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Underrated Loire Valley Wines Offer Heady Bargains for Consumers : These Reds Lack Popularity, but Offer Charm, Delicacy

November 13, 1986|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

The red wines of the Loire Valley have long unjustly suffered from a bum rap. Bad-mouthed by prejudiced Bordeaux and Burgundy wine authorities as lackluster, light-structured and short-lived, it is no wonder the wines have never attained their deserved popularity. This unfortunate situation for Loire vintners, however, has become a plus for consumers who can currently buy these wines of beguiling charm and subtle delicacy for reasonable prices at less than $10.

The best come from near the town of Touraine from the vineyard regions and villages of Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil and Anjou. Made principally from the Cabernet Franc grape, also known in the Loire as the Breton, the wines generally offer fine varietal fruit and a zesty spiced taste without oppressive tannin producing astringency. They are excellent table mates for veal, chicken and beef and even for Touraine's prized wild game dishes. Some wineries incorporate Cabernet Sauvignon grapes into the blend to add punch and durability.

Easy to Drink

Because of the lightness and early charm of concentrated fruit intensity, do not confuse these wines with Beaujolais, the styles are decidedly distinct. Loire reds are racier and leaner with aromas that are described by local vintners as violet for Chinon wines and raspberry for Bourgueil. Frankly, I could not always perceive the difference but I found as much pleasure in the aromas as in the taste.

The wines are exceptionally easy to drink. They seldom show harsh edges and consumers who shy away from reds in general should find them pleasing even with a hamburger. Long-term cellaring is not necessary and indeed the long, soft, supple flavors so typical of the style are meant for early drinking. Some authorities suggest five to six years of age to develop all of the depth and complexity, but frankly the pleasure and even the nuances seem to be available soon after bottling.

An arch advocate of Loire reds was Francois Rabelais, the noted 16th-Century satirist and gourmand and native son of Chinon, who frequently sang the praises of these wines.

Andre Simon, the late founder of the International Wine and Food Society and esteemed wine author, not only liked the wines but also was able to distinguish them. He said, "Bourgueil reds have an obvious family likeness to those of Chinon across the Loire, but they are generally more masculine, that is a rather bigger frame and more assertive, . . . their bouquet is more reminiscent of the raspberry than the violet." It is difficult to say which is better, but in France Bourgueil is better known, maybe even more favored, because of its greater production.

A delightful wine and one that is sold in the United States, Bourgueil Audebert, "Cuvee du Centenare, Liberte" is typical of the agreeable style and a delight to drink. Made by Jean Claude Audebert, it uses Cabernet Franc grapes entirely, displaying a light, lean, peppery taste with a light bubbly touch of petillance for added zest.

According to Audebert, the vintage of 1985 qualifies as excellent and occurs only once in 10 years. Interestingly, the bottle carries a stamped and serigraphed label featuring a likeness of the Statue of Liberty and for its restoration he donated 1.5 francs for each bottle sold. This is an excellent example of a fine Bourgueil and at $6 it is a good value.

Worthy of Long-Term Cellaring

For contrast, Audebert offered a 1976 Bourgueil with the vineyard designation of Domaine du Gran Clos. It showed an obvious violet nose, a thicker body with lovely developed seductively generous Cabernet Franc flavors, all of which belie the myth that Loire reds do not age and develop complexities. While all Loire reds cannot be aged with complexity as a goal, there are many like this bottle that are worthy of longer term cellaring.

Besides reds, Chinon produces whites made from the Chenin Blanc grape. Generally these whites are not as favored as the reds, but one is especially deserving. I tasted it at Chateau de Marcay near Chinon, a beautifully appointed 15th-Century chateau now functioning as a hotel. Chenin Blanc, 1984, Olga Raffault, is a must buy, for here is a rich 100% Chenin Blanc, somewhat austere yet with lovely nuances that come across in a style suggesting a blend of Vouvray and Chablis. Its earthy finish is an easy companion for most white wine foods and was perhaps the best white I sampled. A superbly made wine, but alas, in small production.

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