Rollin’ on the River: Loire Wines

I’ve just enjoyed eight days of lazily cruising up and down the Loire between its mouth at St. Nazaire and Bouchemaine, the river’s farthest navigable point for a vessel the size of our paddlewheeler, MS Loire Princesse. In wine terms, that’s a journey through the winebibbing home of Rabelais. We journeyed upriver, into the heart of vinous lightness – from the land of the Melon de Bourgogne, which makes Muscadet, and into the realm of the red Cabernet franc and the white Chenin blanc. These, usually alone but sometimes with other grapes, make a whole range of light to medium-bodied wines, mostly named for the places they’re grown – Bourgueil, Chinon, Saumur, Vouvray, etc.
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This was not, however, a wine trip. It was a vacation. I had promised my Long-Suffering Spouse no wine tastings, no vineyard visits, a complete break from all that. I hadn’t promised not to drink wine, however, an activity LSS heartily approves of, so we enjoyed the Loire Princesse’s plenty throughout our long sunny days and protracted evenings on board. I hadn’t really registered how far north the Loire lies: Daylight lasted until around 10 pm every day.

Now, the Loire Princesse isn’t one of those floating apartment buildings that ply the Med or the Caribbean: It’s a small – 90 passengers – shallow-draft sidewheeler specially designed to navigate the difficult waters of the Loire, which is often wide and shallow, with multiple channels, all prone to flooding at some seasons and going almost dry at others.
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So the ship doesn’t have huge storage space, and its wine offerings were consequently distinctly limited. They were, however, reflective of the region we were sailing through, and the simpler ones were included in the basic trip amenities and always generously poured. Some better labels were available for purchase at very reasonable prices. Moreover, they matched very well with the cuisine of the cruise. Best of all, in the true Rabelaisian spirit, they were enjoyable wines in themselves and very efficient reminders of the affability and adaptability of Loire wines.

I confess that I often forget about Loire wines. That is really unfortunate, because they are, by and large, genuinely enjoyable and very affordable. There are only a handful of really great ones, but there is an abundance of delightful wines that tend to get lost in the frantic search for Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator 90-pointers. Most days, with most meals, I would much rather drink a superior Chinon for $30 or less than an inferior Bordeaux for the same price or more.

The Muscadet appellation has several regional subdivisions. The one we most often encounter in the US is Muscadet Sèvres et Maine, which is what the Princesse was offering: 2015 Château Cassemichère Muscadet Sèvres et Maine sur lie. “Sur lie” means the wine was allowed to remain on its lees until bottling, a practice that gives normally lean Muscadet a bit of depth and roundness. The Cassemichere was a typical Muscadet, a light white wine with small citrus and mineral notes, very clean and fresh.
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There is a lot of Muscadet on the US market, and most of it is like this wine, simple and enjoyable but in no way distinguished. There are, however, a handful of outstanding Muscadets, either because of the character of their soil and microclimate or the care of their producers, or both. Some I have enjoyed include Domaine de la Pepière, Domaine de l‘Ecu, Bregeon, and Louvetrie. Bear Muscadet in mind the next time you’re serving any shellfish: It’s usually inexpensive, and the crustaceans and the wine seem to love each other.

The Muscadet zone is very consumer-friendly: There is essentially one appellation and one grape variety. The red wine zone of the middle Loire, upstream from Nantes and the Muscadet country, is only a little more complicated. There are several appellations, but just one dominant variety, Cabernet franc. Forget anything you may know about this grape from its appearances in Bordeaux: the Cabernet franc of the Loire is a completely different animal – softer, fruitier, with more enlivening acidity and fewer abrasive tannins. In very good harvests it can age for a decade or more, but most years it makes a much more accessible wine to drink relatively young. Loire reds show elegance and gentleness more than power or depth: They are for me perfect summertime red wines, companionable with all sorts of food, intensely satisfying and accessible, never confrontational. If you’ve forgotten that a red wine doesn’t have to be up in your face to be impressive, you need to try some Loire reds.

The main appellations for them are Bourgueil, Chinon, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, and Saumur. Of these my favorite tends to be Chinon, which I find slightly more elegant, slightly more intensely varietal, and slightly more age-worthy. On shipboard, we drank 2015 Domaine Olivier Bourgueil, 2014 Clos de Perou Saumur Champigny, and 2015 Clos de la Lysardière Chinon.
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I grew quite fond of the Chinon, which had delightful fresh fruit and enough depth to match well with the chef’s fondness for wild mushrooms and complex sauces. Other good Chinon producers include Domaine Couly-Dutheil and Domaine Philippe Alliet.

The Loire Princesse didn’t stock any Vouvray, which disappointed me, because this charming white wine, vinified from the Chenin blanc grape in the middle Loire, in its driest forms makes an excellent dinner wine. I can recommend Domaine Huet and Domaine des Aubusières and the Cuvee Silex of Vigneau-Chevreau.
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All in all, the valley of the Loire remains still what it was for Rabelais, a soft and pleasant land teeming with palatal pleasures. It served as a healthy reminder to this wine journalist that a wine doesn’t have to be profound to be estimable or powerful to be enjoyable. I hope all your vacations are as delightful as mine was.

Next post: France’s least known great white wine.

6 Responses to “Rollin’ on the River: Loire Wines”

  1. Christopher Says:

    My wine group just did a set of Cabernet franc wines last week! Chinon, Saumur, California and Argentina were all represented.

    🙂

  2. Jennifer Lee Says:

    Tom, another great post for wine civilians. I shall take it to my local (state) wine store and actually expect to find some of the wines you describe there. Thank you. Jennifer

  3. Jonathan Levine Says:

    I too enjoy Loire and tend to “forget” them. Nice article.

  4. John Cunningham Says:

    Thanks Tom. Sounds like you had a delightful vacation. Looking forward to your next article. Take care

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