We'll Drink to That: Summer Loire
We are more than halfway through summer and I bet you’ve had your share of rosés. You’re probably sick of riesling and I can’t imagine you’ll want to see another bottle of pinot grigio ever again. This leaves us with only one suggestion for the rest of the summer season: the wines of Loire.
It is said that the Loire Valley is where the purest French is spoken, but it’s the language of wine here that matters most for lovers of crisp, traditional wines made through non-intervention and an appreciation of the sense of place that the French call terroir. There seems to be an almost infinite number of varieties that thrive in this sprawling region, but there are three specific varieties that will make the rest of your summer a little more delicious.
Before New Zealand began coaxing aromas of fresh cut grass and cat pee (a lovely descriptor of the tangy aromas within) from their sauvignon blancs—and long before California pushed the tropical fruit envelope—there was Loire sauvignon blanc. Among the wide variations of quality and style there are two specific regions that are the most consistent and recognizable on store shelves.
First, there’s Sancerre, which lies in the eastern part of the valley, where sauvignon blanc excels—beyond the reputation of the actual grape—and defines the territory with wines that are inherently more delicate, restrained, and complex in how they reveal themselves than most, if not all, of their New World counterparts.
The best examples show subtle nuances of grapefruit, citrus, chalk, gooseberry, fresh-cut grass, and flint. Lucky for us, there are a few easy-to-find bottles that lean toward traditional Sancerre. This certainly includes the 2010 Sancerre from Karine Lauverjat, where gooseberry, citrus fruit, green peas, chalk and a light body all play a role in creating a wine that is refreshing and light, yet complex and interesting enough to be more than just a summer sipper.
I must also mention Pouilly-Fumé—not be confused with Burgundy’s Pouilly-Fuissé—where similar wines of distinction with even more “flinty” mineral qualities can be found. But if you’re looking to shell out less cash, there’s something to be said for sauvignon blanc labeled as “Touraine,” a more general territory in the middle of the Loire. The Clos de la Grange Touraine 2011 from Francois Chidaine is a custom blend from several organic vineyards all fermented with spontaneous yeasts producing a rich, rounder, more fruit-forward style; for what this wine lacks in complexity is made up for in value and sheer drinkability at $13.
If chenin blanc were an athlete, it would surely be a gymnast due to its flexibility and ability to effortlessly demonstrate balance with wines that range from bone dry to dessert sweet. Even though parts of the wine-drinking world may now associate the grape with its more modern manifestations in heat-enabled regions like South Africa and California, there may be no greater arena for this variety to show off its natural ability than the middle of the Loire.
While there’s a long list of sub-appellations within the region, the most recognizable incarnations appear as Vouvray and Savennières—the first of which is known for producing the full range of dry to sweet. Savennières, on the other hand, is known primarily for producing bone-dry versions of chenin blanc that lean toward full-bodied, highly extracted, and curiously opulent.
François Pinon’s Vouvray Cuvée Tradition is a textbook example of what the Vouvray region has to offer, with white peach, citrus, and wet stone aromas held together by a succulent texture that fills the palate with richness while still perfecting refreshment. The combination of sweet fruit and bright acidity is exactly what Vouvray is all about.
If you want to experience Savennières by way of its most famous producer, then seek out Nicolas Joly, who has become one of the most outspoken producers of biodymanic wines on the planet. Although his Joly’s Clos Coulée de Serrant is too pricy at $90 for my summer picnics, his (relatively) more reasonable Les Vieux Clos Savennières 2009 ($40) will leave a permanent impression on the palate, with layer upon layer of flavors resembling apricots, pears, baked fruits, honey, hay, and almonds.
There is no red grape more destined for summer drinking than cabernet franc—and experience has taught me that there is no region that harnesses its potential as a light quaffing red or as middleweight BBQ’s best friend than the Loire. I know what you’re thinking: “Cab francs are always green.” Isn’t cab franc just a blending grape? Aren’t they all just too flabby?
Once again, it’s in the middle of the Loire Valley—Chinon and Bourgueil, specifically—where the grape becomes what it was always meant to be, and in this case, where cabernet franc becomes a clean, fruity, floral, refreshing red that can be served slightly chilled for casual dining or bistro-style meals. When grown in more challenging soils like hillsides and gravel, it can yield more powerful, structured, perfectly tannic reds that can hold their own with the heartiest fare you plate up this season.
The list of ideal food pairings is diverse. Beef, lamb, game, duck, pork, sausage, and grilled seafood (like shrimp and salmon) all play well with cabernet franc. That’s not even mentioning the obvious pairing with burgers, pizza, vegetables, and pasta.
The lighter, more youthful expressions of the grape are usually unoaked and come in under $15. Look for Les Granges by Bernard Baudry, Trinch by Catherine Breton, or a more generic bottling labeled with the “Saumur Champigny” appellation called Réserve des Vignerons to provide reds with unparalleled versatility.
If your summer evening calls for something a little richer, you’ll find Domaine de Paulus Les Pensées Chinon 2008 as a reasonable option at $25. Catherine Breton also produces my favorite Bourgueil, Les Galichets, which in warmer vintages provides all the structure and tannins I need to declare it the perfect spring, summer, fall, and winter wine.
Bryan Calandrelli is a WNY-based winemaker and wine writer who also contributes to the New York Cork Report.