By Franz Scheurer
The Loire is France’s longest river, originating in the Massif Central mountains flowing through central France via Nevers and Orléans, then westwards through Blois, Tours, Angers and Nantes where it joins the Atlantic Ocean.
Evidence of wine production goes back to the 1st Century and it was firmly established by the 5th Century. The river and its tributaries made transportation easy and wine was shipped to Paris, the Flemish cities and England. The Dutch, being the biggest customers in the 16th and 17th Centuries played a considerable role in the development of the styles of the wines, changing them to suit their own tastes. Trade was affected seriously by the Revolution and ensuing competition, mainly from the Midi and the development of more efficient transport systems. Only after World War II did Loire valley wine sales, both at home and in export markets, show signs of recovery.
There are four main vineyard areas in the Loire Valley, starting upstream with Central Vineyards, followed by Touraine, Anjou-Saumur and finally Nantais.
Central Vineyards is located in the centre of France (not the centre of the Loire), about 100 km south-west of Chablis, with a continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. The soils are predominantly clay with a hard flinty topsoil and limestone, chalk and Kimmeridgian clay (as in Chablis) in parts. Grape varieties are mainly Sauvignon Blanc and small plantings of Chasselas and the red variety is Pinot Noir. Most white wines of this region are cool fermented in tanks, malolactic fermentation is avoided, bottled young and shipped immediately. They are always dry and some producers make very good Cuvée, fermented and aged in oak. The local reds and rosés are made traditionally with short maceration on skins, occasionally aged in old oak. Examples of terrific Sauvignon Blanc are the top wines of Sancerre with crisp acidity and strong flavours of gooseberries (also referred to as “cat’s piss”). Some good and interesting Chasselas wines come from Pouilly sur Loire, where part of the Pouilly Fumé AC is designated for Chasselas.
Touraine runs from Chinon and Bourgueil to Tours and almost as far as Blois. The Vienne, Cher, Indre and Loir the most important tributaries. Low rainfall and a protected aspect counter its northerly location. Lower humidity than the coastal regions but more temperate than the Centre, spring frosts can be a problem. Botrytis can develop in Vouvray in certain years. Soils are predominantly flinty clay over a limestone sub-soil and "tuffeau" sub-soil with flinty clay topsoil in Vouvray. (Tuffeau is a calcareous rock, a special type of soft limestone. It is particularly well-drained and suitable for building and carving out cellars)
Chenin Blanc is the undisputed hero with smaller quantities of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay planted as well. Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Groslot are made into reds and rosés. White wines are made at all levels of sweetness. Malolactic fermentation is usually avoided and chaptalisation is permitted, even for botrytised wines. Most wines are bottled early to preserve the Chenin Blanc fruit, although some of the sweeter wines are occasionally aged for some time in wood. Cold-vinified rosés get their colour from short skin contact. Cabernet releases more colour than Gamay. The reds are usually aged for a short while in old oak with the Gamay often being vinified using carbonic maceration.
Chenin Blanc, due to the naturally high acidity makes a mean wine in a bad year but these same characteristics allows it to age for decades from the good years. Peach, apricot and nutty flavours develop into distinctly lanolin aromas with age. Sparkling Vouvray is made in the Traditional Method and the red wines are generally lighter in style and meant for early drinking.
Anjou – Saumur stretches from 40 km west of Angers to 10 km east of Saumur. The Aubance and the Layon the important tributaries. The climate is still influenced by the Atlantic Ocean. The Layon river is in a deep valley with sheltered hillside vineyards where noble rot can develop easily encouraged by autumn mists. Soils are mainly “tuffeau” in Saumur and hard schist with stony clay topsoil elsewhere.
Grape varieties, viticulture and vinification are the same as in Touraine but although Chenin Blanc is the major grape, generic wines often have up to 20% Chardonnay (less often Sauvignon Blanc) in the blend. Savennières, one of Anjou’s most famous wines is today mostly vinified dry. Wines are fragrant, elegant with a mineral character and destined for long ageing. The sheltered position of the Coteaux du Layon is ideal for botrytis and successive pickings during harvest result in grapes rich in sugar, acidity and flavour. These sweet wines, often less sweet and alcoholic but more acidic than Sauternes, are destined for long aging and represent great value for money. The infamous “Rosé d’Anjou wines should all be consumed young, are medium dry to medium sweet, full of strawberry aromas and very commercial. Red wines, apart from the Anjou-Gamay are all made from the two Cabernets and the ever popular Saumur sparkling is made brut and demi-sec with lots of fruit from Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc.
Muscadet, the wine of the Nantais region, makes up more than half of the white wine production of the Loire. Situated in the lower Bretagne at the mouth of the river Loire, soils are diverse, but mostly consist of schist and gneiss with some granite and sand. The typically Atlantic climate is humid and sunny with temperate summers and winters.
Grape varieties include Muscadet and Gros Plant. Muscadet, also called Melon de Bourgogne, has a neutral aroma and flavour with relatively low sugar levels and Gros Plant, also called Folle Blanche is highly acidic and due to its susceptibility to fungal attacks some plantings are now replaced with Chardonnay. Both varieties are always vinified dry. Muscadet is also the only AC wine in France to have a maximum permitted alcohol level of 12% vol. Mostly fermented in glass lined cement tanks, often located underground, the best wines are produced using the Sur Lie process. Controlled under the AC rules, the Sur Lie wines of Nantais must stay in contact with its fine lees, mainly dead yeast cells in tank or (very occasional) in barrel, for at least the winter, up until the point of bottling. After an initial racking to eliminate the gross lees, no further racking is permitted, but the wine may be filtered piror to bottling. The process gives the wine more freshness and there is often a slight effervescence (carbon dioxide) helping to protect the wine from oxidation. The dead yeasts give off flavour with adds to the richness of the wine and enables it to be aged longer. Most Muscadets are enjoyed best when consumed young and fresh, though.
Personally I always favoured a good Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé and I simply adore Muscadet as a quaffing wine. It is one of my favourite drinks on a hot afternoon, a perfect match for our sunny summer climate. An aged, sweet Vouvray can be in the same class as a Chateau d’Yquem, slightly more affordable and a perfect match with foie gras.
If you want to sample wines from the Loire Valley, then Ultimo Wine Centre (02 9211 2380) stocks and recommends the following wines:
Sancerre Jean–Max Roger, Cuvé les Caillotts 2001, $ 39.95
Domaine Deletang, Touraine, Cepage Sauvignon 1998, $ 15.95
Bourgueil Druet, Les Cent Boisselées, Cabernet Franc, 1999, $ 32.95
Vouvray Bourillon d’Orléans, Sec 2001, $ 32.50 and demi sec at the same price plus, from the same maker, an extensive selection of Vouvray Moelleux (sweet) from 1934 to 1990 at various prices and last but not least:
Clos Cormerais, Cuvee Vieux Vignes, Muscadet Sur Lie, 1998, Marc Ollivier $14.95