Wine Lover's France: A Guide to Loire Valley Wines
Someone once said, "There is no such thing as a heavy Loire wine, nor a high-alcohol Loire wine."* In the Loire Valley, white wine is supreme. This is the land of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Muscadet. There are varieties of red (from the Cabernet franc grape), but the area's most known wines come from the Chenin blanc, Sauvignon blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne grapes.
But before breaking into a discussion of Loire Valley wines, a brief (as brief as I can make it) note on the French way of talking about wine. Wines in France are dictated by a strict set of rules based on the grape variety (or sometimes, but not often, varieties) used, and by the specific geographic location of the grape's production. The variety of grape is what is most known to American wine drinkers (the Sauvignon blanc grape, for example, or the Chardonnay). The legal indication of precisely where the grapes were grown is called the appellation. (Not the terroir? some grape enthusiasts might ask. The appellation legally defines the terroir--literally "earth"--in which the grapes were grown.) Famed appellations of the Loire Valley are Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Muscadet, to name a few. So one can find different types of Sancerre wine (red, white), made from different grapes, but only grown in the specific geographic area around Sancerre. Other restrictions (maximum grape yield, alcohol level, etc.) also play into the rules of the appellation, but for our brief look at Loire Valley wines this explanation is sufficient.
Back to the grapes. The origins of the Sauvignon blanc grape lie in the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. From there this popular variety spread to the world, where it has gained praise for its heartiness and complex flavors and aromas. In the Loire the most known appellations associated with this grape are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, both found in the eastern side of the region. It is no secret that the Sauvignon blanc grape lends itself to wines that are enormously varied, and these Loire appellations are no different, producing wines from crisp and refreshing to grassy and full-bodied.
The famed Vouvray, although arguably the most known Loire wine, is also the hardest to pin down. It is always made from the Chenin blanc grape, but it's flavor can range from the vigorously dry (sec) to the intensely sweet (moelleux). It also produces an excellent crémant, or sparkling wine.
The area's other most popular grape is the Melon de Bourgogne, rather an oddity. It is a grape found hardly anywhere else, and is cultivated only in a very small part of the Loire Valley (Muscadet). And yet, they are wines of great importance, both in the volume of production (being one of the most-produced in France) and name-recognition. Bordering as they do the Atlantic Ocean, the Muscadet vineyards lend that hint of sea to the wines that make them a superior companion to fish and seafood (remember this the next time you eat oysters, considered the Muscadet pairing par excellence!).
In short, Loire Valley wines are an excellent addition to any cellar, and, because they are often under-appreciated, are usually a very good value.
By Peg Kern