“The Loire is renowned for the quality of its reds, light and easy-drinking wines that require little in the way of cellaring, and which often benefit from a light chill,” I was once informed by a major wine publication. Well, it went along those lines anyway, so I’m paraphrasing, and paraphrasing from memory at that. But that was the gist of the message. The Loire is defined, as far as the red wines go, by their light character and easy, approachable style.
It is not an uncommon belief, but as I have already expounded in my previous Loire Misunderstood posts on Muscadet and Oysters and on Herbaceous Reds, common beliefs often seem – on closer and more questioning inspection – to be somewhat wide of the mark.
This is certainly true of how the red wines of the Loire are treated by the mainstream English-language wine press. I make this linguistic distinction as I find the attitude in French wine publications, even mainstream magazines such as La Revue des Vins de France as well as more esoteric publications such as Le Rouge et Le Blanc, to be very different. Here the wines are regarded with greater respect, catalogued, tasted and scored in just the same manner as wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy. The English wine writing world, however, is content to keep the Loire stuffed head first into an easy-drinking pigeon-hole, its whites crisp, floral and summery, its reds – largely Cabernet Franc (a few berries pictured below), of course – being lean, crisp and low in tannin. I do on occasion wonder whether this prejudice reflects a deeper and more negative view of the Loire, one in which the entire region simply isn’t taken seriously.
If Bordeaux or Burgundy were treated in the same way by the wine press as the Loire then neither region would be of any interest. Take Bordeaux first; with its grand cru classé estates, this is a serious wine region. The fact that most Bordeaux – all that generic early-picked, high-yield wine from Merlot vines on dodgy soils – is fairly lean and mean stuff doesn’t seem to matter, as this isn’t how the region is defined. It is defined by the pinnacles of achievements, the Le Pins, the Haut-Brions, wines for cellaring and obsessing over. Likewise, look at Burgundy. This is also a serious wine region, and when we talk of Burgundy our thoughts automatically turn to wines from Montrachet, from Echézeaux, from Chambertin. That these wines constitute only a few percent of the region’s entire output, and that most wine from the region is fairly tart and uninteresting doesn’t sway our opinion of the region. The same can be said of Champagne, or of Alsace, and perhaps more distant regions too. In each case we define the region in question by its most iconic and most ageworthy styles, not by the huge volumes of inauspicious wine turned out at the generic end.
But not in the Loire, where the region remains defined by the light and lean easy-drinking majority, the same majority found in Bordeaux and Burgundy. And yet the Loire has the same pinnacles of achievement as these other regions. For red wines, the most superior are perhaps to be found along the tuffeau slopes that extend east from Chinon, where estates such as Bernard Baudry, Charles Joguet, Philippe Alliet and Pascal Lambert (and many others) are to be found. Alternatively, on the limestone at the back of the town, we have the wines of Couly Dutheil. All of these wines can be drunk young, just as wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux can be, but they will give far more pleasure if they are left to age for some time. And even lesser, sandy terroirs, to the west of the town, have the capability to turn out fascinating and ageworthy wines, as fans of Olga Raffault know only too well. Wines of similar capability can also be found in Bourgueil and St Nicolas de Bourgueil, from the likes of Yannick Amirault and Pierre Jacques Druet of course.
These are the wines by which these appellations should be judged, and which should define – or pigeon-hole, if you like – the region. Long-lived Cabernet Franc from (mostly) limestone terroirs, these are the Haut-Brions and the Le Pins of the Loire. The fact that there are many wines produced alongside that are lighter and for drinking younger should not dissuade us of this view. These are no more for “early drinking” than the wines of Pauillac, Pessac-Léognan or Pomerol. I need to open my bottles of 2003 La Croix Boisée from Baudry about as much as I need to open my 2003 Le Pin (if I had some – if it even existed – ha ha!). So let’s have a little more equality in the way these red wine appellations are regarded and reported on, please.