Loire - Saumur

Discovery Course: Loire Sparkling Wine

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.

Loire sparkling wines come in a wide variety of styles – as our tasters discovered. Pic: Creative Room

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.

Our tasters in Edinburgh were fortified at lunchtime with a plateful of Scottish venison

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.

You name it, the Loire can make it…
From white, rosé and red…
to sparkling, bone dry and sweet…

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.

A journey along the Loire courtesy of white wine

‘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.

Saumur’s limestone buildings (and cellars) are a sign of good terroir for sparkling wine. Pic Martin Falbisoner, Wikimedia Commons

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.

‘The Chateau de Montgueret Tête de Cuvée was my favourite sparkler. Mature and full-bodied with a creamy texture, intense and small bubbles, full-bodied with a long after-taste.’

Natasha Senina, Chewton Glen

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.’

The Edinburgh venue, Good Bros wine bar, had a festive air to it for our day’s tasting.

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.

The Vouvrays were very popular with our tasters in London and Edinburgh

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.

‘Elegant mousse and very precise with chalky mineral and a saline finish. It will keep everyone happy around a table.’

Damien Trinckquel, Number One at The Balmoral
The Loire at sunset. Pic: Fotolia Matlanimal

Rosé shouldn’t just be about Provence

In a wine market that’s generally flat to falling, rosé has been the exception.  From not much more than a niche ten years ago, it’s grown in the UK to the extent that, according to figures I saw in the press earlier this year, we are now the fourth largest consumer of rosé in the world, buying over 100 million bottles a year.

Provence, of course, is the darling and has spawned many imitators of its pale and dry style across the globe. Some of these provide serious alternatives whilst others are just a serious disappointment.  

Certainly it can’t do any harm to look elsewhere. Partly because it’s always good to champion diversity, and partly because of the prices of  Provence pinks, which have risen significantly of late.  Many of them are positioned at ‘serious wine’ level on a list now, rather than something inexpensive, pale and zesty to glug in the sun. 

“Annoyingly quality doesn’t always keep pace with the price.”

I have been disappointed with several popular, larger volume Provence rosés. Too often they fail in fruit ripeness yet excel in tartness and dilution. Frustratingly, a higher priced rosé from these regions does not necessarily indicate better quality either. 

Head elsewhere in France, however, and there are some excellent pale, dry rosés available that mimic Provence styles without the hefty price tag.  Consider other regions near Provence around the Languedoc such as the smaller IGP Cotes de Thau. This benefits from the twin influences of the Mediterranean and Etang du Thau.  The IGP Mediterranée (formerly Vins de Pays) surrounds Provence, and it too is finding success with rosé being made in the Provence style. 

I have tasted a number of wines from these areas – with their Grenache or Grenache-dominant blends rounded with Rolle and Cinsault; their flavour profile is similar to Provence, yet you’ll find them on a merchants list around £6-9 ex VAT as opposed to the £15+ of many Provence pinks.

This is the reason why the rosé we blend for St JOHN’s Beausoleil comes from the Cotes de Thau. It is fresh and linear, can be enjoyed on its own or with many types of food, and is significantly cheaper than an alternative from Provence.

Changing mindset

If these are well-priced Provence lookalikes, could there be a case for going a step further? Perhaps now, while Brits are asking for pink, perhaps this could be the time to expose them to some genuinely different styles of rosé. Wines that might have a similar dryness, structure and palate weight, but are flavoursome and different.  Wines that will set your list apart.  Wines, too, that deliver a bit more for the money.

I’m thinking here of Cabernet Franc from Saumur – I have been impressed with Chateau de Chaintres, and Pinot Noir from Sancerre  or its counterpart from cooler climates of Tasmania and Yarra Valley in Australia. 

Rosé from the Yarra is worth consideration. De Bortoli is always consistent, Dominique Portet, and Giant Steps also offer characterful Pinot-dominant rosé.   

Closer to home Italy provides a wealth of styles with often drier and ‘more serious’ versions coming from the middle of the country down towards Sicily. Keep an eye out for Ramato styles too such as Specogna’s Pinot Grigio Ramato. 

And, there are an increasing number of rosés that are dry and interesting from Spain and Portugal.  No doubt now seen as a classic since it was first made just over 20 years ago and serves as a benchmark is Niepoort’s Redoma Rose. This is often darker, and has been in oak yet offers a dry, thirst quenching rose that also is a joy with food.  

From the point of view of both your wine list and value for money, the case for broadening horizons is pretty strong. But there is a caveat. Bear in mind that there is no small amount of ignorance surrounding pink wine on the part of your average consumer.

Most consumers, I’d say, don’t consider the region, only the colour and the price. And the paler a rosé, they assume that the better (and drier) it is. 

This perhaps isn’t surprising.  Even to the trained eye, trying to establish what that ‘branded’ pale ‘chateau vino pinko’ rosé tastes like is no mean feat.  In most pinks there are no indicators of sweetness, and rarely any grape varietals, just a region or newly unearthed IGP. So we shouldn’t be too critical if customers have latched onto colour as a guarantee of a style or quality.

The fact that there is interest in rosé is a significant step, and to capitalize on this interest, especially with the warm weather, post lockdown, think about tapping into this market and offering several rosés.  If you only have one (or two) by the glass, open another and offer it by the glass.  It is a talking point!  Or use it as a focus for the week.  

If you have a darker rose that is fuller bodied, try pairing it with food, something that will allow the wine to ‘freshen up’ and know the story behind the wine, the varietals and the flavour those grapes give to the wine.  Once people are engaged with the wine it flows from there.

Four Rosés That Are Well Worth A Look

1. Chateau de Chaintres, Saumur

£9.65 from St John Wines

2. Specogna Pinot Grigio Ramato, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia

£13.20 from Liberty Wines

3. Avani Amrit Pinot Gris, Mornington Peninsula (ramato style)

£17.75 from Woodwinters

4. Niepoort Redoma, Douro Valley

£18.99 (RRP) from Raymond Reynolds – contact for nearest trade supplier

Do you have any go-to rosés of your own from outside Provence? Of course you do! So why not tell the other members of the Sommelier Collective which are your favourites and why.

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