Best New Wines from the Central Loire

Perhaps no area in France resists categorization more stubbornly than the central Loire Valley. Encompassing almost 50 different appellations (I say “almost” because new AOCs continue to pop up), this region extends roughly from just east of the Atlantic coast city of Nantes to Reuilly, which lies just south and west of Sancerre. The entire Loire Valley wine region stretches nearly 250 miles from east to west as the crow flies (and a lot farther than that if you follow the river), and the appellations that comprise the central Loire account for more than half of that distance.

Most casual wine lovers are familiar with the off-dry wines of Vouvray, this region’s most famous appellation, but in a given vintage Vouvray produces 100%-chenin blanc wines that range from bone-dry sparkling wines that can sometimes rival Champagne in quality, to dry still wines that can rattle the teeth as well as any Muscadet or Chablis, to late-harvested, nectar-like sweet wines that are richer than anything made in Sauternes or Alsace. This area is also home to Chinon and Bourgueil, whose red wines are made from cabernet franc. Until the early ‘90s, too many of the examples that made their way to the U.S. were underripe, showing more weedy and vegetal character than sweet fruit. Today there are dozens of these wines in national distribution that defy that stereotype.

The Central Loire’s most historically important AOC for bone-dry white wines is Savennières, but most producers are small, and strong domestic demand absorbs a good portion of these wines. Fortunately, small quantities of wines from the best producers are available here, even if they often require a little sleuthing to find. Just south of Savennières are the relatively well-known (among wine geeks) sweet wine-producing appellations of Coteaux du Layon and Chaume, whose wines are available here spottily, but not usually found at the typical booze and beer emporium.

As the growing coterie of Loire Valley fans waits in anticipation of the much-hyped 2009 vintage, some very good 2008 and 2007 wines are already beginning to gather dust in producers’ cellars and on retail shelves, along with other French wines from numerous regions. Roughly speaking, these are vintages whose wines are built along classic lines, with moderate levels of ripeness and healthy acidity. Spring frosts in 2008 kept harvests low throughout the Loire Valley and yields were off by about a third here. The good news is that a cool summer allowed for slow maturation of the grapes and, in some cases, above-average concentration to the wines. But this wasn’t an especially ripe vintage, so the wines retain freshness and energy. The 2007 growing season was marked by a damp summer and resultant mildew, but the most conscientious growers—the ones that tend to be covered in these pages—had the time to thin out affected grapes and the last three weeks of the season were dry and warm, which to a certain extent saved the vintage. That said, the ’07s tend to built on the classic model, which means if you’re looking for fireworks you’re probably going to be happier waiting for the more dramatically ripe 2009s, just now starting to appear here.

Almost as intriguing as the diversity of sites and soils in the central Loire is the food compatibility of its wines. As a group, they all tend to be high in acidity thanks to the coolness of the entire region. This isn’t the place to find amped-up, high-glycerol fruit bombs, and it is also rare to find wines made in small, new oak casks—a good thing, as the casks impart an exotic wood character that would overwhelm all but a handful of these wines. A few red wine producers in Chinon and Saumur-Champigny have fiddled around with new barriques but the results have rarely impressed me, chiefly because the character of the oak is usually way too pronounced for the wines to show anything but the lumber.

Many people find the herbal character of most Loire reds (and 2007 and 2008 are not vintages of big, sweet fruit) tough going by themselves; but with food the fruit tends to come to the fore, and the tangy acidity keeps the wines refreshing. It’s the rare Loire red that will take center stage at the table, which is exactly why they are prized in France as vins de gastronomie, or wines for enjoying with food.

While they’re harder to find, many intriguing gamay- and malbec-based wines are produced in the Touraine region, the best of them reminiscent of high-class cru Beaujolais, with refreshing acidity and expressive red fruit character. Unlike the more famous but standoffish cabernet franc versions, these Loire reds are pretty irresistible, with a light, refreshing character that makes them enjoyable by themselves. The malbecs (the grape is called cot here) are richer and more ageworthy but tend to be far more elegant than their southwest France or Argentine cousins.

A good range of sauvignon blancs from the extended Touraine area is also available in the market, and a few of them compare favorably with the wines of the eastern Loire, such as Quincy and even Sancerre. This is fertile ground for reasonably priced, racy whites that will appeal to fans of New Zealand sauvignon blancs, and they can often be less expensive. Even more interesting, in my opinion, are the sauvignon blanc-based wines coming from neighboring Cheverny, the best of which are usually very reasonably priced for their quality.

The natural fruitiness of the chenin blanc grape makes it perhaps the most flexible white variety of all with food, even more so than riesling. Even at their driest, Vouvray and Montlouis have a certain chewiness of texture that allows them to work with richer foods while all but the most powerful rieslings would be put in the shade. These are excellent wines to pair with poultry and rich fish dishes, as well as with strong cheeses. Their expressive fruitiness also makes them very easy to drink on their own. The late-harvested chenins of Coteaux du Layon, Chaume and, again, Vouvray and Montlouis, are sometimes unctuous and sweet enough to be served as dessert itself, but the classic pairing is with fruit tarts or pies, or simply with fruit. My personal preference is to serve them just before dessert, with cheeses—especially blues, washed-rind versions and double- or triple-cream styles.