Variety is a big part of the Loire story – and the members who attended our sessions in London and Edinburgh discovered big differences in the key sparkling wine styles.
With nearly 500km from its coastal vineyards to those furthest inland, it’s no wonder that the Loire is one of the most varied wine growing regions in France. There are significant amounts of wine in pretty much every style, from light, early-drinking whites like Muscadet through its famous Sauvignon Blancs to richer, long-lived Chenin Blancs and Chardonnays.
And that’s just the still whites. Add in rosé (a quarter of all production), probably the world’s benchmark expression of Cabernet Franc and sweet and sparkling wines, and it’s clear that there’s an awful lot to get to know.
Most sommeliers are pretty familiar with Loire Sauvignon in general, as well as Muscadet. But how about some of the less well-known expressions? Probably not so much.
So in these two masterclasses, in association with the folk at InterLoire, we decided to take our members on a journey through the region’s sparkling wines and Cabernet Francs.
The reds and sparkling wines are somewhat less ubiquitous than the still whites, though they’re not exactly niched. Between them, red and sparkling wines are over 1/3 of the region’s production.
Although they are slightly unusual, there’s still really good availability, which means these styles can be a great way to add some real layers of interest to your list.
Loire Valley Wines
Our sparkling masterclass started with a quick introductory flight to prepare palates and show off some of the region’s still, non-red styles, from Muscadet to sweet Vouvray via a Rosé d’Anjou.
‘Many Loire regions can go in any direction, to make still wine, sparkling wine or sweet,’ explained host, Mathieu Longuere MS. ‘What they make on any given year usually depends on the vintage.
‘If Chenin Blanc is not ripe enough one year to make still wine, they can make sparkling,’ he explained. ‘They are lucky with the varieties they have.’
A still Chenin Blanc, the Chateau de Villeneuve Saumur Blanc, was popular with Isobel Salomon who found it a ‘particularly elegant expression, and very balanced.’ Her suggested pairing was cod or Scottish halibut with a buttery emulsion.
Saumur Fines Bulles
As an ‘instant sell’ to your customers, it’s hard to beat the chalk cellars of Saumur – the kilometres of passageways and caverns carved out under the cream-coloured town are a UNESCO world heritage site.
That same thick ridge of limestone works well with white varieties, in particular. Most of the Saumur Fines Bulles are all or mostly Chenin Blanc, with Chardonnay and, to a lesser extent, Cabernet Franc commonly used as well. ‘Fines Bulles’ (fine bubbles) is used for sparkling wines from appellations that also make still wine (such as Saumur, Touraine and Vouvray).
Given that they all came from one area, just south of the town, the Saumur Fines Bulles wines showed a surprising variety of styles, from clean, classic ‘aperitif sparklers’ to more ‘vinous’ “Méthode Ancestrale” versions with lower fizz.
All the wines in Saumur are méthode traditionelle, with a second fermentation in the bottle.
‘But in “Méthode Ancestrale” wines they use a semi-dry base wine to start the second fermentation,’ explained Mathieu Longuere MS. ‘The more time the wine spends on lees, the more integrated the bubbles.’
Some of these differences are due to winemaking decisions, others are down to the various slopes, angles and microclimates, that give wines of very different ripenesses even within the same appellation.
‘You could see from the flight of five Saumur Fines Bulles wines that we had that there’s a huge variety of styles within the appellation,’ said Mathieu. ‘There’s a lot of freedom – space for everybody.’
While Condita’s Konstantinos Katridis picked the decidedly gastronomic Domaine du Vieux Pressoir as his favourite wine, he felt that, in general, these would be great as pre-dinner serves.
Crémant de Loire
The big swings in style seen in the Fines Bulles appellations of Saumur and (later) Vouvray, is less of a factor for Crémant de Loire. Grapes can be taken from across the region so it’s a lot more consistent. Here, the biggest flavour influencer is the varieties used.
Chenin (naturally high in acidity) is usually the preferred base variety, but Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc can figure prominently, too.
The wines must have at least 12 months bottle ageing, though many producers give them more than this. Yeasty autolytic characters start to appear after 18 months.
The InterContinental’s Fernando Cubas was a fan of the Langlois Crémant de Loire brut for its freshness and acidity, and felt it would be a good (and well-priced) by-the-glass addition.
Certainly, our tasters felt that reliability and value were a big selling point of this flight.
‘It’s not a Marmite wine, love it or hate it,’ mused Mathieu. ‘It’s a style that people will never turn down. And though there are times when you want to surprise a customer there are also times when you don’t.’
Vouvray Fines Bulles
From rocky hillsides, and with a minimum of 12 months ageing, Vouvray Fines Bulles must be 100% Chenin and, with its taut acidity, has the potential for good mid- to long-term ageing.
Although these wines were all from one single appellation, it’s perhaps no surprise that there were big variations in the wines here. Vouvray runs more or less along the Loire river from just east of Saumur through a further eight municipalities.
Not only were winemakers making wines from quite different microclimates, but it was obvious, too, that they were also making the wines in quite different ways. Perhaps because of this, it was the star sparkling flight for several of our attendees.
‘The Vouvray Fines Bulles wines surprised and impressed me in terms of delivering the quality that I look for when encouraging guests to step out of their bubbly comfort zone and trying something new,’ said Douneside House’s James Payne MS. ‘Either by the bottle to accompany food or as part of a tasting menu wine flight.’
Mathieu agreed. ‘They all have a varietal character – you really know you’re in Chenin Blanc territory,’ he said. ‘But within that, they will all be different.’
Several attendees picked out the Domaine Vigneau Chevreau nv as their favourite sparkling overall.
‘It had brilliant flinty notes alongside that hazelnut, quince jam sweetness,’ said Eden Locke’s Isobel Salomon. ‘It’s a great champagne alternative.’
Damien Trinckquel from Number One at the Balmoral also loved its medium body.