Loire Valley
If you were planning a dinner party and wanted to feature all of the wines of one region, the Loire Valley would work beautifully. This long stretch of vineyards, from the icy cold Pays Nantais at the mouth of the Atlantic to the warm central vineyards of the interior, produces a selection of wines for every course. The Loire Valley, known locally as the garden of France, is the only region that produces such a spectrum of fine wines. This range includes dry and off dry sparkling wines; bracing, vibrant whites; rich and bone dry whites; off dry to luxuriantly sweet whites; and a wide range of reds. The main wine growing regions follow the banks of the river Loire from its origin in the Cévenne Mountains out to the chilly Atlantic Ocean. The region boasts of sixty AOC’s!

The wines of the Loire valley have not ignited the passions of U.S. wine drinkers or critics in recent years. Although the Loire produces red wines, it is whites wines that are the mainstay. It would seem that the Chardonnay, Cabernet, Syrah, and Merlot varietal bandwagon that has propelled the interest of U.S. drinkers has largely passed the Loire by. Maybe it is the lack of toasty, barrel fermented, weighty wines or the fact that the flavors of Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc, the two most important grape varieties in the Loire, can be more varietally forceful. Regardless, consumers who want to really discover a true expression of either of the aforementioned grape varieties should get to grips with the wines of the Loire. Having done so, the ripe, oaky manifestations of Sauvignon Blanc or other whites may never have the quite the same appeal again.

Facing each other on opposite sides of the river Loire, Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre produce the classic styles of Sauvignon Blanc in the Loire, though a host of other appellations, such as Menetou-Salon and Touraine, also use the grape variety. In a good vintage, the best Loire Sauvignons show brilliant yellow straw hues and exhibit classic herbaceous 'black currant' leaf and sub-tropical fruit aromas. In less ripe vintages Loire Sauvignon can take on a sweaty, 'wet wool' character, which is not utterly pejorative unless it is overwhelming. With very few exceptions, new oak is not a factor in making these wines, and Loire Sauvignons should not be aged more than a year or two before their lively fruits and acids are dulled.

Chenin Blanc is greatly under-appreciated in the United States as a high-quality wine grape. However, it unquestionably makes the Loire's finest wines of both the dry and sweet variety, south of the river at Angers in the appellations of Savennières and Coteaux du Layon. Anjou Blanc, copiously produced, though rarely seen in the United States, is also produced from Chenin Blanc. When pushed to its full ripeness by top producers, Chenin produces stunningly rich, concentrated dry wines that can age for upwards of a decade, becoming deep, honeyed, and earthy, in the manner of a mature Savennières.

In a couple of vintages per decade, typically, outstanding dessert wines are produced from grapes afflicted with noble rot. Such wines can last for many decades. The principal sweet wine appellations (in routine vintages they produce dry and demi-sec wines) are Vouvray, Bonnezeaux, and Coteaux du Layon. Fully sweet dessert styles from these appellations carry the word Moelleux (sweet) on the label.

Despite its northerly location, the Loire has pockets of vineyards that can ripen red grape varieties. The grape of favor is the early ripening minor Médoc variety, Cabernet Franc, although a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon is also planted. The latter is a difficult proposition to ripen in all but the most exceptional years. Loire reds are of an herbaceous nature and often display crisp acids, vegetal overtones, and tart fruit flavors that can stop the regular consumer of ripe, fruity New World wines dead in their tracks. The weightiest of these wines come from the appellations of Bourgueil and Chinon, located to the west of Tours. Bourgueil can be lean and tough, though richer and cellar-worthy in exceptional vintages. Neighboring Chinon generally produces wines of more finesse, often of the lighter, raspberry-fruited nature, though in exceptional vintages dense, cellar-worthy wines are made. Often the most silky and raspberry scented reds of all come from the vineyards around the picturesque town of Saumur, and carry the appellation of Saumur-Champigny.

The Loire is, or certainly was, famous for its off-dry rose from Anjou, Rose d'Anjou, which is made from Cabernet Franc. This style of rose has fallen out of fashion among contemporary drinkers, though good examples are still delightful and fruity. Bad examples, unfortunately, are all-too-common.

Muscadet is one of the few appellations that carry the name of the grape cultivated within its boundaries. The Muscadet grape is also known by the synonym Melon de Bourgogne. The Pays Nantais region from which it comes produces a vast amount of cheap, acidic white wine destined for local consumption. The best wines, and generally the only ones exported to the United States come from the strip of land between the Loire tributaries of Sèvre-Nantaise and Maine, and it is called Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine. Look for the words 'Sur Lie' on the label, indicating that the wine has been aged on its lees, giving it some extra yeasty character. With very few exceptions Muscadet does not age well and is best drunk in its youth, with its natural partner, shellfish. (Wine/Appellations)