Wine writer and expert on the wines of the Loire, Chris Kissack, reviews recent vintages in the valley and explains why the diversity offered by this vast region is its trump card.
Deep beneath the vines of Le Mont in Vouvray, in a cellar cut straight into the limestone rock, one of the region's many vignerons, surrounded by visitors to his cellars, held court. Standing in the central passageway, the avenues either side lined with bottles from vintages many decades past, some made by his father before he took over in 1983, the winemaker was clearly happy with the way the 2014 vintage was turning out; the vines had flowered under beautiful conditions, and summer was progressing the development of the fruit very nicely. It was only mid-July, but his words 'so far, this is the best vintage since 2010' (an excellent year in Vouvray) pretty much summed it up.
Mid-summer is of course far too early to make a call on the quality of any vintage, but these words set me thinking about how the Loire Valley's expansive nature can assist our search for the very best wines. Vouvray, after all, is just one small appellation, one of more than 70 that line the banks of the Loire as it runs its course from mountain spring to Atlantic estuary. The journey from the famous appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, not far south of Paris, to the vineyards of the Fiefs-Vendéens and Muscadet near the mouth of the river, is about 400 kilometres. Start a little higher up the river at the Côte Roannaise and the Côtes du Forez, frequently overlooked appellations in the Ardèche mountains (but still on the Loire), and the journey is considerably longer; taking these appellations into consideration there are about 700 kilometres from the Loire's first vineyard to its last.
Over 300 Châteaux line the Loire river
With such a long, drawn-out ribbon of vineyards stretching from the sweltering warmth of Roanne, near Lyon, to the cool, breezy and salt-strewn vineyards of the Atlantic coast, the Loire suddenly appears as a huge collection of different regions, in each one local vignerons making the most of their soils, their grape varieties and their climate, all of which differ from one region to the next. This makes for a fascinating but also sometimes confusing complexity.
Perhaps the greatest advantage to this complex diversity is that in any one vintage there is almost always some region of the Loire celebrating great success. When one appellation is blighted by bad weather it is almost guaranteed that, somewhere along the length of the Loire, other winemakers have had a great year and have just picked grapes as perfectly ripe as any they have ever seen. There are always great wines waiting to be discovered here; you just need a little inside knowledge to find them. With this in mind I thought it would be informative to look back over the last three vintages and pick out those regions, and those growers – especially those listed by The Wine Society – that did well.
Vintage Successes: 2013
This was a vintage in which mostly dry whites and maybe sparkling wines rule. In Muscadet the growers, such as Gérard Vinet at Domaine des Ratelles, brought in lower yields than they hoped for, but the quality is good; buy these with confidence. In Anjou there will be good dry white wines, and there will perhaps be some sweet wines, but it is too early to tell for sure. I have only tasted a handful from barrel, but they showed some promise; what is certain, though, is that volumes will be small.
Vouvray bore the brunt of a devastating hailstorm on June 17th, nevertheless what escaped the destructive force of the summer storm has to my delight turned out to be of good quality, with good wines, sec and sec-tendre (just off-dry) as the French call it being the order of the day, and there will be some good sparkling wines given time. Vincent Carême is one of the rising stars of the appellation, and so anything with his name on the label is worth a punt. There should be good wines coming out of Montlouis too, where all the vineyards escaped the hail.
As for Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon and the other Central vineyards, despite a wet harvest necessitating strict selection, something dedicated growers such as the Vacheron cousins, Paul-Henry Pellé and Denis Jamain are not afraid of, ultimately the wines have all been tasting good and they are wines to buy, provided you stick to these domaines, where they have certainly put in the necessary work to get it right.
Sunset over the river Loire
Vintage Successes: 2012
This was a complex vintage, as a wet and late spring snowballed into a difficult harvest; nevertheless 2012 was a vintage of great success for the earlier-picked varieties, namely Melon de Bourgogne in Muscadet and Sauvignon Blanc in Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon. The Muscadets in 2012 are simply great, full of energy, substance and verve, cut through with deliciously mouth-watering acidity. It was a difficult year economically though, as yields were very low, and the best growers made only half what they would usually like to bottle. This means stocks won't last long, so snap up wines from growers such as Bernard Chéreau at Château L'Oiselinière de la Ramée and Pierre-Jean Sauvion at Château du Cléray while you still can.
For the other success of 2012 look to Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon and the like, where the wines have tension and fruit richness combined. As with the wines of Muscadet in this vintage, these are wines to chase down and buy with confidence while they are available. Look to Domaine Pellé again, and Alain Cailbourdin, and watch out for those growers whose wines take longer to come to market, especially François Cotat, in my opinion one of the very top domaines of the Sancerre appellation.
In the Loire heartland of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, this was a more trying vintage, and the best wines will be the dry whites from dedicated growers such as Yves Guégniard, or indeed sparkling wines from Vouvray and Montlouis. Having tasted some of these already they are of good quality, and are worth buying.
Vintage Successes: 2011
This was a topsy-turvy vintage, precocious at first, with baking warm temperatures in spring, getting the vines off to a great start. Then after a cool summer there was warmer-than-usual autumn weather which sent sugar levels spiralling upwards, and so this is a vintage where excellent sweet wines were made in the Loire's most famous appellations.
The unusual romorantin grape
Some of the wines of this vintage are truly stunning, and when spotted they should be snapped up and locked away in the cellar. The go-to wines in 2011 come from Anjou, along the banks of the Layon where rising sugar levels were further concentrated by botrytis; this is therefore a great vintage for sweet wines from the Coteaux du Layon and associated appellations (the same can also be said of 2010 and 2009, by the way, although all three vintages have their own style and personality). There are also some fine results in Vouvray of course, from those growers who were careful in cleaning up the harvest, selecting only the best fruit. It is a vintage where the dedication of the vigneron can shine through, so go for top names even if in less familiar appellations, such as François Cazin who turns out top-quality Cour-Cheverny, which is made from romorantin, as regular as clockwork.
There is no other wine region in the world offering wines made from romorantin, and there is no other wine region that gives us the diversity we can find in the Loire. I have my fingers crossed that the hopes of the Vouvray vigneron I spoke to for 2014 come true, so that we will be blessed with another bumper year of superb wines from the Loire Valley.
Chris Kissack writes about wine for several publications and has his own website Winedoctor where he provides opinion on two of the world's great wine regions, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.