Monday, January 4, 2010

In Praise of Loire Valley Reds

When you think of the wines of the Loire Valley, the color red doesn't come to mind right away for most folks.  I remember when I began learning about wine, I fell in love with the bracing acid of Muscadet, the lovely citrus-lemongrass flavor of Sancerre, and the earthy apple notes of Vouvray Sec.  It was some amount of time, however before I even knew about the lake of cheap sparkling wines and rare reds produced in the same region.  In past decades the climate has been too cold to produce anything more than a light fruity Gamay or a vegetal and thin Cabernet Franc, thus perpetuating the stigma against reds from the Loire.

You'll most commonly see Loire reds from Bourgueil and Chinon on the wine market here in Boston. However, you can occasionally find Pinot Noir based St. Nicolas, and you might even find a rare Sancerre rouge, also made from Pinot Noir, if you look hard enough.  The Loire is an ever-evolving region becoming more complex by the day in the AOC system as a result of increased efforts in wine-making and better understanding of vineyard practices in recent years. You'll find some terrific values for some serious types of reds that defy the stereotype of light and fruity or thin and tart commonly associated with the Loire reds if you're shopping in the right stores.  In fact, with global warming in effect, I have a feeling the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes growing in the Loire will begin to reach unheard of levels of ripeness and the wines will improve in the coming decade as they already have over the past one.

I'm particularly fond of Catherine and Pierre Breton's lineup of Chinons and Bourgueils.  Pierre has been making wine there since the early 80's and the couple bought an estate in 1989.  They produce wines in the biodynamic tradition using the moon, tides, local terroir, and natural preparations of fertilizer and pesticide to grow and harvest their mostly red grapes following the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner.  The results are stunning, earthy, profound wines that have plenty of structure, fruit, and potential for aging.  I also like that they seldom exceed 13% alcohol, yet still are satisfying to drink and are rich in flavor. They bottle Bourgueil and Chinon on a couple different levels starting with Trinch! at around $12 a bottle and topping out around $25 to $30 for their high end.  I've certainly had many more expensive bottles that I have enjoyed far less, so I don't mind spending a bit more than I am accustomed to for one of their upper end wines every once in a while.

Loire reds, especially those made by the Bretons, are a really great example of out of the way wines to be found that can be really great if you're willing to do a little investigating.  After you've done you're homework, you know what to look for in a wine shop. Be willing to challenge your palete a bit with some unusual flavors, and you're bound to find some amazing values along the way.  Look for the Breton wines and those of other quality minded-producers of Loire reds.  I think you'll be surprised at how much you enjoy the honesty and charm of these vastly underrated wines.

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