[“Why are we here?” is too complicated a question. Let’s just start with, “What should we drink?”]
In a conversation with a wino (err…I mean, sommelier) friend of mine we engaged in the age-old question, “If you could only drink wine from one region in the entire world for the rest of your life, which region would it be?” Over a bottle of something delicious she and I debated amongst choosing the usual suspects:
The joyous Champagne (my first thought)
The spiritual Burgundy (her first thought)
The strapping Rhone Valley (Robert Parker’s first thought)
The wealth of Bordeaux (the Chinese Wine Market’s first thought)
The aromatic kingdom of Alsace (my last wine induced hangover)
The pixie dust-infused Mosel (Tinkerbell blessed this magical slate)
The muscular Rheingau (I want a castle on the river)
The precise Wachau (“TAKE ME TO YOUR LEaDERHOSEN”)
The incomparable Piedmont (flowers and tar taste good together?)
The fabelled Tuscany (you & your sun-drenched rolling hills & beauty)
The barrel-friendly Rioja (well, if Franco kept you around…)
The singularity of Sherry (most hated greatest wine of the world)
The depths of Madeira (world’s best island wine, period!)
….and on and on, and on and on.
But as we continued down the line, there was a nagging feeling that once we chose one of these places we were essentially choosing to drink a very specific style of wine. And since the question regarded pigeon-holing ourselves to one region for eternity, we might want to think about a region that produced a broad range of wine styles. Which, of course, brought us directly (without passing “Go”; without collecting $200) to bringing the Loire Valley towards the top of the list. ”But why?”, you may ask…
[Textbook Info: The Loire Valley is divided into 4 sub-zones: from West to East, The Atlantic-exposed NANTES (Muscadet), ANJOU/SAUMUR (Savennieres, Coteaux du Layon, Quart de Chaumes, Saumur-Champigny), TOURAINE (Chinon, Bourgueil, Vouvray, Montlouis Sur Loire, Cheverny), and CENTRE (Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon)]
…You see, the Loire Valley is home to the sea-salty whites from Muscadet, the earthy, red Cabernet Francs of Chinon, the immensely popular Sauvignon Blancs of Sancerre, and the wide array of wine styles from Chenin Blanc (made in versions light, medium, & full; dry, sweet, and bubbly) of Vouvray. The more we debated the question, the more we decided that it was important to preserve our ability to experience the widest possible array of wine styles. It was at this moment, when we determined that variety was the key factor in our decision-making process, that the Loire felt like the most likely…nay, the obvious, choice.
This is not even to mention that some of the most creative, outside-the-box and straight-from-the-heart winemaking in France is happening here. If organic, biodynamic, or sustainably worked land is important to you, the Loire Valley is your dream region. Cooler climates and well ventilated vineyards along the river valley are helpful to keep rot & mildew at arms length. This allows winemakers the option to use little-to-no chemicals on their land if they choose to work this way.
[Loire is a safe haven of Biodynamic Agriculture which is thought by many to be “trippier” than Burning Man] (Photo Credit: Frederic Larson for the SF Chronicle)
A significant group of winemakers also choose to use frugal (little to none) amounts of sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the wine itself. SO2 is synonymous with the dreaded “sulfites” contained in wine, long debated as a possible source of headaches & hangovers for many-a-wine enthusiast. Lower levels of SO2 (one of many steps towards less manipulated wine) is thought by some to bring more honesty to the finished wine. Though it should be noted that making wine without the help of any addition of SO2 is not an easy task. Those who do it well are responsible for stunning wine, simply put. However there are others who are not as adept at making wine this way and have given a bad name to the movement in the eyes of the critics.
These critics of winemakers working sans SO2 find this practice to be faulty. They cite the fact that its use is a proven method in modern winemaking that stabilizes wine and is necessary for preserving wine for long-term aging. Furthermore, they believe that without SO2 the finished wine is inconsistent and often flawed. I’ve had my fair share of wines that fall into this category, and were sold to me under the guise of “naturally made wine.” But they are simply copycats who have not put in the time to learn what’s necessary to make their wine. This method of winemaking is not necessarily for everyone. A fact often overlooked by many.
But the brilliant winemaking minds of the Loire (a few listed below) might say “tomAYto" to the nay-sayers "tomAHto”. Working symbiotically with the principals of the natural world is an endeavor that’s more important to them than simply extracting what they need from their land. They have devoted their time & efforts to figuring out how to make stunning wine without industrial chemical treatments throughout the growing season nor in the winemaking process. And for this they should be applauded. No critic can argue with that.
Nicolas Joly (Savennieres) — the Godfather of Biodynamics,
Jo Landron (Muscadet) — Muscadet royalty with the best mustache ever,
Olivier Cousin (Anjou) — rebel winemaker threatened with jail time for his punk rock attitude and poor labeling choices (read about his AOC wine debacle here),
Bernard Baudry (Chinon) — could there be a better Cab Franc producer in the world?,
Focault Bros. (Saumur-Champigny) — the wines of Clos Rougeard might get you pregnant,
Phillippe Foreau (Vouvray) — it’s disgusting how delicious & pure his wines taste,
…and on and on, and on and on.
[Jo Landron, joined by his mustache]
With all this in mind, any time there is a chance to taste the wines of the Loire there is absolutely no “arm-twisting” necessary to get me to show up. So when the focus turned to Vouvray [click here for Vouvray regional info], let’s just say that I got there early. Below are the tasting notes on a great line-up of whites showcasing the blue-blooded royalty of Chenin Blanc (100% of all Vouvray) from this blessed piece of earth.
There are 2 sides to Vouvray. The first is the “starlet" who is glamorous, refined, sultry, iconic, & ethereal (represented by the young Elizabeth Taylor). The other side is the "introvert" who is coy, elusive, mysterious, focused, & at times somewhat off-putting (represented by one eye, 4 well-manicured fingers, and a fashionably wrapped scarf). I used a 3rd image on wine #6 since the wine was not so easily categorized by either side. In any case, depending on your taste in women…err, I mean wine, both styles of “The Lady Vouvray” can be intoxicating.
A quick note: I reference wool, wooly, wooliness, wet wool, or wool socks quite a bit in my notes below. I’m using this in a positive way, especially since it often occurs when Chenin Blanc is the base grape of the wine. I know that it sounds like a strange thing if you are unfamiliar to it in wine and I suppose I could have used the term lanolin as a synonym for wool. But wool socks to me seems more familiar as well as comforting.
Full disclosure: I am not wearing wool socks right now.
Note: All ratings are out of a possible ★★★★ (read prior blog post for further explanation of The Cork Dork Rating Scale)
Wine #1: ★★3/4 — Huet ‘Le Mont’ Sec 2006 ($30)
Aromas of apricot, lemon, lime, & mint. Palate is savory with minerally, nutty, sesame seed notes, and a wooly (like a wool sock) character. Initially the overall style came across as a bit lean with a rather quiet finish, though it opened up later by a bit. That being said, I have a sneaky feeling that there is much more to this wine than what was in the glass today. I hope I can steal away a bottle in a few years to see its development. I feel like it has more to say.
Wine #2: ★★★ — Georges Brunet, Demi-Sec, 2001 ($25)
Aromas of ripe apricot, sticky peaches (noble rot), lime, mandarin orange, tree resin, and freshly popped fireworks (gunpowder). On the attack the fleshy/lush texture was loaded with a generous helping of fresh white peach. The flavors were notably fresher and brighter considering the sweet-stickiness of the aromatics. The finish was mild, gentle, and pleasantly nutty. Impressive.
Wine #3: ★★1/4 — Sébastien Brunet, Sec, 2009 ($20)
Textbook aromas of wet wool and a savory nuttiness — basically clean cut without much flair (not a bad thing). On the palate it had a lot more to talk about. Wooly, waxy, and hearty. It stung with mineral, citrus, and was loaded with acidity…though not aggressively so. Well composed. [Note: I have had Brunet’s wine called “Arpent”, also a Vouvray Sec, and it is still confusing if this is indeed the same wine, or something different]
Wine #4: ★★ — Chaussard ‘You Are So Fine’ Sec 2009 ($18)
Aromas densely packed with wool, green grapes, hint of something metallic, more wooliness, and dank basement (wet cement). Palate was harder to engage. Medium-bodied. I found more of the wool from the nose, but with more lemon citrus, and a leesy nuttiness. Contrary to the Brunet; Chassaurd was more talkative on the nose, and less-so on the palate. This wine is highly drinkable.
Wine #5 & 8: ★★ — Vincent Careme ‘Spring’ Sec 2007 ($24)
Two bottles of this wine (same vintage) were brought by two separate people. Even there I had two distinct impressions of the same wine, my overall score was the same in both cases. The first bottle was aromatically bright, flinty, very mineral heavy, and only minorly wooly. The second bottle on the nose was quiet, more wool, red apple skins, and a hint of savory spice. The first bottle on the palate was hearty in texture, but mild in flavor. Green grape skins, wool socks, lemon water. Not thrilling, I know. But the lingering finish tells me there is quality here. Perhaps just having a bad day? The second bottle on the palate was true to the nose; apple, zingy, rounder texture, wide mouthfeel, and an herbaceous spice. More expressive, though in a different way than the first bottle. So interesting to see the same wine twice. Goes to show you that there can be a significant amount a variation between bottles.
Wine #6: ★★3/4 — Jacky Blot ‘Domaine de la Taille Aux Loops’ Sec 2010 ($25)
This wine rocked. It was the only 2010 at the tasting and the first of this vintage I have tasted from Vouvray. It was fresh, vibrant, and though it says it spends time in 4-5 year-old oak barrels (which shouldn’t impart any distinct oak aromas/flavors) I felt there was a hint of barrel on this wine. The wine was light on its feet with flavors that were tangy, orange zested, (and…you guessed it) with fresh wool socks, that all was wrapped up by a minerally flavored and acid-fueled finish. The real beauty of this wine was the vibrancy of it. It’s a great cross between the two sides of Vouvray (part Starlet, part introvert). Highly delicious and a great value.
Wine #7: ★★★1/4 — Domaine du Viking ‘Cuvée Aurélie’ Demi-Sec, 1990 ($75)
I was sure that this wine was corked (if even only mildly) for the first hour it was open. Others in the group agreed, but the person who brought the wine to the table was sure that it was clean. It took a few hours, but finally any conceivable trace of off-aromas/flavors had vanished and left only a wine of great beauty and grace. Aromas were mostly apricot, peach and honey with traces of nuttiness and a gentle tangy funk. On the palate it was pure creme brulée (burnt sugar over cream), more apricot, and a gentle dose of honey. By the end of the evening, the finish on this wine was so long that it was dancing on my palate long enough for me to make it next door to the bar for a palate cleansing beer. A wine supreme…just needs a minute to open up. Or maybe a decant.
Wine #9: ★★★1/2 — Huet ‘Clos du Bourg’ Moelleux 1976 ($200)
Just when I thought the evening couldn’t get any better…it did. We didn’t taste this blind, since this was a bonus wine. The wine sat in the decanter for 10-ish minutes and as we stared at this brooding color that is normally reserved for thrice stained mahogany I knew it would not be long before it was ravaged by our eager bunch. Loaded with orange marmalade, peach skins, and baking spice on the nose. It was pristine on the palate, delicate on the attack, medium in body, and completely integrated. Full of flavor and gentle in every way. Best described as a wine that is as wise as its age. But this is where I stopped writing and started learning. Opportunities like this come only once in a while, and often at great expense. Having a tasting group can be advantageous for the ability to share both the moment and also the cost. No paper and pen, nor wasting time on analytical tasting would be appropriate for this wine. High praise.
Thanks for reading.