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Serving Up the Loire: Sommeliers Delve Beyond Sauvignon Blanc

Posted on  | May 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Even the most widely planted grapes of the Loire Valley—Melon de Bourgogne and Chenin Blanc among whites, Cabernet Franc for reds—have only a vaguely familiar ring for most Americans. Next come the truly obscure, like Folle-Blanche and Romorantin, Pineau d’Aunis and Grolleau. Sauvignon Blanc is probably the Loire’s most recognized variety, however it accounts for only 22% of white grapes. The eclectic nature of the Loire Valley, with over a dozen grapes contributing to red, white, rosé and sparkling, ranging from dry to sweet spreading across 65 appellations, is precisely why you should consider adding these wines to your wine list. With so many incomparable offerings, the Loire Valley is often able to fill a niche that no other wine region can do.

According to the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, wines of the Loire Valley are the most popular wines in French restaurants, where about 26% of production is consumed. Another 20% remain for export, however, and savvy sommeliers are finding that U.S. restaurants might be an equally fertile market.

The Ultimate Seafood Wine
Like many seafood restaurants, Boston’s Island Creek Oyster Bar is a natural fit for the Loire Valley, the region’s mineral-driven whites a perfect complement to the local Island Creek Oysters that are the restaurant’s namesake. “From a white wine context, Muscadet, Vouvray and Sancerre all have good name recognition, but the food is the primary reason for including these wines,” says Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli, general manager and acting wine director.

There is no Loire Valley section on the one-sheet wine list at Island Creek Oyster Bar, with its preponderance of white and sparkling wines. Rather, about 100 wines are organized by flavor profile, whether “Stone, Rocks + Flowers” or “Genuine Luster.” “The idea is that if you took the labels off the bottles, how would the wines present their core values and distinctive flavors?” explains Schlesinger-Guidelli.

True to form for the region, Loire wines are scattered throughout the list. Even wines from the same AOC, like the Chenin Blanc-based whites of Vouvray and Savennières, in particular, appear in multiples sections, testament to the incredible versatility of the Chenin Blanc grape. “Two Vouvrays can be dramatically different. Because of how the Loire River flows, there can be these little pockets of great richness and extraction along the way,” says Schlesinger-Guidelli of the 300-mile stretch of vineyards reaching from central France to the Atlantic Ocean.

Thankfully, one common theme of this diverse region is value. From the largest and most prolific Loire region of Muscadet, producing 600,000 hl of wine annually, Island Creek offers Michel Delhommeau ‘Cuvée Harmonie’ Muscadet Sèvre et Maine 2009 to top producer wines like Francois Chidaine ‘Les Argiles’ Vouvray.

Grape vs. Region
According to Cyril R. Frechier, wine director at Campagne Restaurant & Café Campagne in Seattle, the diversity of Loire Valley wines can demand a different approach for introducing each wine. “With Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Quincy, we need only say Sauvignon Blanc, because people can relate to that grape. With Vouvray we go the opposite direction, because the appellation has good recognition, but Chenin Blanc does not. With Gamay, I might refer to a familiar AOC, Beaujolais, as a starting point,” says Frechier of his multi-pronged approach.

After finding some common ground, Frechier makes Loire wines especially appealing to explore by offering many affordable selections by the glass (6 oz.) or taste (3 oz.), such as a Coteaux de la Loire Muscadet les Grandes Vignes 2009 or Domaine de Vaugondy Vouvray Sec 2009 to accompany a few oysters.

By organizing all bottles by grape variety, Frechier does a service to even lesser known Loire Valley AOCs, allowing Pouilly-Fumé to cavort with white Bordeaux, and Jasniéres to tag along with Vouvray. In utilizing red wines of the Loire, Frechier exudes enthusiasm for the region’s Cabernet Franc: “I find Cabernet Franc is very consumer-friendly. It hits all the bells and whistles of a great by-the-glass pour, which means it is drinkable young, with moderate tannins and warm-toned fruit flavors that people really enjoy.”

Beyond White Wine
Both Cabernet Sauvignon, with its similar name and some common flavors, and Pinot Noir, with its medium body and high acidity, are excellent entry avenues to Loire Cabernet Franc for Frechier. “Many people know what color wine they are going to drink when they arrive, but not exactly the wine. So with our almond trout I can steer toward a young Chinon, which works well with all its fresh primary fruit,” says Frechier.

Amanda Reade Sturgeon, wine director at Dovetail on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, echoes the sentiment for Loire reds on restaurant lists. “The Loire is better-known for its whites, but I am just charmed by the dark, earthiness of the reds, like the Cheverny wines from Pinot Noir and Gamay. Because these Loire reds are overlooked you can spend $50 and get a great bottle of wine,” says Sturgeon. Sturgeon is also a fan of the region’s white wines, offering both a basic Domaine de la Tourmaline Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, “Sur Lie” 2009 as well as cult favorite Nicolas Joly Le Clos Sacrés “Savennières” 2007
by the glass.

In introducing a versatile Loire white to your list, Sturgeon suggests looking to Vouvray for its excellent availability, while also issuing some caveats on education. “There is a lot of confusion surrounding Vouvray because of the wide range of sweetness levels. We have a lot of problems with people who do not expect them to be sweet. I now list ‘off-dry’ behind the appropriate Vouvray, which helps, but we still have people who insist it is unexpectedly sweet,” adds Sturgeon, noting that a touch of sweetness makes these wines excellent with dishes that include a degree of tartness, or rich ingredients like foie gras.

If there is a challenge to Loire wines, beyond the region’s refusal to be easily defined, it’s that many producers are small and sourcing wines can be difficult, especially from the smaller AOCs. “There is a lot to choose from in Muscadet, Sancerre and Chinon, but it can be challenging to locate the more unusual wines. I’ve been searching for a white Chinon forever,” says Sturgeon. Frechier appreciates the wines from Loire co-ops like Cave de Saumur, which offer large production and great value, while he looks for discriminating importers including Robert Kacher and Kermit Lynch for the best hand-picked portfolios. Loire Valley wine can appear diverse, both expansive
and elusive, and occasionally surprising—attributes that sommeliers and diners alike are coming to remember as the very reasons they began to love wine in the first place.


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