Best New Wines from the Loire Valley

Although some 1996 Loire Valley wines have already disappeared from the marketplace, most of the vintage more serious dry reds as well as many whites are now available on retail shelves. Fans of these lively, aromatic, food friendly wines should snap up these bottles, as 1996 was a consistently superb vintage that produced wines with rare staying power both on the palate and in the cellar. 1996 is a classic year for cabernet franc, having yielded wines with a rare combination of ripe flavors, sound grape sugars, fleshy texture and bright acids. They tend to be firmly tannic, but the tannins are unusually silky. Best of all, these wines rarely show the herbaceous flavors that characterize less ripe years.

The '96 Sancerres and Pouilly Fumes, as my early notes last year made clear, are concentrated, brisk and beautifully balanced. Thorough flavor development, in conjunction with strong acidity levels, helps them express their terroir more successfully than any other recent vintage. Another reason to stock up on these wines: prices continue to be remarkably stable for Loire Valley dry wines. Little or no price premium has been charged for the exceptional '96 vintage.

If the '97s from the Loire Valley don't match the '96s for bracing acidity and convincing soil tones, the best of them boast glorious fruit, thanks to a warm and sunny September. Although sauvignon blancs have a tendency toward high alcohol and low acidity, flavors are generally fresh, and there is little evidence of the cooked fruit or incipient oxidation notes shown by so many wines from the last low acid vintage, 1994. But the less impressive examples of '97 show the effects of too rapid ripening or high crop levels: less depth of flavor, more evidence of alcohol, less authoritative finishes. In general, the '97 sauvignon blancs are already quite open, and are best suited for early consumption.

Cabernet franc from the '97 vintage tends to be fruit driven as well. Where yields were reasonable, the wines have healthy colors, good concentration, and attractively plump textures thanks to high grape sugars. As a rule, these wines should also be consumed on the early side. But note that most of the more serious producers of Chinon and Bourgueil have not yet released their wines, and it is possible that the best of these will show more serious structures for medium term aging.

By all accounts, 1997 produced a host of extremely rich botrytis wines from appellations like Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, not to mention Vouvray and Montlouis. (In '96, in contrast, there was less noble rot, though many sweet wines were made from grapes dried and concentrated by passerillage.) The same showery period at the end of August '97 that triggered gray rot in some cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc vineyards, making picking dates and the elimination of damaged fruit crucial, led to an outbreak of noble rot in the best chenin blanc sites. Many growers harvested terrific raw material during early tries through their vines in September and others waited for even greater concentration of sugars. Reports are widespread of wines with freakishly high grape sugars, but these cuvees are only now beginning to be released. I hope to follow up on these wines, as well as on additional 1997 dry wines, as they arrive in the U.S. market.

I have organized my coverage on the following pages by geography, beginning in the Central Loire with the best sauvignon blanc wines and proceeding westward.