As a sommelier, I’m often asked: “what is the secret to finding good wine?” There’s no single answer to the question, but there are a few words and phrases I suggest that can lead to excellent quality and value. One of my favorite “secret passwords” for white wine lovers is “Loire.”
The Loire River Valley in France is unfortunately overlooked in the United States, and while I hope that the great Loire wineries gain the recognition they deserve, I’m happy to enjoy their wines at relatively low prices for now. The wines from Loire are consistently enjoyable, well priced, and good with food.
The Loire River flows from central France in the East to the Atlantic in the West. The region is known for seafood in the coastal area near Nantes, as well as its pastoral villages, graceful Chateaux, and soft goat’s milk cheese, like chevre. The Loire’s banks are home to a wide variety of vineyards and climates that yield a multitude of complex, refreshing, and elegant wines. Among the wines from Loire, my favorites are the white wines made from three grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne.
The Sancerre area in the inland, eastern portion of the Loire Valley produces crisp, invigorating Sauvignon Blanc with a distinctive character. It still retains the citrus fruit and fresh cut grass notes of traditional Sauvignon Blanc but subsumed under a bouquet of wildflower, white peach, and Asian Pear. Sancerre enriches any dinner table and pairs especially well with greens salads, asparagus, tuna salad, and pasta served with pesto.
Named for the village of Pouilly-sur-Loire and the smoky aroma of the wine (“fumé” in French). This smoke character is often compared with gunflint – the French attribute it to the unique, flinty soil of the area. Pouilly-Fumé tends to be fuller bodied than other French Sauvignon Blanc, with some producers even using oak, which is unusual for the variety. The weight and oak treatment leads to wines with aging potential that can be drunk 5-10 years after bottling, although they are also delightful when young. Pouilly-Fumé pairs well with rich, creamy seafood dishes, such as lobster or whitefish in butter sauce.
The Village of Vouvray is a famous source for one of the most underrated grapes: Chenin Blanc. Chenin has the bright, clean, tartness of Sauvignon Blanc without the grassy notes, but it also possesses some of the body and richness of Chardonnay. Vouvray can be found in many styles, from sweet to bone dry – though it is mainly a still wine, it is sometimes offered as sparkling. One of the hallmarks of Chenin Blanc is its high acidity, which makes it a mouthwatering aperitif and lends exceptional aging potential for a white wine. The best Vouvray can age for 20-100 years, but it is delicious in its first few years as well. Pair Vouvray with lighter dishes that feature tart ingredients, like citrus. Sweeter Vouvray would be great with orange chicken, coleslaw, or salads with vinegar dressing, while dryer Vouvray is nice with fish in lemon sauce and other citrus-based dishes.
The coastal region around the city of Nantes is known for its shellfish and the perfect accompaniment: Muscadet. Made from the grape Melon de Bourgogne, Muscadet is so subtle in its flavor that it benefits from substantial time “sur lie,” or on the lees. In other words, after the wine has completed its fermentation, it is left to soak up flavor from the leftover yeast in the tank. This process results in a relatively fuller body – although Muscadet remains a light-bodied wine – and a richer, yeasty flavor. The subtlety of Muscadet is its greatest strength with shellfish because it complements the food, rather than overwhelming it. Drink Muscadet with simple preparations of oysters, mussels, and clams.
Keeping the Loire Valley in mind on your search for white wines will lead you to wines of variety, quality, and value – your guests will ask for your secret to find the best affordable whites.