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The Loire Valley: Home of Great Sauvignon Blancs
By Ed McCarthy
Apr 3, 2007
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Sauvignon Blanc, long the Pretender to the White Wine Throne of Queen Chardonnay, is once again making serious attempts to depose the queen.  The popularity of New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, accentuated by sales of its Cloudy Bay brand in the U.S., started the current revival about twenty years ago. Today, high-quality Sauvignon Blancs are being produced in many other wine regions throughout the world, including South Africa, Friuli and Alto Adige in Northeast Italy, and lately, Chile.  Two regions in France--Bordeaux and the Loire Valley--have always made fine Sauvignon Blanc wines, but lately, the Loire Valley in particular is really focusing on this variety.

The Loire Valley is undoubtedly France's most diversified wine region; every type of wine is made here: red, white, rosé, sparkling and dessert wines.  It is also the largest region in area in France, extending from just south of Paris all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in the west, as it follows the path of the mighty Loire, France's longest river.  Of all its wines, the Loire Valley is most renowned for its white wines, and is in fact France's largest white wine region.  Three types of white wine dominate: Muscadet in the Western Loire, near the Atlantic; Chenin Blanc-based wines, such as Vouvray and Savennières in the central part of the Valley; and Sauvignon Blanc wines, such as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, in the Upper Loire, south of Paris.  In the past we basically saw only Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé from the Upper Loire in the U.S.; now seven different Loire districts are sending their Sauvignon Blancs to the U.S., and some of these wines are not only excellent, but also great values.

Besides Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the other Loire Valley Sauvignons that are now in the U.S. are Ménétou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly, Coteaux du Giennois, and Touraine Sauvignon.  The first six regions are fairly close to each other in the Upper Loire, while Touraine Sauvignon is to the west, near the city of Tours.

Sancerre is the largest and most renowned region for Loire Sauvignon wines.   About 20 percent of Sancerre's wines are red or rosé, made from Pinot Noir, but Sancerre's white wines have made it one of the world's best-known wine regions.  Sancerre's vineyards spread out over 14 different villages; the communes with the most renowned vineyards in addition to Sancerre itself are Chavignol, Bué, and Verdigny, and their names usually are on the label.  Sancerre's white wines are light- to medium-bodied, crisp and lively, with minerally, green-grass, and citrus aromas and flavors, and they are typically un-oaked.  Retail prices for most Sancerres range from $16 to $25.  I especially love the crisp bite of a cool Sancerre on warm afternoons.

The town of Poilly-sur-Loire, the home of Pouilly-Fumé, lies across the Loire River from Sancerre.  Only white wine is  made here, about half as much as white Sancerre.  Pouilly-Fumé is not quite so herbaceous and spicy, and it generally has a distinct flinty, minerally aroma.  It's usually more full-bodied and rounder than Sancerre, with less lively acidity.  Although most Loire white wines are unoaked, you can find more examples of oak-aged wines among the more expensive Pouilly-Fumés than in any of the other appellations.  Pouilly-Fumés retail in the $20 to $38 range, with a few even higher.

For me, some of the most exciting Loire Sauvignon Blancs are coming from three appellations that are only now emerging from obscurity--Ménétou-Salon, Quincy, and Reuilly.  Ménétou-Salon, south of Sancerre, a district of ten villages centered by Ménétou-Salon itself, produces 60 percent white Ménétou-Salon and 40 percent red and rosé from Pinot Noir.  White Ménétou-Salon wines are closest in style to Sancerre, but they generally cost less--about $15 to $18 a bottle.  Henri Pelle and Domaine de Chatenoy are Ménétou-Salon's most renowned producers.  And by the way, if you come across a red or rosé Ménétou-Salon, by all means try it; its delicate Pinot Noir flavors are enticing.

The first thing to learn about Quincy is how to pronounce it: CAN-SEE.  I tried finding Quincy in the U.S. five years ago, but was unsuccessful; they're here now, and they're exceptional bargains!  Quincy, southwest of both Sancerre and Ménétou-Salon, produces only white wine.  It is very fresh and lively, with ripe grapefruit aromas and flavors.  I love it!  And I also love its cost: $12 to $15 a bottle, retail.

Reuilly is the smallest of the seven districts in the Loire specializing in Sauvignon Blancs; southwest of Quincy, it produces only 60,000 cases of white Reuilly a year, and 60,000 cases of red and rosé.  Both white Reuilly and Quincy are lighter-bodied than Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and they usually have more pronounced acidity and assertive herbal aromas.  White Reuilly costs about $13 to $18.

Coteaux du Giennois, which just received its AOC status in 1998, is north of Sancerre.  Although 70 percent of its wines are light red or rosé, it produces about 50,000 cases of white wine per year-all Sauvignon Blanc.  White Coteaux du Giennois, a lighter-bodied version of Sancerre, remains difficult to find in the U.S.; the one producer's wine in the U.S. that I tried, a 2005 Joseph Balland-Chapuis, sells for $13.

The Touraine is actually in the central part of the Loire Valley, but its most eastern part is a fertile area of limestone chalk and sandy topsoils, ideal for Sauvignon Blanc.  Here, about 1.4 million cases of Touraine Sauvignon is produced.  Touraine Sauvignons are typically light, elegant, and a bit riper in flavor than the Sauvignons in the Upper Loire.  They're also less expensive than most other Loire Sauvignons, in the $10 to $15 price range.

Like all Sauvignon Blanc wines--excepting the best white Bordeaux which are mainly Sauvignon Blanc-Sémillon blends--Loire Sauvignons are at their best when they're young and fresh.  Most of them should be consumed within two or three years of the vintage.  The one exception is the more costly, oak-aged Pouilly-Fumés, which are still fine with five or six years of age.

All Loire Sauvignon Blancs are exceptional with goat cheese dishes, such as a warm chevre salad.  They're also great with seafood (especially oysters) and river fish, such as trout. The more full-bodied Pouilly-Fumés also go well with white meat entrées.

I attended a Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc tasting recently, and I was particularly impressed with the wines of the 2004 and 2005 vintages, especially those coming from Quincy, Reuilly, and Ménétou-Salon--all of which tend to be great values. The following are some of the wines that impressed me:

Domaine Claude Lafond, Reuilly (Loire Valley, France) Clos Fussay 2005 ($13, Alain Blanchon Selections, NY):  Claude Lafond is generally regarded as the leading producer in the small Reuilly district.  His 2005 Reuilly Clos Fussay has piercing aromas of grapefruit and damp earth, along with minerally flavors, excellent acidity, and very good depth.  An excellent example of this appellation.  89

Domaine Reverdy, Sancerre (Loire Valley,France) Cuvée "Les Coutes" 2004 ($20, David Bowler Wines, NY):  Quite a full, rich wine, especially for the 2004 vintage.  The 2004 Les Coutes has pure citrus aromas and flavors with a clean finish.  It's perfect for drinking now.  88

Domaine Yves Martin, Sancerre-Chavignol (Loire Valley, France) 2005 ($18, David Bowler Wines, NY):  The flavor of the 2005 Sancerre-Chavignol of Yves Martin is a great expression of the chalkiness of the soil in the region.  It is concentrated, rich, and fruity, but has lively acidity.  89

La Tour St.-Martin, Ménétou-Salon (Loire Valley, France) Morogues 2004 ($15, Jon-David Headrick Selections, Charlotte, NC): The 2004 Ménétou-Salon Morogues exhibits piercing aromas of grapefruit skin and minerals, with a chalky texture and great depth.  Its concentrated flavors linger on the finish.  Quite full and rich for a Ménétou-Salon. 90

Domaine Henri Pelle, Ménétou-Salon (Loire Valley, France) Morogues 2005 ($21, Michael Skurnik Wines):  This is expensive for a Ménétou-Salon, but Henri Pelle is a recognized leader in this district.  Dry and clean, with a broad, slightly chalky character and lively acidity.  89

Domaine Mardon, Quincy (Loire Valley, France) Cuvée Vielles Vignes 2005 ($15.50, Michael Skurnik Wines):  Wow!  Domaine Mardon is one of the big names in Quincy, and his 2005 Cuvée Vielles Vignes (85 year-old vines) lives up to its reputation.  Just packed with flavor and exotic  orange aromas.  Its lively acidity makes this Quincy sing.  Very fine, and a great value.  A Daniel Johnnes Selection.  91

Domaine J & F Bailly-Reverdy, Sancerre-Chavignol (Loire Valley, France) 2005 ($19, Michael Skurnik Wines):  The 2005 Sancerres seem to be unusually full and rich for this appellation.  The 2005 Bailly-Reverdy Sancerre-Chavignol has smoky aromas plus broad, minerally flavors.  A very fine Sancerre that is ready to drink.  A Daniel Johnnes Selection.  90

Domaine Henri Bourgeois, Sancerre (Loire Valley, France) "La Porte du Caillou" 2005 ($18, Monsieur Touton Selection):  Henri Bourgeois has been consistently one of the finest producers of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc wines. His 2005 La Porte du Caillou is excellent; is lean and lively with a chalky texture, ripe citrus flavors, and great depth. 90

Domaine Henri Bourgeois, Quincy (Loire Valley, France) "Les Victoires" 2005 ($14, Monsieur Touton Selection):  Henri Bourgeois's Quincy is even better than his more renowned Sancerre, and it's less expensive.  An excellent example of Quincy, it is lively and crisp, with concentrated grapefruit and herbal flavors.  Try it with seafood appetizers.  91

Domaine Claude Lafond, Reuilly (Loire Valley, France) Château Gaillard 2004 ($17.50, VOS Selections):  A great Reuilly!  Lots of flinty, smoky aromas and flavors, with a touch of damp earth.  Very lively, with a long finish.  Claude Lafond's best Reuilly.  91

Domaine du Tremblay, Quincy (Loire Valley, France) "Jean Tatin" 2005 ($16, VOS Selections): Piercing aromas of fresh lime and grapefruit, along with crisp acidity and ripe citrus flavors. Great balance.  My house Sauvignon Blanc.  90

Domaine de Chatenoy, Ménétou-Salon (Loire Valley, France) 2005 ($16, VOS Selections):  Pierre Clement, the young winemaker of Domaine de Chatenoy, leaves his wine on its lees for an extra long time, which lends maximum extraction of fruit, aromas and flavors.  His 2005 has flavors of pure grapefruit skin and apricot, with lots of concentration and minerality.  State-of-the-art Ménétou-Salon.  90