Grapes: red and white Loire varietals

  • Friday 1 June 2001

ROGER VOSS runs through the famous - and the lesser known - red and white Loire varietals

ROGER VOSS runs through the famous - and the lesser known - red and white Loire varietals

Red

Cabernet Franc

The Cabernet Franc grape finds its finest expression in the Loire. It is perhaps curious that a grape that is often difficult to ripen in Saint-Emilion should do so well so much further north. But somehow the microclimate of the three great red wine regions of the Loire – Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny – brings out wonderful fruity flavours in Cabernet Franc, and emphasises its perfumes.

Even in cooler years, a Loire Cabernet Franc is fruity rather than weedy, fragrant rather than green. While the Cabernet Franc reds can be drunk relatively young, producers are increasingly making wines for ageing: the vintage to drink with pleasure at the moment is 1990.

The late 1990s were generally kind to the producers of Loire reds. 1995, 1996 and 1999 were very good, and 1997 only just below.

The Loire Cabernets are rich meat wines, and they go also with some of the firmer cheeses. Younger vintages, slightly chilled, are great with charcuterie.

Gamay

Gamay produces some of the most juicily attractive wines with some of the succulent fruitiness of Beaujolais. There's a risk, though, that Loire Gamays can be rather thin, due to the high yields often found in the Touraine Gamay appellation. To enjoy their light, fresh fruit flavours, drink them young and chilled – 1999s and 2000s are the wines to enjoy now. Lighter meat dishes, charcuterie, are fine with Gamays. If you're in the Loire, try it with the local delicacy of river eel.

Grolleau

This is the grape variety to blame for all those insipid, semi-sweet rosés that used to emerge from Anjou. While such wines are still around, Anjou's reputation has moved on to the finer reds and sweet whites. It still exists, and makes some pleasant dry rosés (under the Rosé de Loire appellation), and is used in some of the sparkling wines of Saumur, as well as appearing in Touraine. Like Gamay, it needs to be drunk young. Grolleau-based wines are really aperitifs, or should be drunk on their own on a warm summer day.

Malbec

Also known as the Auxerrois, this grape is found in small quantities in Touraine, in appellations such as Touraine-Mesland and Touraine Villages. It produces rough, often rustic wines. Some more quality-conscious producers in Touraine who make Cuvée François 1er (a blend of Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Malbec) show that the grape can feature in wines which are designed for ageing. Wines in this category can be drunk for anything up to 10 years – currently 1995 and 1997 wines are at their best. Malbec wines go well with hearty meat dishes, the sort of stew that the people of Touraine like to make, as well as with rich fish dishes and hard cheeses.

Pineau d'Aunis

With its pinky-red tinge, this grape is really only suitable for making rosé wines, which is how it is used in Touraine. Good examples should have an attractive fresh ripeness and soft, vanilla flavours.

Wines based on the Pineau d'Aunis are best drunk as aperitifs. Stick a bottle in an ice bucket and take it out on to the patio on a warm day.

Pinot Noir

Burgundy's red grape appears in a number of Loire appellations, even reaching the Atlantic coast in the region of the Fiefs Vendéens. But is it performs best in Sancerre, where it is used to make full-bodied rosés and some succulent reds. It also appears in neighbouring Menetou-Salon and in Reuilly. Loire Pinot Noir needs good years to perform well and not be too light and acid. Good examples have some of the burgundian perfumes but tend to be light on tannins, meaning they age relatively quickly. Reds from 1996 and rosés from 1999 are tasting well at the moment. Stews, game and mushrooms all go well with Sancerre's Pinots. Some producers suggest drinking them with local potato pie.

TOP WINES

White

Chardonnay

Chardonnay is grown in pockets along the length of the Loire, from Saint-Pourçain to the Fiefs Vendéens. But its main concentration is to be found in Touraine, where it appears in Touraine white wines. It is also one of the principal varietals used in Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France, the Loire-wide Vin de Pays appellation. The Loire's cool climate means that Chardonnay will never have the intensity of burgundy, but the best Loire Chardonnays are creamy and soft with the hallmark Loire freshness and acidity. Wood is rarely used.

Drink it with any of the river fish dishes. But the Chardonnays will also go well with some of the lighter poultry dishes and with creamy cheeses.

Chenin Blanc (Pineau de la Loire)

This is the Loire grape par excellence. Love it, or hate it, it is the vital grape in the Loire's finest white wines. In the Layon Valley, in Savennières, in Vouvray and Montlouis, the grape has the versatility and ability to make any style of wine, from dry sparkling, through dry still, medium dry to sweet and luscious. Old style Chenin could be searingly acidic, and it had the unnerving ability to shut up shop at two years and not open up again until it was about six years old, by which time most of it was drunk. Modern vinification has eliminated the problem, but Chenin Blancs are still best aged. The best examples can age for 10, 20 even 30 years. Good recent vintages are 1989, 1990, 1995 and 1996.Good Chenins have a nutty, almost honeyed character. Acidity is common in every style. In the dry Savennières, it can be very present when the wine is young, but softens out as it ages, preserving the freshness of the wine over many years. In the fine botrytis wines from the Coteaux du Layon, from Bonnezeaux and from Quarts de Chaume, as well as Vouvray and Montlouis moelleux, the acidity is an essential part of the structure, keeping the wines from becoming over-sweet and over-cloying.

Dry Chenins are delicious with fish, as well as goat cheeses. Sweet Chenins go well with charcuterie, foie gras, as an aperitif, or with some of the many fruit-based desserts, such as the famed Tarte Tatin.

Gros Plant

Lovers of acidity, look no further. This variety produces mouth-searingly crisp, acid wines. But before they are dismissed as undrinkable, try Gros Plant with oysters from the Brittany coast, or with fruits de mer, or with sea fish dishes. Drink in the region, and these wines are delicious, but they do not travel well.

Melon de Bourgogne

The grape that makes Muscadet came from Burgundy and was first planted in the Pays Nantais in the 17th century, to provide thin wines for distillation. Even today, Muscadet is not a full-bodied wine. Its strength is in its freshness, crispness and vivacity, even though some producers are trying wood ageing. Drink the wines young and chilled, although it's worth keeping a few of the best examples for up to five or six years. Muscadet is the wine for fish. The local Loire speciality of fish with a rich beurre blanc sauce brings out the best in Muscadet. Try it also with shellfish when Gros Plant is unavailable or just too acid. And it's a delicious aperitif wine.

Romorantin

A curiosity of a grape, found only around Cheverny in eastern Touraine. It is a high acid wine that oxidises easily, but can also age well for five or six years, giving some tastes that are reminiscent of lightweight Chenin Blanc combined with some of the petrol flavours of old Riesling. Its true home is now the Cour-Cheverny appellation where it is the dominant grape. Drink with goat cheeses or with river fish dishes, and always drink well chilled.

Sauvignon Blanc

This is the Loire's great grape contribution to the wine world, at home originally in Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé, and the other

appellations of the Sancerrois (Quincy, Reuilly and Menetou-Salon). If it is outrageous in New Zealand, modern examples in Sancerre are not far behind. Because the Loire's climate is cooler, they may have more of the gooseberry, cat's pee flavours than tropical fruit, but they still have much of the opulence. Wines of Pouilly tend to be more full-bodied, and can also take some wood ageing.Generally, the wines should be drunk young – three or four years. But wines from Pouilly Fumé age better and good examples, especially those with wood ageing, will go well for 10 years or more. They lose much of the acidity, but gain in nutty complexity.The classic local food combination with Sauvignon Blanc is Crottin de Chavignol, the local Sancerre goat cheese. But any fairly pungent cheeses go well with these wines, as do many fish dishes.

Cabernet Franc

Domaine Yannick Amirault (Bourgueil), Domaine Couly-Dutheil (Chinon), Domaine Druet (Bourgueil), Château de la Grille (Chinon), Domaine Bernard Baudry (Chinon), Domaine René-Noël Legrand (Saumur-Champigny), Domaine Hureau (Saumur-Champigny)

Chenin Blanc

Domaine des Baumard (Layon valley), Coulée de Serrant (Savennières), Château de Fesles (Bonnezeaux), Domaine Pierre Bise (Layon valley), Domaine Ogereau (Coteaux du Layon), Domaine du Clos Naudin (Vouvray), Domaine Huët l'Echansonne (Vouvray), Domaine Didier Champalou (Vouvray).

Melon de Bourgogne

Domaine de l'Ecu, Château de la Ragotière, Domaines Chereau-Carré, Domaine de Beauregard, Domaine Gadais Père et Fils, Domaine de la Galissonnière, Daniel et Gérard Vinet, Clos Saint-Vincent des Rongères

Sauvignon Blanc

Domaine Didier Dagueneau (Pouilly Fumé), Domaine Henri Bourgeois (Sancerre), Domaine Lucien Crochet (Sancerre), Domaine Gitton Père et Fils (Sancerre), Domaine Vincent Pinard (Sancerre), Domaine Masson-Blondelet (Pouilly Fumé), Michel Redde et Fils (Pouilly Fumé).

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