Archive for the ‘Loire’ Category

France’s Least Known Great White Wine

July 6, 2017

Unique is probably the most overworked word in the whole wine lexicon, but if there is any wine it really fits, that’s Savennières. If you don’t know this Loire rarity, it’s time you made its acquaintance. This is an intriguingly paradoxical wine: both austere and opulent, with a set of aromas and flavors that instantly separate it from all the Chardonnay- and Sauvignon-based white wines you’ve ever tasted. Those flavors grow more intense and more distinctive as it ages, and it is a white wine that can age very long indeed.

I had promised Long-Suffering Spouse no wine visits on our Loire vacation, but one of our shore excursions included one. Ironically, we went off to this visit not even expecting it: The description of the morning’s attractions didn’t mention what for us turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip, a visit to the Domaine du Closel/Chateau des Vaults, a premier estate in the tiny Savennières appellation.

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The Savennieres zones lies just southwest of Angers, on the north bank of the Loire – one of the most precarious places in France to grow grapes. Most of the zone is hilly, affording lovely views of the Loire valley from the tops of the vineyards, the best of which lie on south-facing slopes about 100 meters above the river. It’s the soils that give Savennières its character. At Domaine du Closel, for instance, the best sites have a thin layer of topsoil over bedrock of slate and quartz, which forces the vines to send their roots very deep into cracks and runnels seeking nourishment. That kind of stress can make great wines, and in Savennières it does so quite often.

Evelyne de Pontbriand, the proprietor and winemaker at Domaine du Closel, walked us up the steep slopes to view the vineyards. These immediately adjoin those of Nicolas Joly, for some years now the most famous name in Savennières. It was breezy up there, and the vines grew fairly close to the ground – not more than two-and-a-half to three feet tall, as I recall.

A biodynamic grower, Mme. de Pontbriand in her brochure describes her soils in loving detail: “They are shallow, very warm and consist of purple and green schist, purple sandstone enriched with volcanic rocks (quartz, phtanites and organic matter).” I’ve visited many vineyards, and I can vouch that that qualifies as a very complex bed for vines.

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I should say vine, not vines: In Savennières, there is only one: Chenin blanc. This is not a variety highly regarded in most of the wine world, but on the banks of the Loire – most usually the south bank, I grant you – it yields lovely wines, ranging from dry and charming to sweet and magnificent. Most of those come under the Vouvray appellation. Savennières forms Chenin blanc’s greatest dry expression, a wine of tremendous complexity and great aging potential. I have been lucky enough to drink a few twenty-year-olds that still live in my memory for their vibrancy and depth.

The tasting that Mme. de Pontbriand provided after the vineyard tour didn’t extend to older wines, unfortunately, but it did include all three of her bottlings:

La Jalousie 2014, her base wine, a relatively early-harvested (to preserve the fruit and acidity) wine with a greenish-gold hue, dry and light with a touch of elegance. This shows a muted version of Savennières’ distinctive flavor spectrum. It is a drink-every-day wine, with – Mme. de Pontbriand insists – an extraordinary aptitude to marry with asparagus and artichokes, which certainly shows just how different a white wine this is.

Les Caillardières 2013, a wine of deeper gold coloration and deeper aromas and flavors. I sniffed pears and baked apples and mineral notes, with similar elements emerging on the palate. Already somewhat complex and elegant, this wine seemed to want a few more years to develop further.

Clos du Papillon 2015, the top cru, which Mme. de Pontbriand regards as “one of the most beautiful expressions of Savennières.” I won’t argue with that: Even this young, I found it very elegant and complex, with unduplicatable floral and vegetal aromas and flavors – almonds and apricots, lemons and nuts and flint – a whole potpourri. De Pontbriand says “The Clos du Papillon is harvested in two selections: The first selection during the « fresh fruit aroma » period and the second one later with some botrytis during the « cooked fruit, quince and smoked aromas » period. Both selections are put in barrels and assembled 16 months later. The wine then remains a few months in vats.”

We purchased two bottles of the 2006 Clos du Papillon on the spot, and last week opened one to accompany a dinner of turbot in the sauce beurre blanc that the Loire had failed to give us. The wine was so good that I seriously regret not throwing away half our clothes and filling the suitcase with bottles of it.

It tasted indefinably spicy on the palate – woodruff and star anise, maybe – with a vigorous herbal/vegetal attack and with minerals present but secondary; a wine totally different from the Chablis one might be tempted to compare it to. It had clay and earth aromas in there too, but not stone, and as it warmed, dry honey came up, even distinctly acacia honey; I think that’s the touch of botrytis speaking. It was a very big wine, but not at all fat: the finish in fact was very long and lean. As I said at the start, Savennières is paradoxically austere and opulent, and this bottle fit that description perfectly. I plan to get more of it, and hope to live long enough to drink it when it matures.

Rollin’ on the River: Loire Wines

June 26, 2017

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.

Celebrations of the Everyday: II – Muscadet

March 20, 2014

A few weeks back I wrote a post about Chianti Classico, the first of several pieces intended to celebrate wines that are friendly, adaptable, reliable, and pleasurable, even though of less prestige, less pressure, and less price than the stratospheric level of great ones. Now I will nominate for membership in the Cheerful Confraternity of Amiable Wines (CCAW, pronounced ca-CAW, like a fish crow summoning his flock to a beach party) a vastly underappreciated white wine, Muscadet.

Muscadets can be, and these days often are, very lovely wines, and they are rarely costly, but nevertheless they don’t get much respect. Maybe it’s because the name is too easy to mispronounce (I once, eons ago, actually heard someone order a “mouse cadet,” as if Walt Disney ran a training school) or maybe it’s because, in the ‘70s, the wine was overproduced, uninteresting, and ubiquitous on French wine lists (and back then that meant 90% of all restaurants that had wine lists).

Whatever: All that is long past, and the Muscadets coming to this country now are a pretty nice crop of wines – still ideal with oysters, as their long-standing reputation has it, but fine too as aperitifs or as dinner companions with any seafood. The best bottles have heft and character to go well beyond that; they pair comfortably with chicken, veal, pork – with white meat dishes generally, unless they are very richly sauced. So Muscadet these days is a wine enjoyable to drink in many circumstances, versatile with many foods, undemanding of attention but rewarding should you choose to give it – in short, an ideal candidate for CCAW.

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No one is quite sure where the name Muscadet came from. The one thing certain about it is that the grape has nothing whatever to do with Muscat. In fact, though the grape is sometimes referred to as Muscadet, its real name is Melon de Bourgogne, though Burgundy is not believed to be where it originated. We do know that it was several times banned there, because various Dukes of Burgundy put their power behind Chardonnay and Pinot noir. (No one has ever faulted them for that.)

Wherever Melon de Bourgogne – the Melon of Burgundy! what an undignified name for a wine grape! – originally came from, it eventually wound up at the mouth of the Loire, and upstream as far as around the city of Nantes. From that stretch of hills all the best Muscadet now originates. There, with a climate somewhat moderated by the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel, the peripatetic Melon settled in on lean, stony soils to make wines that drank beautifully with the bountiful seafood so close by. Like people, grapes have to find their right place, and the hills near Nantes and the sea let Melon de Bourgogne find its vocation.

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These days, more and more growers are working hard to let the grape express its best nature, carefully choosing the sites on which to grow it, fermenting and aging it sur lie – on the yeast lees – to give it greater roundness, controlling yields very tightly to get more concentration. Their labor has paid off: Muscadet now is, at its least, a very pleasant wine to drink young and fresh, and at its best a distinctive, mineral-inflected wine with a moderate complexity and a moderate capacity to age.

Bear in mind too that with Muscadet, “mineral” covers a multitude of flavors. Exact science types point out – rightly – that we can’t taste “mineral,” but I know that I taste in various Muscadets elements that to my palate say slate, or chalk, or limestone, even oyster shell. Muscadets vary too in the foregrounding or backgrounding of their fruit (usually lemon or lime, occasionally white fruits). What this means for the consumer is that there are many styles of Muscadet to choose from – and since Muscadet is inexpensive – sometimes as little as $10, very rarely up to $30 – you can afford to try several bottles to find a style you like.

Here are a few of the many available I’ve been enjoying lately:

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Cormerais, Clisson 2008
Old vines and lean soil yield a classic round, full (for a Muscadet) food wine, surprisingly fresh and vigorous for its age. This one very pleasantly surprised me. It would be worth cellaring some of these for a decade, just to see how they develop.

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Domaine de l’Ecu, Cuvée Classique 2011, Expression de Gneiss 2011, Expression de Granite 2011
Grower Guy Bossard names some of his wines for the kinds of soil they grow in. The Classique is a blend of several vineyards, meant for drinking young. The other two are from the named soils and are a bit more austere – mineral-structured rather than fruit-driven – and can take a little bottle age. Very different from each other, and all very good drinking.

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Domaine de la Louvetrie, Amphibolite Nature 2012
Totally dry, lean and fruity – slightly citrusy – with the mineral notes well in the background. Excellent aperitif wine and good accompaniment to light hors d’oeuvres and appetizers.

Domaine de la Pepière, Muscadet 2012
This is what I think of as classic Muscadet, dry and mineral-driven, with white fruit notes throughout. This is also Pepière’s basic Muscadet: the estate makes several others (for example, “3” and Chateau Thebaud Clos Morines), of increasing degrees of complexity and/or intensity. I haven’t yet had one I didn’t like.

Luneau-Papin, Pierre de la Grange 2011, Clos des Allées 2012
Both wines are from old vines and show intense minerality and a slight lemony character. Pleasant drinking now and structured to take some age.

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As I said at the beginning of this post, Muscadet has had a checkered history in this country. From the ‘50s to the ‘70s, when most wine in America spoke French, Muscadet was everywhere. It was simple, it was inexpensive, and it was almost obligatory with oysters or clams on the half shell. Then, as with so many simple, enjoyable white wines, its popularity undid it. Production rose to meet demand, and that meant overcropping and cultivating unsuitable sites in order to pour more and more wine into circulation. Inevitably, as quality fell, Muscadet’s market died, and for a decade or two the wine virtually disappeared from retail shops and restaurant lists.

Since the turn of the millennium, Muscadet has been making a comeback, both in its production and on the market. Intermittently, attention has started being paid. A few years back, for instance, Eric Asimov wrote a nice article for the New York Times about the pleasures of Muscadet that caused a momentary flurry of interest, but few other journalists followed through, and enthusiasm for Muscadet has really stayed at a low-ish, just-above-cult level for a while now. I don’t expect my purple prose will change that, but at least I’d like to cast my vote for it. Muscadet is an amiable wine if there ever was one.

Hot-Weather Red Wines

August 15, 2013

Nowhere is it carved in stone that you must drink white wines or rosé all summer long. Not that that’s bad, mind you: I’ve had some lovely whites and enjoyable rosés so far this tarmac-melting season. But I can only go so long before my system requires red wine. The first signs of my withdrawal symptoms are usually quickening of the pulse at casual mentions of, say, Beaujolais, followed at the next stage by scent hallucinations: I keep thinking I smell Gragnano or Freisa. When that starts happening, Attention Must Be Paid.

Maresca family legend has it that this addiction was formed in my earliest childhood, when my Neapolitan grandfather – the man whose youthful moustache style still adorns my upper lip – fed me slices of peaches that he had cut up and soaked in his glass of cellar-cool red wine.

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Grandmother and Grandfather Maresca in their  Vegetable Garden

Maresca Grandparents in their Vegetable Garden

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The most extreme forms of the story have me still in my highchair, which became a high chair indeed as I imbibed those wine-soaked peaches. I barely remember any of this, but I still enjoy peaches in wine. My grandfather’s wine was, I am sure, homemade stuff from the-cousins-down-on-the-farm, but peaches and I are adaptable: We’ll both work with just about any fresh, fruity red wine.

The easiest recourse, of course, is Beaujolais. It’s available everywhere, and there are many good producers. In a pinch, I can even drink some of Georges Duboeuf’s better cru bottlings. His Julienas and Fleurie and Regnié seem to have a more modest touch of the banana-oil scent so prominent elsewhere in his line, which many years ago led some less-reverent wine journalists to refer to him as Georges Du Banane. Duboeuf has the advantage of availability: His wines are sold almost everywhere. NB: For peach-soaking purposes, his simple Beaujolais Villages works best.

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But for savoring purposes, there are many excellent smaller Beaujolais producers whose wines are worth seeking out. Two of my favorites are Jean Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées and Coudert’s Clos de la Roilette. The latter’s Fleurie and Christal and the former’s Morgon, Fleurie, and Chénas are among my all-time top Beaujolais.

In the US, Chénas is probably the least-known of the Beaujolais crus, but it’s one of my favorites for its intense individuality – and its surprisingly ability to age. In France, I have drunk 10- and 15-year-olds that were just lovely, almost Burgundian in their velvetiness and complexity. Moulin-à-vent is the cru that is best known here for its cellaring potential, but Morgon shouldn’t be overlooked in that regard either. Remember, it’s acidity that keeps a wine alive, and all Beaujolais have an abundance of that.

Some Loire reds also serve very well in summer, since their soft fruit – Cabernet franc – makes them tolerant of a little chilling, in the manner of Beaujolais. Don’t ice them to death, but serve a good Saumur or Bourgueil at a true cellar temperature, around 50 to 55 degrees, and you can enjoy them in the steamiest of Julys and Augusts. I haven’t actually tried slicing peaches into any of these, but I see no reason why the combination shouldn’t taste fine. In the old days – which are getting more and more distant all the time – when red wines normally ran about 12 or 12.5 degrees of alcohol, you could even enjoy St. Emilion or Gigondas served cool on a hot summer evening, but today’s higher-alcohol wines don’t respond well to such treatment, and would probably overwhelm a humble peach – alas.

More recondite choices come from Italy: harder to find, perhaps, but worth the effort. Bardolino is a reviving appellation that deserves more attention than it gets. The best of them combine the kind of light, fresh fruit and vivacious acidity that make an excellent warm-weather dinner drink and companion to fish, white flesh, or salume or pastas – a very useful, almost-all-purpose wine, and certainly suitable for soaking a few peaches.

Gragnano – a personal favorite, and probably close to the kind of wine my grandfather first dunked his peaches in as a young man in Italy – makes the perfect pizza or pasta summer wine. Grown in the Sorrento peninsula, it was once the ubiquitous everyday red wine of Naples, where I’m sure it still cradles many a peach slice after lunch and dinner. Several good growers – Grotta del Sole, Federiciane, and Monteleone for example – are now reviving the breed. Gragano is vinified from a blend of Piedirosso, Aglianico, and Sciascinoso, the latter a very localized, very Campanian variety.

Sicily, as you might expect, offers some lovely warm weather reds, most notably Frappato and Cerasuolo di Vittoria. The latter should not be confused with the Marche’s Cerasuolo, an entirely different wine from an entirely different grape. The principal variety in both Sicilian wines is the indigenous Frappato, which makes a charming, light-bodied and light-cherry-colored wine under both denominations. Both are delightful hot-weather drinking and worth some effort to find.

Back in the north, in addition to the big, austere Nebbiolo wines, the fields around Alba also produce Freisa and Grigolino, two wines that have lost ground – in the most literal sense – to the growth of Barolo and Barbaresco. Freisa and Grignolino are almost polar opposites of those two wines: both are lighter-bodied, acidic, and sprightly – indeed, you often find slightly fizzy examples. Freisa smells and tastes like a strawberry/raspberry cocktail with an underlayer of tar (we are in the Piedmont after all), while Grignolino is the grittier, earthier, seemingly more rustic wine of the two. Pio Cesare makes a lovely example of it, and several good small growers have remained loyal to/are turning back to Freisa. Both make great companions to a summer lunch or dinner, and both take a little chilling without losing anything – in fact, a slight chill seems to me to better release their aromas.

So there are lots of wines to choose from, and you have no excuse to give up red wine because of the weather. Get busy peeling and slicing those peaches!

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