THE LONGEST river in France is the Loire, flowing for 1,000 kilometres, from south-central France to Nantes, and along its banks are more than 400 kilometers of vineyards.
Known as the “Garden of France”, their wines were the favourite of the kings. There are nine major districts and at least 10 main grapes (with some lesser known ones). They include Cab. Sauv., Cab. Franc, Sauv. Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chasselas, Muscadet, Gamay, Groslot, Chasselas and Malbec.
Unlike Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne, where you must use specific grapes, the Loire authorities are more liberal. But there are some restrictions: the Chenin Blanc is limited to Anjou, Touraine and Jasnières, but those districts cover a lot of territory, from Nantes up to Orléans.
Few wines are marketed under the Loire label, so if you know at least some of the grapes, you can look for them. According to French law, the grape name should not appear on the label if it is an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée) wine. That law is broken with monotonous regularity, so it shows the disrespect the French themselves have for it. As the region is known as the “Garden of France”, look for the word Jardin on the label, in case the grapes aren’t named. The bottle shape will help too. They will have sloping shoulders, or be tall like a hock bottle.
Loire wines should be much higher in the market than many of the New World wines. It’s all down to education. Millions of people drink Cab. Sauv., Merlot, Shiraz (French Syrah), Sauv. Blanc, and so on, provided they come from the US, Australia, New Zealand, or Chile. These grapes are French, grow best in France and produce better wines, without being over-oaked with oak chippings or sulphates. What the amateur wine drinker tastes is oak and not the grape. They’ve got used to it now, and probably wouldn’t enjoy an ‘unoaked’ wine.
Many won’t care where the wine was produced, provided one or more of the aforementioned grapes are mentioned. They can then relate to the label. Visit a friend in England or Ireland and you’ll probably get a Cab. Sauv./Shiraz blend to drink. It’s almost guaranteed.
Loire wines should not be spoken of collectively. They are all different and have their own taste and style. It’s a long river, and climatic conditions and soils change along the way. The whites are very refreshing and can be sweet, semi-sweet or dry, and some good reds are produced. Anjou is famous for its rosé, but read the label carefully as they produce a dry and semi-sweet. Anjou also produces dry and sweet whites, and some lesser known reds. Another famous wine from Anjou is Saumur, which can be still, semi-sparkling or sparkling, but usually dry.
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine is produced between the two rivers, the Sèvre and the Maine. Worth noting this on the label, as the wines are superior to basic Muscadet. When making Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, Sur Lie, the wine is left lying on the “lees” and bottled, unfiltered. It has to be bottled before the following Easter to avoid the dead yeasts contaminating the wine. Made entirely from the Muscadet grape (not to be confused with the Muscat or the Moscatel), they are classified as dry wines. Some of them are fruity, but fruitiness is not sweetness.
Other very good value for money wines are Quincy and Reuilly, both dry whites from Touraine, the Loire’s second largest district. A very popular wine from Touraine is Vouvray. It’s a white but can be still, semi-sparkling, or sparkling, so read the label.
Two very popular wines from the region are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The latter is often confused with Pouilly-Fuissé from Burgundy, which is made from the Chardonnay grape. The two Loire wines are both 100 per cent Sauvignon Blanc, and if you’re used to drinking New World Sauvignons, try one of these and taste the real Sauv. Blanc flavour.
A word on pruning, which was discovered by accident … well, actually by a hungry donkey! Saint Martin was visiting a vineyard owned by the Church in Anjou. After tying his donkey to a vine, he did his tour of inspection. By the time he returned, the donkey had munched away the leaves, and some were down to the trunk of the vine. By the next year, the vines had flourished again, producing a better wine. So the monks learned a very valuable lesson, and owe a lot to the donkey. Today, they don’t tether donkeys to the vine. They have found better ways – and besides, donkeys are getting scarce.
Like many French wines, Loire Valley wines are difficult to find in Portugal. However, you will find a good selection in a shop called Le Petit Gourmet. Leave Lagos towards Luz, and turn left at the first set of traffic lights after the fire station. If they haven’t got what you require, they will get it for you.
Loire wines are ideal drinking companions for the Algarve climate, so be adventurous.
N.B. I’ve been asked why I wrote about cocktails last time. Before becoming a Cellar Master, I was head distiller for Gilbeys, distilling their world famous Gin and their equally famous Smirnoff Vodka. Somehow, they go hand in hand with cocktails.
Next time: Alsace wines
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