John Szabo’s Loire Valley Adventure
A Visit To The Valley of the Vigneron in Search of Typicity and Drinkability
Six days and a dozen and a half wineries later, and we had yet to meet a single export director or brand ambassador. This is the Loire Valley, after all, land of the small, family-run estate. And so much the better. My terroir-hunting partner, Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Zacharkiw and I were eager to go straight to the source, to absorb information directly from the individual who’s out pruning the vines, sitting on a tractor, picking the grapes, stomping on them, carefully raising the resulting wine, bottling it and then looking to find somewhere to sell it. This is often the same person in such small operations. No time for commercial spin or marketing mumbo jumbo. A journalist can’t ask for anything more – zero degrees of separation.
Two interprofessional organizations came together to facilitate the trip: the BIVC (representing appellations of the Centre Loire (including Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), and InterLoire, representing the rest of the region. Our directives were clear and respected: no bottling line tours, no massive tastings, no dozen wineries a day. We wanted to see vineyards, speak to key figures in each appellation, and taste a few representative samples that connect the dots from dirt to glass. Zarcharkiw and I pre-selected the majority of the producers we were to visit so expectations were high, though there were also a few surprises. In the end, we had not one single disappointing visit. Every stop along the way immersed us as profoundly in the wines of the area as possible in such a short time. It was a week-long master class in terroir; the only time we entered into cellars was to taste recent vintages from tank or barrel. I came home with a pocket full of rocks, too.
Curiously enough, as it wasn’t a conscious goal, but virtually everyone on our wish list and whom we ended up visiting practiced either organic or biodynamic viticulture, or some other form of reasoned farming. Now, I’m not an apostle for organics/biodynamics (BD), and indeed I’ve heard some very cogent arguments against the blind application of, say, BD principles without reason – sort of an agricultural determinism that doesn’t sit well philosophically. (Perhaps the most prescient related comment of the week came from Mathieu Baudry in Chinon, who hopes that the mention of organic or biodynamic on wine labels will disappear within the next decade. Why, he asks, “is it up to us [organic producers] to prove that we’re natural by some kind of certification? In the wine world it’s a case of being guilty before proven innocent. Why not force conventional winemakers instead to disclose the products they use in farming and winemaking on their labels?” Now there’s a thought.)
In any case, the coincidence between a natural approach and quality wine was once again too startling to ignore. People who spend more time in their vines (necessary for organic/BD) tend to make more interesting wines. For me it represents the most effective way of producing wines that adhere to the original principles of France’s Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) system. The goal of the AOC system was to guarantee that wines were, to quote, “franc, loyaux et constant”, that is, “frank” (honest, unmanipulated – a crucial distinction in the days post-phylloxera when counterfeit wines were rampant), “faithful” (a genuine reflection of the region), and “consistent” (similar, recognizable, typical profile from year to year). The Loire Valley is one of the world’s leading regions when it comes to organic/BD viticulture, and the result is a lot of typicity. And it’s not because the climate is so clement either – it’s not. It’s a difficult choice here.
But speaking of typicity (see my thoughts on the importance and usefulness of typicity from last week here), The Loire Valley is the source of world archetypes of all four of the principal grape varieties grown here: sauvignon blanc (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), cabernet franc (Chinon, Bourgueil, St. Nicholas de Bourgueil, Saumur Champigny), chenin blanc (Vouvray and Savennières, and Coteaux du Layon for sweet versions), and melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet). These regions have been, and in many cases still are, the yardsticks against which the rest of the world measures their iterations of these varieties.
The net result is that the Loire is fertile hunting ground for wine lovers and sommeliers. The best wines are certainly distinctive, and what’s more, the generally cool climate results in overwhelmingly vibrant, fresh, crisply acidic, eminently food friendly styles, red, white or rosé. And finally, the wines are also relatively inexpensive. Under $25 gets you a classic version of any of the archetype appellations mentioned above, often even less, and under $15 for Muscadet is a comfortable budget.
Yet for myriad reasons, excluding inexpensiveness but including, paradoxically, the reasons given above that make Loire wines an insider’s choice (namely the distinctive wine styles and lean structure), sales of Loire wines remain flat in parts of the country. Ontario posted just a 1.3% increase by value in 2011 vs 2010 ($4.1m CAD). Québec, on the other hand, a bastion of support for the Loire, clocked in a 15% gain by value in the same period, up from a significantly larger base, too, to $30.6m CAD. The Loire is not terribly fashionable, at least in Ontario. But considering its strengths, already figured out in Québec, I suspect that will change here.
If you’re interested in the details, here’s a link to Part I of John and Bill’s Excellent Loire Adventure. (Parts II and III will be published over the coming weeks). I’ve included some recommended producers and wines – so you may just find yourself inspired to drink Loire tonight.