Loire Valley 101 and 102:
I got a fever, and the only prescription is more Loire Valley.
Enjoyed by wine geeks like me and a new frontier to those less involved but with a healthy wine curiosity, Loire Valley wines have a lot to offer. The variety and learning-curve can overwhelm if you go down its rabbit hole, but you don’t have to take that plunge to “get” Loire Valley wines. I’m going to tell you the most important regions and grapes to know (Loire 101) and point out next steps if you want to move forward (Loire 102).
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My professional identity is Wine Guy. With this column, I aim to come equally strong with my food and cooking background. And perhaps most importantly, the vesica piscis of the two. (What, you don’t know what the vesica piscis is? When two circles partially overlap, it’s the space the circles co-own. I just looked it up.) Traditional pairings and new ideas – some I’ve tried, the others I’ve added to my to-do list. Loire Valley Wine is a great topic to show you what I mean. And ideal to softly sell my upcoming Loire Valley wine dinners with Monday Bakery & Café. Details at the end.
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For this little Loire Valley wine lesson to stick. we need a map. I’m looking at one on Vineyards.com. Or search “Loire Valley Wine Map” and pick one of the many (can’t go wrong with Wine Folly…endless useful wine information). We’ll move from west to east: mouth of the Loire River on the Atlantic to the heart of France, 120 miles south of Paris. We’re in Northern France, a cooler region for winemaking. You probably know cooler wine regions tend to produce higher acid wines. If you don’t, now you do.
South and east of the city of Nantes is the Muscadet region (both the wine appellation and the wine itself: foundation of French wine 101). The grape grown to make Muscadet wine is Melon de Bourgogne (in the region the grape is called Muscadet…why not).
Expect Muscadet to be very tangy if not tart, low alcohol (around 12%) and taste of yellow citrus and fresh green apples. Cool, unmitigated Atlantic air, 15 miles to the west, moderates ripening, opening the door to non-fruity “crunchy” sensations wine guys like me describe as oyster shells and rocky. More, much more, on that as we progress.
Important to note because I get this a lot at Outer Space Wines: Muscadet has not relationship to Muscat. None. Zilch. Unfortunate naming. Food pairing: oysters, mussels and clams oh my are classic. Ceviche is ce-delish-ay, especially with chunks of avocado in it. I really like avocado generously seasoned with lime and salt, with Muscadet. And good news: Muscadet is, or should be, inexpensive: $12-$25 retail. Find one you like and make it your house white.
Let’s go 100 miles east to the town of Chinon where the red wine is made from Cabernet Franc. If you want a wine that tastes like France, I suggest Chinon. Its peppery berry, garden herbs, licoricey smells and flavors speak to the place and make me yearn for French Café food and an Édith Piaf playlist.
A broader spectrum of styles than Muscadet due to different soils and microclimates, and because it’s red, Chinon asks you to try a few different ones to decide what you like. Heck, like them all, from the dark, bloody, robust ones to the bright red and floral styles…but always with a cool climate acidity to make food pairings a joy. And no cookbooks needed either. Grilled teriyaki chicken, pork or fish and fried rice with Chinon make great matches.
After Chinon, find yourself a bottle of Saumur-Champigny. It’s just west of Chinon, also made from Cabernet Franc, and typically lighter, like a peppery Pinot Noir. Better with hot dogs.
Next stop, 30 miles east and through the city of Tours, is Vouvray, where Chenin Blanc is the grape. I so love these wines, their honey-apple fragrance, citrusy snap and potato chip crunch. And all styles from super-dry (called “sec” on the bottle) to gorgeous dessert wines best with fresh fruit and strong cheese. For everyday enjoyment, dry is the way to go.
It’s a good evening news wine (that’s what I call wines good without food) and even better with battered and fried fish and French fries. Oh what I wouldn’t give right now for a fish & chips platter and a cold bottle of Vouvray! Somebody help me.
Vouvray’s versatility goes beyond the still stuff. Sparkling Vouvray, also made from Chenin Blanc, is joy in your glass. For a good time have it with fried cream cheese won tons or samosas from your friends at Trader Joe’s.
Final stop on our journey, a full 250 miles from the Atlantic, is Sancerre, considered by most to be the quintessential wine of the Loire Valley. The grape is Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre makes the most transparent version of the grape, bar none.
Usually unoaked or neutral oak-aged, Sancerre tastes of lemons, grapefruits, kiwi, honeydew melon and lemongrass. The best ones have an intensity that command attention.
They should be enjoyed with food. Goat cheese is another prideful Sancerre industry. Crumble fresh goat cheese over a green salad, or go très authentique and pan-fry a breaded crottin of goat cheese for that green salad and a French baguette. Don’t forget the Sancerre!
Sadly the price of Sancerre has jumped the last few years so be prepared to pay $30-plus for good one. At Outer Space Wines, I have one for $29 I think competes with any out there.
Red Sancerre is made from Pinot Noir and is quite rare, but you can find it. The price is usually too high for what you get, in my opinion. Buy Burgundy or Beaujolais instead.
Now that I have your Loire juices flowing, want to join me for a Loire Valley wine dinner? I’m hosting two of them in partnership with Monday Bakery & Café on Sunday, March 5, and Monday, March 6.
We start in Outer Space at 6 p.m. for Muscadet and Sancerre with passed apps then go to Monday Bakery for a three-course dinner paired with Vouvray, Chinon and finally Savennières for dessert. Go to OuterSpace.wine/tastings for the menu and to buy your ticket ($125 per person).
Dan Dawson has been a wine and food professional in the Napa Valley since 1992. He is the owner/operator of Outer Space Wines, a wine shop, wine bar and event space at 974 Franklin Street in Downtown Napa. Come visit – space suit not required.