. If you like Cabernet Sauvignon, which is best with red meats and too powerful to accompany most foods well, you will probably also like its lesser known relative, the more approachable Cabernet Franc. (Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc are thought to be Cabernet Sauvignon’s parents.) Many of the best come from Chinon, in the Touraine district.
Cabernet Franc is light- to medium-bodied, crisp, lively, fruitier and more aromatic than the weightier Cabernet Sauvignon. Its refreshing acidity and low tannins make it notably versatile. In addition to being a smart choice with salmon, chicken, duck, game birds, veal, pork, lamb, beef, game and sausage, Chinon reds complement vegetables well. They’re an excellent choice for barbecues as well as a terrific choice for Thanksgiving because they can handle and enhance all the diverse flavors. Loire Cabernet Francs are made in two styles: 1) light, fruity wines best when served slightly chilled and drunk young and 2) medium-to-full-bodied, richer, more tannic wines that benefit from significant aging.
In her Loire book, Friedrich extols the virtues of the varietal: “Cabernet Franc is favored for its concentrated berry flavors, its supple texture, its finesse, its gentle tannins, and its lively acidity, all of which account for the fact that it charms when young and beguiles when aged.” The Wine Spectator calls Cabernet Franc one of the wine world’s greatest values. Add to that its remarkable food friendliness and its relatively low alcohol content, and you realize that Chinon’s Cabernet Francs are wines to get to know and to serve often.
RECOMMENDED SPARKLING WINES
Due to their fruit-acid balance, the Loire’s sparkling wines complement food very well. They are an excellent, less expensive alternative to Champagne.
Bouvet-Ladubay Signature Saumur Brut NV (SRP* $13): Bouvet-Ladubay has been one of the best producers of the Loire’s sparkling wines since 1851. Today it buys grapes from some 100 growers. Aromas and flavors of citrus and toast. Light, crisp, well-balanced acidity.
Bouvet-Ladubay Saphir Saumur Brut 2009 (SRP $17): Aromas and flavors of white fruit, peach, flowers and honey. Creamy, smooth texture. Elegant. Crisp, clean finish. Full bodied, some minerality.
Château Moncontour Vouvray Tête de Cuvée Brut (SRP $20): The vineyard dates back to the 4th century and is one of the oldest in the region. Château Moncontour became the King’s property when Charles VII built it in the 15th century for his mistress Agnès Sorel. Aromas and flavors of apples, citrus, almonds and minerals. Crisp acidity. Delicate mousse, light, elegant, charming.
Château Moncontour Cuvée Prédilection Brut 2009 (SRP $21): Moncontour’s best sparkling cuvée. Aromas and flavors of hazelnuts, fresh white and green fruit and a touch of toast. Lively acidity. Complex.
Other Producers to Look For: Ackerman-Laurance, Domaine des Baumard, Marc Brédif, Champalou, Gaudrelle, Gratien & Meyer, Domaine Huët, Langlois-Château, Monmousseau, Veuve Amiot
RECOMMENDED CHINON CABERNET FRANCS
Marie de Beauregard 2010 (SRP $20): From Guy Saget Estates, a family owned and managed Loire Valley winery, now in its 8th generation. Aromas and flavors of blueberry, blackberry, plum and sweet spices. Elegant, easy to drink, well balanced, silky tannins.
Justin Monmousseau 2009 (SRP $14): Better known for its sparkling wines, Monmousseau also offers several premium still wines. This very reasonably priced Chinon has aromas and flavors of red fruits and black cherries. Well-balanced fruit and tannins. Full bodied, earthy and spicy.
Charles Joguet Cuvée Terroir 2009 (SRP $20): The goal of this blend from several cuvées of the domaine is to show the harmony of Chinon’s terroirs. Aromas and flavors of black cherry, blackberry and plum. Some minerality. Fresh. Supple tannins. Vines average 30 years old. Consume when young.
Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses 2005 (SRP $22): Aromas and flavors of dark cherries, berries and cassis. Light bodied, silky tannins, elegant. Excellent mineral content. Good acidity. Vines approximately 50 years old.
Other Producers to Look For: Philippe Alliet, Bernard Baudry, Couly-Dutheil, Château de la Grille, Olga Raffault
*Wines can usually be found for less–sometimes considerably less–than the SRP (suggested retail price). Check out wine-searcher.com to get an idea of actual prices.
Note: I got samples of some of these wines and tried some at a tasting for members of the press.