Friday, January 23, 2015

Loire Valley


There are many of these fairytale castles littered about in Loire

Ok, Seriously, I have a Masters in Biotechnology, and another in Business Administration, and I have NEVER had so many new words to learn as I do now.  There are a bunch of AOCs (Appellation d'Orgine Controlee- a French Appellation system created in 1935, so you know the place from whence the grapes come) in the Loire Valley, as well as sub appellations whose names I have never heard of.  I drink a decent amount of wine,  and have even planted vines in my front yard (Neighbors love me) and some of the grapes I have never heard of either.  It would honestly be a lot easier if they named these damn things in English since the whole world does speak English these days [See Stupid American].  Who knew I signed up for a foreign language class of sorts.  I hated Spanish in high school, and guess what, I still hate it. (French in this case, not Spanish, but same principle applies).

So the story of the major reds grown in the Loire are quite easy  I will use percentages throughout the rest of this article to share the importance of a grape by percent of production.  The Reds in highest production in the Loire are Cabernet Franc (45%), Love it, know it, makes me happy...and Gamay Noir (16%), heard of it, know of it, certainly couldn't pick it out of any kind of line-up, but I know it is the grape in that crappy Beaujolais stuff.

So the major whites are less easy, and make up the majority of the wine from the region.  Melon de Bourgogne (44%, I think I just hurt my throat, and I am apparently not the only one confused, because they have grown this grape in California previously and mislabeled it Pinot Blanc, which is an entirely different grape altogether...It is an entirely different kind of grape.  Bourgogne is what they call Burgundy in France, and the Melon grape is thought to be from there.  Got to hand it to these grape namers, they are a very creative group of folks.

The other major white varieties are Chenin Blanc (30%) and Sauvignon Blanc (24%) are grown in abundance in the region.  I am a fan of both of those, so I will enjoy.

If you look at some of the other white grapes that are grown in the Loire, they include but are not limited to Arbois, Chardonnay, Chasselas, Folle Blanche Pays Nantais, Groslot Gris, and Muscadet.  On the Red side of the tracks you have some big names such asAbouriou, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cot (Same as Malbec in the rest of the world), Grolleau Loire, Merlot, Val de Loire Chinon, and a few others.  It is beginning to feel like the teacher is making some of these up just to mess with us, but I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Which brings us to our next issue and that is that the grapes that are used in making the wine will be NOWHERE on the label.  Really?  This blind tasting thing is hard enough, but now I don't even know if I am right?  Then, just to make matters harder, the French added two other clasification systems, 1.  Vin Delimite de Qualite Superieure (A second appellation system) introduced in 1949, and 2. the Vin de Pays to identify table wines (1979).  I liken all of this to walking into a library and trying to find your books with the Dewy Decimal system and another system in play. Oh well.
This whole region huddles around the longest river in France aptly named the Loire river (Thank God, one less word for me to learn).  The river is 630 miles long making this region quite large.  It starts in Mont Gerbier de Jonc in Ardeche and runs to the Atlantic Ocean.  The river starts flowing NORTH, yep, I said it flows north, and then turns West for the rest of its winding journey.  You can imagine that the weather and soil compostion varies with the terrain, and the proximity to the ocean, and thus, the grapes grown in the Loire Valley will do the same.  More to come on that in just a minute.

There are five major vineyards of the Loire Valley and this is where the language lesson begins.  The first is the Pays Nantais which is the area closest to the Atlantic ocean, and also the area furthest downstream since the river lets out into the ocean.  The soil here is mostly Schist (Please be careful how you say that around the kids)  In Pays Nantais, the most prevalent grape grown is Melon de Bourgogne.  The wine is known as Muscadet and is known for its acidity and really that is about all.  It is kind of one note with some stone fruit and lemon with dense minerality.  these are wines that are supposed to have lighter, and fresher character, and show best at low alcohol levels generally below 12%.  To insure that you have a best in class Muscadet, you can look for an unofficial designation called Hermine d'Or named after a little white muskrat like animal.  There is a second lesser known wine made in the region from Folle Blanche grapes called Gros Plant, and according to the teacher it is as the name would indicate, GROSS.  He says you should only drink it if you are at a cafe chain smoking cigarettes.  I don't suggest smoking, so I would say, skip it. 

Traveling up the river there are two towns generally considered together both of which are known for their sweet wine made from Chenin Blanc, only here it is called Pineau de la Loire.  These towns are collectively known as Anjou and Saumur.  This is the largest and therefore most diverse region of the Loire.  In this region they also make some reds from Cabernet Franc, as well as a rose made from a grape called Grolleau.  Nearly one third of the plantings are cab franc, and those reds are getting progressively better over time.  Anjou Blanc is made entirely from Chenin Blanc which is well suited to its colder climate.  It is slow to ripen, and maintains its high acidity.  Savennieres AOP  are the best example of these wines and develop honeyed richness with age.  They are perfectly paired with a great lobster bisque.  The second sub region to talk about is Coteaux du Layon AOP.  The Layon river is a tributary of the Loire and in this region they make late-harvest wine beautifully infected with noble rot.  they must have a residual sugar of 34 g/l, and are quite pricey if you can find one.  Within the Coteaux du Layon, is a town called Bonnezeaux AOP and Quarts de Chaume.  They too make late harvest wines.  These wines are exceptional, expensive and sweet with a residual sugar content of 80g/l or higher.  Additionally I mentioned the reds of Anjou which are generally Cabernet Franc based, and they are generally good values.  Anjou villages AOP produce some of the region's finest examples.  You will also find Gamay based reds as well.  These are lighter reds similar in style, and sharing a grape with Beaujolais.

Next on the cruise up the river is the town of Samur.  They make red, dry white and most of the sparkling wines in the region which come in both white and rose varieties.  Regulations may restrict some of this with a push towards more pure Chenin Blanc wines from this AOP in the near future.  The whites are sometimes a blend containing up to 20% Chardonay or Sauvignon blanc.  Reds allow Cabernet (Both Sauvignon and Franc) as well as a grape called Pineau d' Aunis which is similar to Pinot Noir but with more pepper and some raspberries.  No rose's are aloud in Saumur except sparkling.  Another interesting wine due to the soil composition in Saumur (A hardened limestone near champigny (The "Field of Fire")a llow wines made from cab franc that are light and bright and take on the elegant floral expression of cab franc.  These can be labeled Samur-Champigny.

Next on our LONG river tour is a stop in Touraine.  where you can find the Chenonceau castle,   This castle pictured to the right is a great example of some of the fairytale castles in the region.  As you can tell, they built this beautiful castle into the river.  I am thinking that if I can just make about 100 million dollars writing this blog, I will buy it as my summer home.

While we just talked about the reds of Saumur-Champigny, the best reds of the Loire come from Chinon and Bourgueil AOPs.  This is a place where one of my favorite grapes, Cabernet Franc grows better then anywhere else on earth.  It takes on raspberry, and tobacco as well as aromatics and leaves you with beautifully integrated tannins.  Borgueil offers beautiful reds and some rose wines, while Chinon makes a few wines that are white from, you guessed it, Chenin Blanc.

Other notable sub regions in Touraine include Vouvray and Montlouis-sur Loire AOPs.  Vouvray AOP is Touraine's largest of the white wine districts.  These wines are a great value generally.  In fact we had a quite nice one from a California Grocery chain for about 7 dollars in class and all of us agreed it was quite nice.  the beauty of these wines is that they are generally a bit sweet, and balanced with high acidity.  They are a beautiful food wine.  Nontlouis-sur-Loire AOP makes similar wines and in fact until recently, they were not their own AOP.

A vin gris which is almost a copper color, is also sold made in the region.  This wine is like a rose, but generally fruity with a firm structure and a dry and nutty finish.  It is bottled under the name Touraine-Noble Joue and is believed to have been bottled the same way in the 15th century.  Drink early and often as it is not built to age.  The last grape worth doting is Romorantin which is a cousin of Chardonay, and used to be prevalent in the Loire, but now is only made in Cour-Cheverny AOC.

Am I losing you yet?  My fingers hurt from typing.  The nice thing about this next part is whoever is in the Loire decided to use English (My prayers are heard) to describe this next region.  It is called the "Central Region" although if it were in France, it would likely be called something that sounded more like Cen-Tral'.   Sancerre has reds and roses but that is not what gets the highest praise for this AOP.  The raved about wines from this region are whites from Sauv Blanc.  Can I get a collective Ahhhhhhhh?  The Sauv Blanc planted here are among the best in the world (Sorry friends in NZ, while your SBs are fruity and good, the minerals and balance in these is fantastic).  The minerals that they display come from a flinty soil that gets expressed in the wine, think sulfer after a gun fires.  As mentioned before, they also make some Pinot Noir which is lighter in style but can be quite good in warm years.  Also the Pinot Noir is CHEAP and a good value frequently.  Sancerre and Pouilly Fume are almost always Sauvignon Blanc.  My one call out is that there is Pinot Noir bottled under the Sancerre lable so if you want a Sauv Blanc, please make sure the liquid in your bottle is white!!!  Pouilly Fume will always be white, and always be Sauv Blanc.  There are other AOPs in the central Vineyards, but they are smaller and more difficult to find stateside.  they all make Sauv blanc and or pinots along with vin gris in some.  Orleans-cleryAOP has Cab Franc based reds.

The final stop on our river tour is Auvergne.  This region is small so hopefully it wont take to long.  Gamay is the famous grape here and again they make wines similar to Beaujolais.  We will start in Chateaumeillant.  It is a tiny AOC and produces reds from Pinot Noir and Gamay and a vin gris.  Saint-Pourcain is know for aromatic wites made from Chardonay, Sauv Blanc and Tressallier, which can produce high alcohol wines that have a lot of bitter notes.  Cote Roannaise produces a wine similar to Beaujolais, but likely better due to the more boutique wine making styles.  Cotes d' Auvergn which is  a region that makes Chardonay and gamay and Pinot Noir based reds.  And finally Cotes du Forez which makes Gamay into both a red and a rose wine.

If you are not overwhelmed like I am, that is likely good.  Think of Loire as a BIG vineyard that produces good wines of varied types in a storybook setting.  The sweet wines were produced because back in the day, when people were not able to access sugar, they made sweet wines to give them a little sugary treat after a meal.  Those were generally exported to the rest of the world and taxed by the Dutch who controlled the access to the Atlantic.  oddly they are still produced like that today so that the man can tax you and me for the same treats.  The less sweet wines were consumed locally and in Paris.  Today they tax us for those too.  You can see that the locals could likely afford it, after all, there were castles EVERYWHERE.  Next week, join me for a short trip to Bordeaux.  I am sure it will be all the more confusing, but the wines are worth understanding.

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