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

Lambrusco – great value gems that are perfect for food

The plains of Emilia Romagna and Lombardy are home to some of the biggest foods in Italian gastronomy: prosciutto, Grana Padano, and tortellini to name but a few. And here they are paired with the local Lambrusco.

It’s a wine like no other – sparkling, bright purple in colour… and tannic – which makes is ideal to go with those high fat, opulent, local products.

Lambrusco in the area’s bars is served by the glass, alongside a platter of warm, oil-dripping focaccia and all the mouth-watering products that the region has to offer. In the local’s houses, Lambrusco often goes through the whole meal, where it’s sparkle and richness helps refresh the palate.

Emilia-Romagna – the gastronomic heart of Italy

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. It’s true that Lambrusco’s name declined in the 1980s when co-operatives produced most of the wines and their ethos was definitely one of quantity over quality.

But there have always been independent producers that have made high-quality Lambrusco and there is now an upwards quality trend. Admittedly there are fewer of these good producers than there used to be, and the number of hectares planted has declined. But they’re still there and they are still worth looking out for.

Lambrusco is great value for you and your guests

Vibrant, varied, good with food and by the glass, Lambrusco can really add something different to your list – and your customers’ experience. And since it is generally very cheap, it can be an affordable surprise for your guests.

clones and styles

Lambrusco is produced from the grape of the same name, though there are several different clones named after the villages where they originated:

  • Lambrusco Salamino is the most widely planted and the most aromatic; normally medium sweet, balanced by high tannins.
  • Lambrusco Sorbara is the most deeply coloured with lower tannins. It’s typically dry or off-dry.
  • Lambrusco Grasparossa is considered the finest clone, producing the deepest wines, with lower tannins. It’s usually found as a dry wine.

Other clones exist, and they can be planted virtually anywhere within the appellations, though each of the five DOCs has a minimum percentage required of each clone for the wines to be classified.

Frothy, yes – but there are multiple styles of Lambrusco

Modena’s province, is where most of Lambrusco is produced, and it has four DOCS.

  1. Lambrusco di Sorbara DOC is the most floral, and direct, with soft tannins. Produced on sandy soils, it is usually medium sweet and is well suited for a pasta dishes and/or grilled vegetables.
  2. Lambrusco Salmino di Santacroce is 90% made up of the Salamino clone and is produced on both flat and hilly sides. It is meant to be drunk young and tends to be sweet, with high acidity. Ideal served chilled by the glass as an aperitif.
  3. Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro comes from vineyards situated on the hillside, with longer ripening season, higher concentration, and more complexity. It usually the driest in style and most age-worthy.
  4. Modena DOC is the largest and the quality and style of wines here varies a lot

Most noteworthy Lambruscos are produced using the classic method, or Ancestrale (pet-nat), which involves bottling an almost fully-fermented wine and sealing it in order to trap the CO2 produced, rendering the wine sparkling.

These are definitely the styles that quality producers are championing, and can be a great companion to food, as they tend to be dry and complex with a savoury palate. They can also age for a few years, developing dry fruit and forest floor flavours with time.

Lambrusco offers great quality for the price, starting at £5 and rarely above £20; it has a unique style that offers something different for food-matching, but it can be easily served by the glass too. I have previously stocked Lambrusco by the glass in the summer season and it went down very well with my customers.

Of course, its reputation might mean that it needs to be ‘pushed’ to them. But in hot months served alongside charcuterie and fritters, it really comes into its own.

cellar suggestions: Three to try for your list

Lambrusco Reggiano DOC Concerto, Medici Ermete

Vinum Terra, £10-12

A classic method, Lambrusco, Dry with aromas of roses, cassis, plums and an undertone of sage and bread. Served with a rich steak or lamb it works really well.

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro DOC Secco I Quercioli, Medici Ermete

Vinum Terra, £8.00-10

Brut style, this has more direct aromas of maraschino cherries, plums and strawberries. I would suggest it goes best if you serve it with deep-fried vegetables or cheese.

Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro ‘Ribello’ Roberto Balugani

Fields, Morris and Verdin, £8-10

Ancestral Method, off dry, with savoury aromas, herbs, and plums. This has a delicate mousse and goes well as an aperitif with salami or with a cheese platter and tomato relish.