By Bruce Collier
The Loire region takes its name from the Loire River, the longest river in France. The Loire Valley is probably most famous for its castles (chateaux), whose images grace many a calendar and jigsaw puzzle.
The Loire is also known for its wines, particularly the whites. Summer is the ideal time to explore some of these. They’re easy to find, reasonably priced, and pair well with fish, shellfish, lighter meats, and cheese. Red wine is also made in the Loire, and it’s worth your time. Some very fine rose and sparking wines are made in the Loire, but they’re for another day.
The grapes traditionally grown for winemaking in the Loire are Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Folle Blanche, Arbois, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grolleau. The ones most frequently used are the first four.
For this article, I sampled three representative white wines (served chilled), and one red (served at A/C room temperature). All are available locally.
12% Alcohol by Volume (ABV)
All Chenin Blanc. In the glass, very pale yellow, faint greenish tinge. The nose is fresh-cut pineapple, honey, slightly musty scent. Next is a little spice, fruit cocktail, herbs, grass, and rainwater. On the first sip, pineapple and star fruit flavor, somewhat viscous on the tongue. It’s sweeter than expected at first, then follows tart dried peach and apricot, with a honey and lemon drop finish.
Sauvignon Blanc. Very light and pale straw color. Scent is floral and spicy, with Granny Smith apple peel. Dry, chalky, citrusy taste; almost—but not quite—fizzy and peppery on the tongue to start. Apple peel lingers on the finish. There’s little if any sweetness. It’s austere but refreshing, puckery. I drank this with slow-roasted (dark meat) chicken and potatoes. It’s a good counterpoint for buttery, herb seasoned meat and potatoes.
Grapes are all Melon de Bourgogne. “Sur lie” means “on the lees.” Lees are deposits of dead yeast or residual yeast and other particles that precipitate to the bottom of a vat of wine after fermentation and aging. Normally wine is “racked,” a process that leaves the lees behind. This Muscadet was aged for a time on the lees, imparting a yeasty aroma and taste.
The wine has a very pale, lemony yellow color. There’s definitely a yeasty aroma, though it’s dry and subtle. The taste is likewise mild and austere. There’s a chalky finish, with grapefruit pith and peel, lemon juice, grassy notes, and a tiny fermented-yeast, beery snap at the tail end. No sweetness here, and a light body. Muscadet is the proverbial accompaniment to raw oysters, which makes sense when you consider that many French (and other European) oysters tend to be rather oily, with a nutty or metallic taste.
I was all out of French oysters, but I did have a tin of “vintage sardines” (2012) from Paris. This is an old French tradition—aging lightly smoked sardines in good olive oil for years, sometimes decades, turning the cans over every six months for maximum effect. The object is for the fish to absorb and be mellowed by the oil. I served them on rye bread with unsalted butter and coarse salt, with Gruyere cheese on the side. Gruyere and Muscadet tastes like a deconstructed fondue. The sardines are deeply rich, oily but smooth. The sharp white wine was a perfect balance to the sardines and butter.
Chateau de Coulaine Chinon (2016)
All Cabernet Franc grape. Dark reddish-black color in the glass, with a cherry/berry pie filling, almond extract scent. The taste is cranberry, jammy, with a slightly thin body, and a quick finish. More time in the glass yielded bell pepper, peppercorn, anise, dry licorice or fennel. I drank it with beef stroganoff (not exactly summer fare) and it paired beautifully with the rich beef, cream and noodles, rounding out the dish. Chinon would be an ideal match for steak, hamburgers, and sausages, including those with creamy or rich sauces or garnishes. At the price, it could become a go-to wine for grilling out.
The wines were all good on their own, but to be truly appreciated. all need to be tasted with food. It’s like fitting puzzle pieces together—you get a bigger piece of the picture. The Loire can be very picturesque.
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