wine Features
Cruise Through Valentine’s Day Drinking Loire Valley Wines
By Jim Clarke

Wines Mentioned
(Prices are approximate):

Sparkling: Whites: Reds: Dessert:

Who wouldn’t like to take their sweetie to France, the land of romance and wine, for Valentine’s Day? And what’s more romantic than a cruise down the Loire, replete with chateaux and vineyards? Of course, a trip like that isn’t cheap. The wines of the Loire Valley, on the other hand, are a great value, largely underappreciated and encompassing a broad range of styles: red, white, sparkling, and dessert. The best wine appellations of the river often seem to appear in pairs – couples gazing at each other across the river. Here’s a case worth of wines to choose from for Valentine’s Day – call it a cruise on wine instead of water.

Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé

The Loire is France’s longest river and begins at the center of France, winding its way to the Atlantic. The first major vineyards of your cruise are relatively well-known in the U.S.: the famous Sauvignon Blancs of Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre. Lucien Crochet is one of my favorite Sancerre producers; they are based in the area’s smallest commune, Bue, and make several different bottlings of Sancerre and Sancerre Rouge (the latter based on Pinot Noir). Look for the Lucien Crochet “La Croix Du Roy” 2002 Sancerre; it shows a refined, classic Sancerre nose of grass, citrus, and stone, with the latter dominating the finish. It’s elegant, medium-bodied, and refreshing.

If, given February’s cool weather, you’d like a richer white, go to the other bank of the river and uncork one of Didier Dagueneau’s wines. Dagueneau himself looks more like a French-Canadian lumberjack than a French winemaker; he relentlessly prunes his vines to reduce yields and concentrate flavors, but lets his own mane of red hair and beard grow quite freely. He farms his vines biodynamically – organically with a healthy dose of spirituality and even astrology thrown in. Biodynamic techniques are becoming more and more popular everywhere and have proven capable of making world-class wines.

Biodynamics is not the only unusual technique in Dagueneau’s stable. The most obvious difference when you taste his wines is that he often ferments or ages his wines in new French oak, a rare practice for French Sauvignon Blanc north of Bordeaux. Check out the creamy Pouilly-Fumé Pur Sang 2002; it’s fermented in oak but not barrel-aged, so it’s a bit fruitier than its sister wine, the Cuvée Silex. Look for peach and melon aromas complemented by some stone, spice, and smoke. The finish goes on forever.

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Vouvray and Montlouis

Proceed down the river past Orleans, the city Joan of Arc rescued from the English in 1429, and on to Tours. The city itself has a reputation for being rather staid and starchy; whether you agree or not, there is definitely romance and style to be found in the surrounding vineyards. The wines of Vouvray and its opposite, Montlouis, are made from Chenin Blanc in a daunting range of styles from lusciously sweet to bone-dry. This is a cool climate, with varied weather from year to year; winemakers here moreso than in other regions have to take what the vintage gives them and then make the wines that best suit each individual harvest.

In Vouvray, Philippe Foreau is the third generation of his family to make wine at Domaine du Clos Naudin; I find his sweet wines particularly notable for their rich, spicy flavors. Unlike many producers, Foreau makes an effort to give his wines a good deal of bottle age before releasing them. Storing wine for several years can drive up a winemaker’s expenses, but somehow his prices remain comparable to those of his peers, and there’s a peace of mind that comes from knowing that a winery is selling its wine when it’s ready, not just when they need to make room in their cellar. There are several vintages from the 90s currently available, including a fantastic Reserve from 1995. I particularly like the 1999; while generally regarded as a difficult vintage for sweet wines in Vouvray, he made 500 cases and the wine shows lots of spicy fruitcake and honey aromas, touches of apple, and a clean, focused finish. As it approaches its tenth birthday, it has unwound enough to reveal the kind of complexity that makes Vouvray’s dessert wines so dynamic.

Montlouis wines tend to get obscured by the long shadow cast by Vouvray – some feel that the latter tends to be overrated, while Montlouis wines aren’t given the credit they’re due. Domaine Deletang is one of the easiest Montlouis producers to find in the U.S. If you want to compare dessert wines between the two appellations, look for the excellent Deletang Montlouis Grande Reserve 1997; from the same vintage the Les Petits Boulay” bottling is a more affordable, refreshing, dry white (but still Chenin Blanc). It comes from a site dominated by limestone and clay soils instead of the tufa soils that characterize much of the region (tufa is chalk which has been boiled by volcanic action). The wine shows this difference in its fruitier, more floral aromas: lots of tangerine, lime and white flowers dominate the nose and palate.

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Chinon and Bourgueil

On the other side of Tours you come to the first major red wine areas of the Loire Valley, Chinon and Bourgueil (with its sub-appellation St.-Nicolas-de-Borgueil). The primary grape grown here is Cabernet Franc, but Cabernet Sauvignon is becoming more popular, even though it can ripen less well in the cool climate. Yannick Amirault has expanded from the vineyards he inherited from his father and now owns property in both of the Borgueil appellations. His Bourgueil “Les Quartiers” 2002 offers up the flavors of ripe Cabernet Franc, untouched by new oak. Surprising meaty, funky aromas are topped off by black raspberry and cassis; on the palate, the non-fruit aromas transform into touches of mushroom and spice. This wine is fuller and less angular than many cool-climate reds, with a round mouthfeel and moderate, firm tannins.

In Chinon, Charles Joguet has had similar success in creating richer reds than has been usual along the Loire. The Clos del La Dioterie 2001 is a great example: the site’s 80-year-old vines have given the wine lots of black cherry, savory herbs, and spice; medium-bodied, this one could profit from some time in the cellar but already packs a lot of interest now. Buy a case and open a bottle each Valentine’s Day down the road.

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Saumur-Champigny and Saumur Brut

More reds await downriver in the “lonely” appellation Saumur-Champigny, extending south from the town of Saumur and its white-stone castle. Here Cabernet Franc was usually fermented as a rosé wine until the 1960s, when winemakers started producing more and more reds. If you can find any reserve bottlings from the 2000 vintage, they’re definitely worth picking up, especially the Château du Hureau Grande Cuvée or Domaines des Roches Neuves “La Marginale.” The latter’s Terres Chaudes” is an old-vine cuvée and somewhat more available. What makes all three wines special is ripeness; the red fruits – sour cranberry, strawberry – and vegetal qualities that can be common in the Loire’s reds have instead deepened into blackberry and cassis; in the “Terres Chaudes” the fruitiness is rounded out by light, toasty touches of oak from aging in one-year-old barrels.

Since it would be a shame to leave Saumur-Champigny alone on Valentine’s Day, this is a good time to mention the Loire Valley’s sparkling wines. Sold under a number of appellations – Saumur Brut being one of them – these wines offer great value compared to the famous names of Champagne. Varietal regulations are loose; some producers use 100% Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Franc, while many blend these with other regional grapes like Grolleau and Chardonnay. Albert Gratien founded the Gratien & Meyer company in the Loire Valley in 1864, at the same time he began establishing himself in Champagne. The Gratien & Meyer Saumur Brut Cuvée Flamme Rosé NV is a blend of three grapes; medium-bodied and off-dry, its raspberry base supports refreshing floral touches. While it lacks the depth and complexity of Gratien’s non-vintage Brut Champagne, it is also about half the price.

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Savenniéres and Bonnezeaux

As you pass by the city of Angers, white stone buildings turn instead to black slate, but the wines shortly turn white again. North of the river lies Savenniéres, home of high-intensity, dry-as-the-Sahara Chenin Blanc. Nicolas Joly is the region’s best-known name, as well as being the world’s most outspoken voice for biodynamic viticulture and winemaking. His most famous wines come from Savenniéres’ pair of single-vineyard designations: Coulée de Serrant, of which he is the sole owner, and Roche-Aux-Moines. Both wines are excellent, but given their small production and high demand, fairly pricey. When first opened, the 2002 Coulée de Serrant is tight and concentrated, with notes of spring flowers, ginger, and citrus; let it breath for at least a day to get more out of it, or buy it as a Valentine gift and plan on cellaring it for several years. There’s an incredible amount of complexity waiting in this wine for those with the patience and the pocket book.

For more immediate and affordable pleasures, Domaine des Baumard’s single-vineyard Clos du Papillon 2000 is a great example of what Savenniéres can do. It’s an extremely focused wine, with laser-beam acidity and aromas of lemon curd, honey, and chalk. On the palate the minerality takes over and wraps around the acidity for a long finish. This wine is ready to drink, but, like most Savenniéres, has the backbone to age gracefully for several years.

Opposite Savenniéres lies Coteaux du Layon, and its two sub-appellations Quarts-de-Chaume and, set farther back from the river, Bonnezeaux: all are well-known for their Chenin Blanc-based dessert wines. The minimum sugar ripeness allowed at harvest in Bonnezeaux is quite high (higher than in Sauternes, in fact), and this means the wines tend to be fuller-bodied and a bit sweeter than wines from elsewhere in the Coteaux du Layon. It’s also not too hard to find slightly older vintages; the 2002s are the most recent release, but some retailers are still offering wines from the mid-90s as well. Track down the René Renou “Les Melleresses” Bonnezeaux 1996 for a classic example of Loire Valley dessert wine. Rich tropical fruit, especially pineapple, has faded with age to take a backseat to marzipan, butterscotch, and figs. Despite the honeyed sweetness it finishes cleanly because of well-balanced acidity.

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Muscadet and...Oysters

You’ve almost reached the Atlantic, and there’s one more major wine ahead: Muscadet. It may lack a partner appellation, but it brings its own romance as the favored wine pairing for aphrodisiacal oysters. And while fresh oysters themselves may get pricey, Muscadet is always affordable.

Guy Bossard at Domaine l’Ecu makes a good bookend to a cruise that began with Pouilly Fumé’s Didier Dagueneau and passed by Nicolas Joly – a third biodynamic producer at the mouth of the Loire (These three are by-no-means the only people making biodynamic wines in the Loire Valley; even the famous, long-established winery Domaine Huet adapted their vineyards to biodynamic farming in the early 90s). Domaine l’Ecu takes making Muscadet more seriously than many producers; of particular interest is their series of wines celebrating the region’s terroir: Gneiss, Orthogneiss, and Granit. Each is made from grapes grown on the named soil type. The 2002 Orthogneiss Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie layers wet stone, white flowers, and some surprising spiciness in a rich wine that’s still elegant and clean.

Loire Valley wines may not earn you as many points this Valentine’s Day as a real cruise down the river itself, but they still offer up some wonderful experiences to enjoy at home. And since many of them are great values, you can enjoy them and put away your savings toward taking your trip later (perhaps after the dollar goes up again). On the other hand, there’s also chocolates, flowers…

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Related Links:
  • Valentine’s Day Recipes
  • The Jura
  • Wine and Chocolate
  • Love Potions

    ...Published: January 2005