The Vines of Summer :: Loire Valley Wines at Fenway Park
The Boston stop of the Loire Valley Wines event took place on a perfect day for baseball: A sunny afternoon in April, with the venue being nothing less than the EMC Club at Fenway Park, an elegant space overlooking the field. The class of fine French wines together with the city’s celebrated sports culture may not seem an obvious match, but given that Fenway Park is now in its centennial, what better fit could there be? (In a twist, the event’s second, and final, stop in the U.S. was slated for two days later, in New York--the home city of the Red Sox’s greatest rivals.)
Fifteen Loire Valley estates were at the event with samples of their wares on hand--far too many for even the most tireless of palates. One needs to plan carefully under such circumstances, and I had a few minutes to spare in any case while waiting for my husband to join me. Looking over the event’s booklet gave me a chance to refresh my Loire Valley wine lore prior to sampling the vintages.
The booklet noted a few points of interest regarding the Loire Valley and its vineyards. The valley contains the Loire River, "the longest river in France and the last wild river in Europe," the notes read. "It rises in the south, not far from the Mediterranean coast, and empties into the Atlantic Ocean in the northwest of the country. Along the way, it flows through France’s longest and most diverse wine region," with vineyards stretching for some 300 miles along the river’s length, which wends through "several distinct climates and a wide variety of soils," a geographic characteristic that results in "five distinct regions, each with its own characteristic varietals and wine styles."
The wines of the Loire Valley are made with familiar varietals such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Pinot Noir, and Malbec, not to mention Gamay, Grolleau, and Romorantin, among others. The region produces more than 72 appellations, wines with distinctive characteristics derived from the climate and soil of the locale where the grapes are grown. Among them are better-known sorts of wine such as Anjou, Pouilly-Fumé, Cheverny, and several kinds of Muscadet.
There were also appellations I’d never tried. The event was going to be an education, and I kept an eye to the unfamiliar as well as beloved appellations as I strategized. Sancerre? Mais oui! Saumur Blanc? Yes, please! Crémant de Loire? Well, maybe not. Sparkling wines aren’t really my thing (unless it’s New Year’s or a special occasion, and those call for Veuve Cliquot)... though, as it turned out, I did sample a few at this event.
Suddenly I heard a bright ripple of laughter from near the door. My husband had arrived, and was charming the staff. He’s a Scotch man, my husband is, but he was game to try out the Loire Valley wines with me and offer his input.
I had chosen nine checkpoints for our Loire Valley wine trawl, based mostly on the varietals used by the different producers. Our first stop was the table of Benoit Daridan, where wine rep Jeanne Delattre poured from a bottle of Cour-Cheverny Blanc, Vendangé à la Main, 2010.
"We can produce dry white wines, or also sweet," she told us of the family-owned vineyards that cover a 14-acre estate.
The Cour-Cheverny Blanc, made with 100% Romorantin grapes, was a little of both, with a dry nose and a flavor that boasted first a palette of walnut with a touch of olive, before shading into citrus notes and an aroma of honey in the finish. The overall effect was light, bright, and just acid enough to lend the wine a bit of a kick. Jeanette informed us that this was a wine that could be cellared for up to a decade and would age well.
The second glass Jeanette us was Cheverny Blanc, 2011 made from 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Chardonnay. This was a very different wine: The aromatic nose announced the citrus up front, and an earthy minerality characterized the flavor. Jeanette pointed out that the vines grow in a siliceous clay soil.
The third glass she poured was a delicate red, so light and fruity that is was more like a rosé wine. This was the Cheverny Rouge, 2010 made from 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Gamay. The red fruit and berry was bolstered by an undercurrent of earth and iron.
Caves de Pouilly sur Loire
Christophe DeNoel greeted us as we stopped by the Caves de Pouilly sur Loire table, where five wines waited to be sampled.
"There is always a good acidity in this wine," DeNoel said, as he poured Domaine Crochet, a crisp 2011 Pouilly-Fumé that carries a touch of oak and notes of apple over a healthy minerality. As DeNoel said, the acidity was in excellent balance here.
The other four Caves de Pouilly sur Loire wines were also Pouilly-Fumés from 2011. The Clou de Pierre was still too young, though it already had an intriguing, dark flavor--a hint of walnut. "This wine will not be too interesting before Christmas," DeNoal reckoned.
The La Bergerie Pouilly-Fumé was a deeper, more complex wine in which a dry, crisp, apple character carried notes of vanilla and honey.
Less complex, but just as crisp, was the Arpents Bleus: Once more, the wine had a definite taste of apple, but in this case there was also citrus, which took this dry white to a slightly different place on the palate.
The Viellottes Pouilly-Fumé offered both a citrus character and a slight sweetness. Though dry, the wine also had a slight effervescence. All of these wines were made with 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which made for fascinating tasting; each glass was distinctive, though the appellation and the grapes used were the same. DeNoel pointed to the different soils as a major factor for the variations. The grapes used for the Viellottes grew in a sand-clay soil, for instance, whereas the grapes used in the Bergerie grew in a "calcaire," which is to say, limestone, soil.
British transplants Charles and Phillippa Sydney were on hand with some bottles of quite tasty wine from their vineyard, which they have run for the past two decades.
"Twenty years ago, all you had to stop fermentation was sulfur," Charles, a cheerful man, told us. "Now you use cooler temperatures, so you have half the sulfur and you’re harvesting the grapes later."
The result is a higher alcoholic content, without compromising the wine’s structure. Moreover, the winery’s fact sheet declared, "We complicate things further by asking our producers to use sustainable vineyard methods."
The Château du Fou Rosé, Fiefs Vendéens-Mareuil, a 2011 vintage, is made from equal parts Pinot Noir and Gamay Noir, with some Cabernet. It’s a delightful glass with strawberry overtones and a jammy mouthfeel that is fulsome but not overly sweet.
The Réserve Spéciale, Saint Pourçain, a 2011 vintage made from 100% Gamay Noir, is a more complex wine sporting the flavors of dark red fruits with notes of iron and leather. Its nose is decidedly floral, with a bouquet of roses foremost in the mix.
La Grille Classic Loire, Malbec, Touraine, also a 2011 vintage, similarly has a floral character, though undergirded with iron. The wine is a bit tannic, but blossoms into a long, peppery finish. Overall, this wine has a light, fresh feeling about it.
The Sacré Blanc, made 100% Chenin Blanc, has a strong floral bouquet, smelling distinctly of narcissus. The flavor, however, is characterized by peach and pear. This wine has a creamy mouthfeel; it’s quite a lush glass, with plenty of character and complexity.
By contrast, the 2010 Domaine des Forges, Coteaux du Layon Chaume, has a very tannic nose, with a hint of turpentine. Don’t be put off, however; as a dessert wine, this glass rules with an extremely intense, yet not cloying, sweetness and a lightly syrupy mouthfeel.
Chateau de Bellevue
Hervé Tijou is a fifth-generation winemaker. "My grandfather bought the castle in 1894," he explained. Now he and his wife, Anne, run the winery.
Chateau de Bellevue had on hand several vintages made from 100% Chenin. The Anjou Blanc, 2011 carries a complex nose and offers a crisp, tart, apple flavor with a hint of citrus and a mineral character.
The Savennières, 2009 offers a tannic, mineral nose, but a buttery / butterscotch flavor. An initial sweetness unfolds into a complex structure of flavor. This is a wine that could stand on its own as an aperitif or pair nicely with fish or white meat.
The Chaume, 2010, is another good candidate for an aperitif. A very sweet wine, this would pair well with rich French fare such as foie gras or bleu cheese. The wine has a syrupy mouthfeel, and a peach / apricot flavor.
The Cabernet d’Anjou, 2011, marks a departure into rosé wine, and is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. A classic rosé, the Cabernet Anjou tastes of red fruit, especially red apple, and berries. It’s a light, refreshing glass that is not too sweet. "In France, young people will drink this on the terrace," Anne noted.
The Crémant de Loire, 2008, is made mostly from Chenin Blanc, but with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Grolleau. This being a sparkling wine, Hervé served it in a flute. The bubbles were not especially tight or tiny, but the wine’s sweet flavor, carrying notes of white fruit, avoided being cloying.
Domaine de Montgilet
Xavier Mangin poured us a glass of Anjou, 2010, a wine made from 100% Chenin. The nose has a character of dark fruit, but the wine is dry to the palate and carries a richness about it, almost an incense.
My husband and I joked with Mangin over the coincidence of his sharing the same last name as a former work colleague who had boasted of his great-grandmother being the most beautiful woman in the world in her day, not to mention the consort to the King of France. By extension, this former work colleague was, evidently, one of the contemporary world’s beautiful denizens. Well, it’s true he was French and charming.
Mangen smiled uncertainly. "It’s a very common name," he told us, doling out glasses of Anjou-Villages Brissac, 2010, a very young vintage made from 100 Cabernet Franc that had only been bottled a couple of months before. This proved to be a very light and refreshing red wine, almost a rosé in character. "We want to have wine that is very drinkable, not with a lot of alcohol," Mangin said. This glass certainly fit the bill.
Bernard Landron of Landron-Chartier, an estate located near Ligné, to the North of the Loire Valley, offered us a taste of his Château de Clermont, Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire sur lie, 2011. This wine is made entirely of Melon de Bourgogne grapes, and carries a slight floral essence with citrus notes above a basic minerality.
The estate’s Tradition, Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire sue lie, 2011, is a younger wine, quite subtle and light, with a refreshing quality. The wine carries hints of citrus and vanilla. The Tradition wines come from vines "planted in gneiss and othogeneiss soils," the winery’s fact sheet noted. "The wines are fresh, fine, and expressive."
Then there’s the Révélation, Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire sur lie, 2009, the vines for which grow in in a schist-rich soil. Made entirely from Melon de Bourgogne grapes, this is a mature wine, quite dry, dark and earthy with walnut notes and the merest suggestion of sweetness. A quality of oak comes out in the finish. A lovely, complex glass, this vintage lives up to its name.
L’Epicourchois - Luc Percher
The Loire Valley has several organic vineyards. Among them is L’Epicourchois, a 9-hectare (22-acre) estate run by Luc and Anne-Marie Percher.
"The harvesting of perfectly ripe grapes and natural fermentation with natural yeasts account for the personality of the wines," the estate’s press notes read. This estate, the notes added, is "Undergoing Organic Agriculture certification."
The Perchers presented seven of their wines at the event, which marked their first trip to the United States. What grander introduction to America than Fenway Park and the city made famous for its Tea Party, an archetypal act of rebellion against tyranny? One by one, Luc and Anne-Marie poured samples of their wines, three whites and four reds, each of them distinctive.
The Cheverny Blanc, 2010, made from not-quite-equal measures of Sauvignon Blanc (60%) and Menu Pineau (40%) carries a sweet nose but offers a dry, fresh flavor of white fruit with notes of vanilla and jicama.
The Racines, Cheverny Blanc, 2009, was a very different wine, partly because it changed the ratios of the same two constituent varietals, being made with 95% Menu Pineau and only 5% Sauvignon Blanc. Sweeter, with a yeasty character that suggests the flavor of a dark beer and a hint of pine nuts.
Completely different again was the Cour Cheverny Blanc, 2009, which offers a dry, vaguely tannic, nose and a bright, very spicy flavor with a sweet undertow. This lovely wine is made entirely from Romorantin grapes.
The Cheverny Rouge, 2008, made from equal parts Pinot Noir and Gamay, is a luscious red wine tasting of dark red berries and offering a peppery finish over a basically mineral character.
The Mosaïque Cheverny Rouge, 2009, repeats the same trick that the Perchers use with the Racines, Cheverny Blanc, and uses the same grapes as the Cheverny Rouge, but in dramatically different measures: 95% Pinot Noir and 5% Gamay. The peppery flavor remains intact, while the minerality gives way to a tannic character that registers both on the palate and in the wine’s nose. This is a very dry vintage.
The Mêlée, Vin de Pays du Val de Loire, 2010, made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay Noir, and a dash of Pinot Noir, is another very dry wine, with little character compared to the vineyard’s other offerings and certainly not much of a fracas going on. The nose carries a quality of leather; dark red fruits typify the wine’s flavor. But there is nothing special going on here--or perhaps that’s just me; someone else might find this wine just fine and think that there’s too much excitement to be found in this vinter’s other offerings.
The Vin de Pays du Val de Loire, 2010, a wine created from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, offers a trés fresh nose and a flavor of leather and red pepper. This is a tannic wine, and very dry, like the other Percher reds.
Romain Malidain, a fourth-generation winemaker, had five wines to sample, including a literally dazzling Sparkling Rosé in which floated flakes of edible gold. This was the Jade OR, Méthode Traditionelle, a very dry 2010 vintage with good, tight bubbles.
"That’s pretty gangsta," my husband commented upon being poured a glass.
The gold flakes do not affect the taste or the aroma, Romain assured us. "They are just for the view," he added, which is evidently French for "That’s just a little bit of bling."
A second sparkling wine was also at the table: the J’M de Malidain, Méthode Traditionnelle, Sparkling White, 2009, made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. This was a dry glass with a warm effervescence. "In sparkling, it is very important to have a fine bubble," noted Romain. The wine’s warmth is amplified by a taste of oak and has a mineral character.
Romain offered us a glass of Le Demi Boeuf, Vin de Pays du Val de Loire, 2011. Made entirely from Chardonnay grapes, this was an oaky glass, with a flavor of white fruits; pear and apple brought a pleasing crispness to the palate.
The Clos de la Clémencière, Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu sur Lie, 2010, provides, Romain told us, "more freshness and more acidity--just a bit." Made with 100% Melon de Bourgogne, this is a light, not overly complex wine, pleasant and tasting of citrus, with a mineral finish.
The Sensation de Grandlieu, Muscadet Cotes de Grandlieu sur Lie, 2010, made with 100% Melon de Bourgogne, is redolent with both citrus and floral notes. Complex and friendly, this wine lingers with a long and subtle finish.
Romain put it plainly: "Best French wine in the USA," he said.