Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume and Muscadet

Lovers of brisk, nervy, dry white wines who feel forced out of their traditional hunting grounds by the growing number of outsized, alarmingly sweet bottlings can, at least for now, find plenty of options in the eastern Loire Valley’s Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé—and of course in the bracing Muscadets made at the opposite end of the Loire, on the Atlantic Coast.

Sancerre/Pouilly-Fumé. The vast majority of these wines are raised completely in stainless steel, bottled in the spring following the harvest and made for drinking over the subsequent two to three years. Exceptions to this rule are beginning to emerge, however, as more and more producers experiment with barriques and later harvesting. To my palate, results are mixed, with many of these bottlings showing more in common with barrel-raised wines of Burgundy than with traditional Loire whites. As might be expected, these wines aren’t cheap either.

Two thousand five is being hailed as the greatest vintage for the Loire Valley in years, if not decades, and on paper at least, weather conditions and some technical numbers support this assertion. The potential downside is that ripeness was rampant, as was the case across Europe, with growers in some parts of the Loire reportedly bringing in sauvignon blanc at potential alcohol levels as high as 16%. Does bigger mean better? Maybe it does in the case of 2005; I certainly found the best examples to be pretty convincing. And many Loire insiders grumble that white wines from 2004 in the eastern Loire are marked by dilute or underripe qualities. This was due to a large crop (albeit thinned by conscientious growers) and late-season rainstorms that hit the region hard throughout the harvest. The ‘04s do indeed frequently show distinctly tart qualities but they also make for delicious and refreshing early drinking—now and over the next couple of years. Loire Valley aficionados who struggled to find wines to their liking from the hot 2003 vintage have gobbled up many 2004s by now, but numerous bottlings are still in wide distribution, especially later-released cuvées.

In my report on Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé below, I have also included notes on some other sauvignon blanc wines from the eastern Loire Valley, as the best wines from appellations like Reuilly and Quincy can offer terrific value. (I have also included notes on a few of the top rosé bottlings I found, even though these wines are made from pinot noir.)

Muscadet. By now, it’s accepted wisdom that 2005 is the best Muscadet vintage in recent memory, eclipsing 2004 and 2002, which awakened the U.S. market to the potential quality of this long-ignored region. While I tasted a number of truly outstanding examples of 2005 this year, I couldn’t help feeling that many 2004 bottlings were finer, more precise, more delicate and more vibrant—in other words, more classic Muscadet. The best 2005s have size and ripeness, to be sure, but in some cases this comes at the expense of clarity and minerality. Others will no doubt disagree, pointing to the muscularity and depth of so many 2005s. But in Muscadet, sheer concentration and power aren’t necessarily an improvement.

Muscadets such as most of those profiled here can often age and improve along a timeline not unlike that of village-level white Burgundy and can also share some aromatic, textural and flavor qualities with Chablis—but at much lower prices. It’s very rare to pay more than $16 for the best examples and many superb wines retail for $10 and even less, making top Muscadets among the greatest white wine values in the market. Fans of steely, truly dry, mineral-driven wines will find much to love in the two current vintages.