If there are wines that can be described as typically French, the wines of the Loire qualify as superb choices. Not blessed with the kind of international acclaim of such districts as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, the wines are enthusiastically enjoyed by French wine lovers who appreciate inexpensive reds, whites and sparkling wines that are variously described as charming and refreshing--something to drink today without worrying whether aging will make them better.
The careless abandon with which these wines are consumed stems from the joy of selecting a bottle without concern for vintage, label refinement and cost. These wines are for daily dining, even entertaining, representing a pleasurable glass of wine without a lot of hoopla. In a span of 10 days I tasted about 250 different Loire wines and I must confess I did not find a bottle I did not like. It became clear why the wines are so popular.
What was not clear is why they are not more popular here, especially considering that the Loire is the largest producer of appellation-controlee wines after Bordeaux, the Rhone, the South of France and Burgundy. One reason is that many are not shipped to the United States. Another is that some of the wines may be too delicate to ship, although modern technology appears to have resolved that problem. They are well worth knowing, especially for their diversity, representing a host of taste distinctions from vineyards along the Loire river such as Vouvray, Anjou, Sancerre, Pouilly, Muscadet and Saumur.
Longest Wine River
The best-known reds come from villages near the city of Touraine, including Chinon, Bourgueil and St. Nicolas de Bourgueil, but unfortunately are unknown to most Americans. Interestingly, the Loire, the longest of French rivers, also lays claim to the title of being the longest of all the world's wine rivers, with vineyards near and along its banks. A well-planned wine-tasting journey along its 625 miles can be extremely satisfying to both wine and history lovers, since the region contains many splendid castles. Centuries ago, kings and noblemen came here to play and vacation while enjoying a treasure trove of wine and food.
What is fascinating about the Loire is that most of its wines are made by small-time farmers, some owning only a hectare or two, who send their wines to major cooperatives or directly to wine merchants for quick distribution at prices that make consumption easy, pleasant and frequent.
While the average French drinker may not pay close attention to vintage, it can be important. A particularly good vintage is that of 1985, especially for the likes of Sancerre, Pouilly Fume, Vouvray and Muscadet. The latter, for instance, was not hampered by winter and spring frosts and produced 50% more than in the vintage of 1984. The vintage of 1985 would be an excellent place to start, although some authorities believe 1983 to be its equal.
Traditionally, the Loire whites are expected to be enjoyed soon after bottling. Therefore, most consumers are likely to enjoy the '85s more than the '83s, for it is the light, delicate, early-on taste that is the most favored. Except for Muscadet, Coteaux de la Loire, and Anjou, Coteaux de la Loire, most of the wines are not sold under the label of the Loire but under their respective district names.
Alternatives to White Burgundies
With major French whites such as white Burgundy climbing to astronomical price heights, the Loire wines will make good interim, if not permanent, alternatives. Their fresh liveliness and delicacy can become addicting so that an overpriced white Burgundy like Pouilly Fuisse, now being marketed at $20 and up, may soon be forgotten.
Muscadet, whether a 1983 or a 1985, is a solid choice. Better and costlier bottles carry the term " Mis en Bouteille Sur Lie ," representing the bottling of wine directly off its lees from the fermenting vat to give an especially fruity, fresh, flavorful taste and an attractive petillance, a slight touch of effervescence. It is a time-honored procedure that is considered classic and distinctive.
Made by a grape of Burgundian origin, known as Melon de Bourgogne (or Gamay Blanc), Muscadets are considered noble companions for fish and seafood, emphasizing freshness and a delicately tart style that is best enjoyed at table rather than for independent sipping. Look for three different Muscadet appellations: Muscadet de Sevre et Maine, considered the best, followed by the Muscadet des Coteaux de la Loire, covering communes on both sides of the river, and those with the simple label of Muscadet. The first two are considered better because production is limited to 40 hectoliters per hectare, whereas a simple Muscadet appellation is allowed 50 hectoliters. The Coteaux is generally considered drier with less fruit, whereas the Sevre et Maine is likely to show better at a younger age with more fruit and grace.