An eclectic range of wines from the Loire embraced my palate this past week, and this column focuses on those that tickled my fancy. Think of it as a personal parade of pleasures.
The Loire Valley covers a range of regions along the Loire river. It starts near the city of Orleans in central northern France – remember Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans? – with the regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume and ends in the Muscadet region near the city of Nantes on France’s Atlantic coast.
Along the way it includes the regions of Vouvray, Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur and Anjou.
Sancerre is a common wine in France in the sense that, like New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a lot of it is available and much of it not very good. So when one encounters a good one, it is wine to grab.
The Sancerre region is primarily associated with sauvignon blanc, but it produces very different flavours from what we associate with the new world. Sancerre tastes of flint and reflects the minerals in the soil – the region sits on the same kind of chalk and limestone as Champagne.
The 2012 Le Colombier is delicate yet flinty, with a nose of tropical fruits and a range of flower perfumes combined with a beautifully restrained nature that sings when combined with a delicate dish like mackerel pate or boiled dumplings.
Some people influenced by fashion or prejudice ascribe to the ABC theory – anything but chardonnay. But when handled well, this is a majestic grape. In the Chablis region of France chardonnay receives little or no oak and yet after years in the cellar even an entry-level chablis can be magnificent.
Elsewhere in the Burgundy region chardonnay makes an entirely different kind of white wine. These can be magnificent and expensive, and have been covered in earlier columns.
The key point about chardonnay is that it is neutral and malleable grape. Most of the flavors come from a range of external factors such as terroir and how the winemaker moulds its structure using oak.
Chardonnay from Australia in previous years has been heavily oaked, often with oak chips or staves because these are cheaper than barrels. This makes a buxom style of wine which people tend either to love or hate, with very little middle ground.
The 2009 Les Penitents chardonnay from the Chartrois region of the Loire is big and gutsy like an Australian chardonnay but full of subtle flavours like a white burgundy. It could almost be described as opulent, in the sense of being rich and perhaps even extravagant.
Think of an oaked Aussie with French restraint, if that is not too much of a contradiction. In the mouth it tastes creamy and juicy, a result of the oak treatment. An elegant yet distinctive wine that is drinking at its peak now and which cries out for a range of dishes such as deep fried squid, grilled prawns, Hainan chicken, or tofu cooked in almost any way such as deep fried with lemongrass and chilli.
Two pinot noirs made by Jean Colin were a revelation. His entry-level 2012 pinot, which received no oak, is gentle with a lovely and lively balance of fruit and acidity. It is a blend of pinots from around the region, and can often be found priced at a level much lower than similar quality pinots from the Burgundy region.
This is the kind of wine that goes with mild fish. We are often told red wine with red meat, but this is the exception that shows the benefit of defying the rules. The acid cuts through any fat in the fish and the two sing a duet of joy.
The 2012 Menetou-Salon pinot is made from a specific site just west of Sancerre and has the most beguiling perfume of spice, earth and red berries. It received some oak treatment, perhaps 20 per cent new oak. This is a pinot to rival much better-known pinots in Burgundy, at a seriously lower price.
A highlight was a 2009 Cent Visages Cot. It is made from malbec. This grape used to be grown in Bordeaux but fell out of favour before it became established in Argentina, where it thrives.
The wine comes from a single 50-year-old vineyard in Saint Julien de Chedon grown by Jean-François Merieau, and has a funky nose that is quite startling at first – think strong goat’s cheese or preserved tofu. But it opens up to deliver a profound experience of black and red fruits. My only complaint was the way its memory faded soon after swallowing, but one whiff of the empty glass soon had me searching for the bottle.
Next time you buy French wine, look for the Loire region. You might be very pleasantly surprised.
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