Loire Valley Tasting

October 28, 2009

So this post (and the one that follows about Barbera) are actually things I’ve written before I started this blog.  This is about a Loire Valley tasting on 9/17 at the Wine Bottega in the North End.

I have always loved French wines; Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne command, and often deservedly so, nearly instant respect.  The wine I’d most like to try is the legendary Domaine Romanée-Conti; the best I’ve had thus far was a Chateau Cheval Blanc, and if I could only drink one type of wine for the rest of my life it would hands down be small-production vintage bubbly.  However I am equally partial to the lesser known French appellations, and have time after time been impressed with Southern Rhones, wines from the Languedoc, and the Loire Valley, usually finding consistent high quality and great value.

It’s this last region, the Loire Valley that was the theme of tonight’s tasting at the Wine Bottega.  I have had some experience with the Loire before – Sancerre is definitely my favorite expression of Sauvignon Blanc and perhaps my favorite white; because I love what Cab Franc can do in blends I’ve been drawn to it as a single varietal wine, and thus have enjoyed a few Chinon’s; and finally, Vouvray has been one of the few styles where I’m still batting 1,000.  However prior to tonight this was the extent of my experience with, and knowledge of the Loire Valley.  I did a little background reading in Sotheby’s before heading to the tasting, which actually was not too high on the region, but the common theme of their chapter and the introductory notes to the tasting was diversity – essentially the region produces a hodgepodge of wines of all different styles, reds and whites, dry and sweet, still and sparkling, from a number of different varietals, though predominantly Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, and Sauvignon Blanc.  This could be expected from the relative size and heterogeneity of the region, but to say that the wines of the Loire Valley are diverse is a gross understatement, and variety was certainly the hallmark feature of this evening, with quality coming in at a close second.

So, onto the wines.  We started out with a sparkler, which was very good – not mind-blowing, but very good.  Tons of yeast on the nose and flavor that could rival most Champagnes.  Nonvintage and at $22 a bottle this could be a place for value bubbles.  Next up was a Muscadet, which is the first I can recall tasting.  It didn’t do much for me – good acid and body, but lacking any real compelling flavor… dare I make the butterface comparison.  This was followed by a Sancerre, which as I mentioned before, I traditionally am very high on; this one was solid but nothing special.  Next came a Cheverny, an appellation in the Touraine where apparently single-varietal bottlings are prohibited; this one was a 70/30 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, which was actually quite good, and looking at the guide now at only $15 a bottle I am thinking I should have picked up some.  Now it gets interesting – a Chinon Blanc, confusingly enough, made from Chenin Blanc, which apparently accounts for ~1% of Chinon – another obscure style that I can now lay claim to have tried; not to spoil the surprise, but in the same night as a Sancerre Rouge (made from Pinot Noir); the Loire is full of surprises!  The white Chinon was actually quite good, a dry expression of the Chenin Blanc grape that was a little lighter in body and easier drinking if less complex than the Vouvrays that were up next.  And speaking of – we then did a vertical, going back in time nonetheless, of the 07, 06, and 05 Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec “Le Mont.”  Now I know white wines can age; I immediately think Burgundy, Sauternes, etc; and I had an inkling of suspicion that Vouvrays are ageworthy as well, but this really solidified it for me.  The ’07 was good, but as a I learned a baby… no… maybe a blastocyst!  The ’06 was infinitely more complex, the ’05 same deal, but like a geometric progression.  Apparently you don’t want to touch these guys for 10 years minimum, and they can last for 50… I thought even Bordeaux’s peak before that.  The gentleman pouring said he had a ’93 of the “Le Mont” he was still keeping.  Next was the first wine I bought – the 2005 Nicolas Joly Savennieres – Coulée de Serrant.  I had never had a Savennieres, I had a vague recollection of Gary speaking highly of them and remembered that it was a dry Chenin Blanc.  Tonight I learned that Coulée de Serrant is one of two single vineyard designations within Savennieres (the other being Roche-Aux Moines), both owned by Nicolas Joly, who is apparently quite the character and a serious advocate of biodynamic wines.  Well this wine was incredible – the nose had something I couldn’t place for the longest time, almost like a cinnamon oatmeal thing going on and then all sorts of floral aromas behind that, flavors that translated to the palate with a crisp attack that dipped to a beautiful more subtle midpalette and then returned for an incredibly long finish, great acidity, pure fruit, and unbelievable complexity.  One of the guys pouring suggested Chartreuse, which instantly fit.  Needless to say I took a bottle home with me.  The last two whites were also both of extremely high quality, also both Chenins, one dry and one sweet, but nothing like the Savennieres.

The Loire reds were equally diverse.  First up was a Bourgueil, which was a good expression of Cab Franc but nothing special.  Then came 100% malbec wine, which I learned in the Loire is called Côt.  Very good, and distinct from Cahors or New World malbecs, perhaps something I should explore further.  The next wine was from a varietal I had never heard of, Grolleau, most of which apparently goes into cheap rose, but this old vine bottling was quite good, with a barnyard nose that could put some Burgundys to shame and a matching dusty, rustic palette.  The specific flavors escape my memory, but I’ll make the analogy to a 90 year old ex-Marine in a nursing home with a Purple Heart who you faintly suspect could get up out of his wheelchair and kick your ass if he still wanted to.  Next up was a pre-phylloxera (read, very old) Cab Franc, very good, it was one of three wines I went back and tried again, but I can’t remember the details.  The next red was another wine I liked enough to buy, an unusual blend of pinot d’aunis, which I had never heard of before tonight); côt, or malbec, which I had just learned was even grown in the Loire; and gamay, which I didn’t think existed outside of Beaujolais.  Anyway these three unlikely grapes came together to produce the 2005 Domaine Le Briseau Couteaux du Loir “Les Mortiers,” which had an awesome backbone of bright and vibrant fruit, a characteristic earthy and vegetal component, and a complex layer of spice and other aromas.  The gentleman pouring at this table (I really need to find shorthand for this, is ‘pourer’ too diminutive?) said, and he was only slightly exaggerating, that opening this wine filled with room with a cloud of cinnamon.  Next was the previously alluded to red Sancerre, 100% Pinot Noir that tasted like an imaginary blend between Burgundy and Willamette Valley pinot.  Finally, the finishing wine was the ’04 Clos Rougeard Saumur Champigny, 100% cab franc, and perhaps the best expression of the varietal I’ve ever tasted – this wine was phenomenal, and I wish I took a bottle with me, but at $65 you have to make some sacrifices.

So all in all I’m very high on the Loire Valley right now.  I tried 5 new varietals (up to 58 now, well on my way to the Wine Century Club), found a new candidate for a value sparkling play, learned about the incredible aging potential of Vouvray, had a white Chinon and red Sancerre, drank juice from 160 year old vines, and tasted what are perhaps the iconic expressions of the Loire’s most well known white and red wines – the Nicolas Joly Savennieres Couleé de Serrant and the Clos Rougeard Saumur Champigny, one of which is now sitting on my shelf.

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