Barcelona Wine Tasting: The Loire Valley

With it being such an unseasonably warm Autumn, it made sense to explore a region better known for producing refreshing, crisp and often subtle wines, before the colder weather does finally creep in. So, we’re heading to one of the most famous cool climate wine regions in the world; The Loire Valley. The Loire Valley in France is named the countries most famous river, as well as being the third largest producing region in the country, sitting on more or less the same latitude as Burgundy but on the much cooler west coast. Today, with the exception of England’s growing wine industry, it is the furthest north-western limit of quality viticulture, remarkable in itself but particularly so when you consider the variety and breadth of wine here.

By the time the Romans had left France, viticulture was certainly well established here, surviving the invading Visigoth hordes and forging a reputation for quality wines over the next few centuries. By the 11th century AD, wines from the Loire were shipped across France and as far as England and Belgium. Today, it’s Paris that is most important to the Loire Valley wine trade, with a large percentage of wines here sold to Parisians visiting the region for the weekend. In fact, it’s surprisingly difficult to find wines outside of France with only a recent fashion-swing to lighter, more delicate wines helping to expose the regions of Chinon, Vouvray and co. to the broader wine drinking world.

Geographically, the Loire Valley is a long, meandering region so trying to be specific about the climate as a whole is difficult. However, regardless of where the vineyards are based, the style of wine is likely to be very different from anything in southern Europe, with both Winter and Spring frosts a very real danger. The closest region to the ocean, Muscadet, benefits from warming currents from The Gulf Stream, whereas further inland to continental Touraine and Sancerre, extreme weather patterns become more common.

Due to these changes in conditions and to a certain extent, soil types, the Loire Valley is likely the most diverse French wine producing region. A great deal of indigenous grape varieties are grown and vinified here, and in almost every style. The one over-riding stylistic similarity of the wines here is the freshness of the wines; whether it’s a lean, mean Cabernet Franc in a particularly cool year, or an unctuous sweet Vouvray, there’s a streak of acidity running through the wines that always seems to lift them up and makes them very food friendly.

As our tastings focus around 6 wines, the choice was difficult but by focusing on regions in all 3 major parts of the Loire, we were able to cover the more famous appellations and sneak an indigenous grape or two in for good measure as well! From the eternally unappreciated Muscadet, to Sancerre, Vouvray, Chinon, Bourgeil and a sneaky appearance from a little known grape that goes by Grolleau Noir, there’s something for everyone.

Domaine Landron Le Fief du Breil 2013
Muscadet-Sevre et Maine is the most significant appellation of Nantes, close to the mouth of the Loire. It’s here that you’ll find Domaine Landron, a small, biodynamic operation ran by Jo Landron, an effusive character and a big believer in single vineyard bottlings. Le Fief bu Breil is just that; a textured, salty white wine that’s spent 20 months ageing on its lees, giving it it’s weight and formidable ageing potential. Green apple and citrus fruits dominate on the nose, with a hint of sweet brioche, tarragon and wet stones. Fresh and softly textured, this is, to steal a phrase, ‘the little black dress’ of white wine. We’re drinking this at 4 years of age, but well made Muscadet has something of a cult following that prefers to wait for at least 10 years before opening their bottles, when the wine will have a more pronounced saline and nutty character.

Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2016
Sancerre is unquestionably the most famous appellation of the Loire Valley, particularly in the UK where it has become something of a benchmark for dry, white wine. Whilst some red wine is made, the vast majority is a crisp, mineral white wine made from Sauvignon Blanc grown on 3 differing soil types. Domaine Vacheron are probably the most famous producer in the region with over 47 hectares planted and a history dating back to the very beginning of the 20th century. Their Sancerre is archetypal; pale in colour but with real interest on the nose. Lime peel, green apples, gooseberries, nettles and a distinct, flinty note are married with a zesty acidity and a subtlety not often found in its New World counterparts. Best drank young and ideally, paired with some delicious goats cheese!

Huet Vouvray Clos de Bourg Demi-Sec 2010
Whilst Sancerre may be the most well known appellation of the Loire Valley, in Touraine it’s Vouvray that’s king. Fashioned in a variety of styles from Chenin Blanc, these are long-lived wines with a strong local following. The soil here, Tuffeau, defines the region and partly due to the drainage from these soils and the unique Atlantic-meets-continental climate here, harvests can last well into November. Huet is the standard bearer for the region, its reputation created by the tireless Gaston Huet and only recently changing hands due to his death in 2002. Clos de Bourg Demi-Sec is made from the oldest site in the appellation of Vouvray and has all the Chenin funk you could desire. A medium gold colour at 7 years of age, with pronounced aromas of ripe, dried orchard fruits, orange, quince and wet wool yet still full of vibrant acidity. Rich and delicious with a long, slightly sweet finish.

Domaine Andree Grolleau Noir 2013
Grolleau Noir is the indigenous variety I’m excited to present, created by Stephane Erisse of Saumur. Grolleau Noir is one of the grapes you read about in formal texts that are often disregarded as having limited potential, but as with everything in the wine world, there will be an exception. Domaine Andree is a tiny project of around 3 hectares, focusing on Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc and of course, Grolleau Noir. Pale in colour and very delicate on the nose; very Loire Valley in style! Fresh cherries and raspberries compete with subtle aromas of violets and rose petals, with a touch of something herbal and an earthy aroma underpinning it all. Fresh and surprisingly firm on the palate, this is really refreshing stuff. 12% alcohol and yet packs a punch, an excellent example of a well made varietal that so few vignerons give a chance!

Roches Neuves Franc du Pied 2012
To finish our tasting, another Cabernet Franc from neighbouring Saumur-Champigny, on the same side of the Loire as Chinon. Thierry Germain is the master-mind behind Roches Neuves, one of the most famous biodynamic estates in France, having learnt his trade at Clos Rougeard. ‘Franc du Pied’ is a young, vibrant expression of Cabernet Franc, the signature grape of his production, aged in large oak foudres for 10 months. A more delicate expression of Cabernet Franc, without any noticeable oak, with notes of ripe cherry and bramble, black pepper, toast, violets and green bell pepper, with a superb delineation between flavours. Structured and fresh with a long, clean finish.

Domaine Pallus Chinon 2012
So, to my favourite grape variety of the Loire Valley; Cabernet Franc. Grown throughout the region but predominantly in the centre around the regions of Chinon, Bourgeuil and Saumur, the cool, crunchy and herbal style of Cabernet Franc here has won many fans over the years. Chinon in particular has created a name for itself as a top quality appellation for age-worthy expressions of the grape, and Domaine Pallus as a high quality producer with huge potential. Their flagship wine, Grand Vin de Pallus, is a wonderful example of Cabernet Franc with ripe cherry aromas, light vanilla and toast, green bell pepper and compost. Firm and crunchy on the palate with the same fresh but ripe flavours and a touch of spice. Classic Chinon.

Thoughts on: A Tale of Two Wines from Chinon

Cabernet Franc is one of my favourite grapes in the wine world, capable of elegance and charm in its own right and adding perfume and freshness to many of the worlds Bordeaux blends. Despite being grown in warmer regions, particularly in the USA and Argentina, it really excels in cool to moderate climates, where the crunchy, red fruit profile and herbaceous flavours come into their own. This typically means Bordeaux, where it was historically planted as an insurance in case the Cabernet Sauvignon didn’t full ripen, particularly on the right bank where Cabernet Sauvignon has traditionally struggled to ripen in the cooler, clay soils. However, despite certain Chateau using Cabernet Franc as a majority in their blends (Cheval Blanc being a notably famous example), my favourite region for the variety has always been Touraine in the Loire Valley, particularly around a small region known as Chinon. (Psst, we’ll be doing a wine tasting of the Loire Valley in October with Maestrazgo Wine Club!)

The Loire Valley isn’t a warm place, being located in northern France, but as it stretches so far along its namesake river, making generalisations about style is difficult. What is certainly true is that the Loire is responsible for some of France’s best value, cool climate wines, with only really Sancerre commanding premium prices in certain markets. Touraine, located in the centre, is arguably the most important of the zones, often referred to as ‘The Garden of France’. It’s here that the best regions for Cabernet Franc are to be found, with both Chinon and Bourgueil making a strong claim, with Chinon probably the best known of the two.

Over the last year or so, I’ve drank a reasonable amount of Chinon but never in a comparative format. So, when Monvinic Store were having a small sale of some affordable wines from the region, I scooped a few bottles up and went about with the comparison! It’s worth noting that Chinon roughly comes in two different styles; full bodied, more structured Cabernet Franc from the clay and gravel soils, whereas lighter styles are made on the sandy, alluvial soils closer to the river. How fortunate then, that I managed to have wines from different producers, in the same vintage, on these two, very different soil types! It’s worth noting that 2011 was a pretty torrid vintage in the Loire, where the continental conditions make for some severe vintage variation, and typically it is the Cabernet Franc grown in the more structured style that rides the bad years more capably.

Domaine Grosbois Gabare Chinon 2011 – 12.5% ABV

Domaine Grosbois is an old estate that has been ran by the Grosbois family since the French revolution, with 9 hectares of land on the lighter, sand and gravel soils around Panzoult. Like so many estates in France, it has recently been given an injection of pace and a clear direction by a younger generation, in this case Nicolas Grosbois. My experience with wine-makers is that the best nearly always have an international appreciation of wine, and often experience in other wine regions. This is true for Nicolas who worked at one of my favourite wineries in New Zealand, Pegasus Bay, as well as Brokenwood in Australia. His main contribution to the future of Domaine Grosbois was to revitalise the land, first of all with a switch to organic viticulture and more recently to the more controversial, biodynamic system. All his Cabernet Franc is unoaked and the intention is to give a pure expression of Chinon and his vineyards in particular.

Gabare 2011 is 100% unoaked Cabernet Franc harvested from sandy soils at the base of his vineyards. A slightly murky, ruby colour and with a subtle aroma of fresh red fruits, this isn’t giving much away but slowly opens up to reveal lighter notes of fresh violets, fresh leaves and black pepper. A little lean on the palate with the same fresh flavours, and perhaps a lack of texture from the tannins. A nice, simple Cabernet Franc that feels affected by the weather conditions of 2011.

Charles Joguet Les Petit Roches 2011 – 13.5% ABV

Charles Joguet is a name that resonates in the Loire Valley and particularly in Chinon; taking over his family estate in 1957, Charles was one of the first wine-makers to start attracting international attention to the region. The estate itself is sat on deeper, clay dominated soils covering 36 hectares of prime vineyards, including some of the very best in the appellation. 9 different wines are made in total, reflecting their origins from specific plots around the estate. Since Charles retired, the estate went through a short but unwelcome period of misdirection and inactivity, before Kevin Fontaine took over the reins and brought it back on track. This is the producer I’m most familiar with in the region and I’ve enjoyed 5 of the 9 cuvees thus far, all a wonderful expression of Chinon and Cabernet Franc.

The wine itself has a much clearer appearance when compared with the Gabare from Domaine Grosbois. Aromatic and energetic, the extra ripeness of the wine is apparent with a riper red fruit profile, graphite, gravel, earth and a stronger, more clearly defined herbal note. The lovely, crunchy tannic profile comes out on the palate and there’s the energy and vibrancy I so love about wines from Chinon. A lovely balance of red fruits, herbal notes and earth; quintessential Chinon.

I really enjoyed this small experiment, and not just because I love drinking Chinon. I learn a lot of theory as part of my studies and it’s nice when something practical helps click the pieces into place. In this case, that soil type and the situation of the vineyard makes a big difference when it comes to the profile of the wines from Chinon, particularly in poor vintages. The extra ripeness and balance of the Charles Joguet made it a far more attractive wine, with more energy and more typicity. I would love to find the same two wines from a better vintage, 2010 say, and make the same comparison. Keep your eyes peeled on the 1st October as there will certainly be a Cabernet Franc or two to get your lips around in our tasting of the Loire Valley!

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