Monday, April 5, 2010

Loire in the Night

It seems to be the moment to think of Loire reds. A couple weeks ago, the New York Times' The Pour column dwelled on the Cabernet Franc-derived wines of this eternally undervalued region, their value when considered in the context of a recessionary economy, and their relative unpopularity when compared to other world reds.

Around this time, I was invited to a tasting of several Loire reds at Gotham Bar & Grill. I had no objection to attending. As I've started before, I'm a fan of the wines of the long Loire valley, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean (Muscadet land) to the east, all the way to the middle of France, where it terminates in Sancerre, which produces what is probably the most famous of the region's whites. Along the way one passes through the tight cluster of Chinon, Bourgueil, St. Nicholas de Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny, and it was from these AOCs that the wines of the night hailed.

Of all of the red grape vines planted in the Loire, 51% are Cabernet Franc. The grape, known to most Americans as a lesser player in their favored Bordeaux, is still a hard sell here, being far less fruity and alcoholic, and much more vegetal than Yankee tastes prefer. (It is the most northern red grown in France.) But Loire reds have made some headway in this country. I was told that the number of such wines on the market had tripled since a similar tasting was given in 2002.

Perhaps Loire's Cab Francs are now trying too hard to be liked. According to one experienced taster at the event, the first five we tasted were there to prove that the grape could be big and fruity—that is, untrue to itself. I didn't quite see it myself. I found the usual herbal notes, medium body, tight cherry-plum flavors and occasional notes of metal and charcoal I expect from these wines. And, as usual, Loire reds seem to speak of their terroir very strongly. One tastes the Loire valley when tasting a well-made Loire red.

In truth, I find the limited range of Loire reds to be somewhat frustrating. The differences are not great from one bottle to the next, and, to the inexperienced palate, they must seem not to exist at all. But, when you find a good one (Baudry or Breton, for example), it stands out, even though its better virtues are often very subtly expressed indeed. This was the case with the Chateau de la Grille Chinon 2005. This wine, I was told, was only now getting a U.S. distributor. We're all the luckier for finally having it. It had a heady, dark-fruit nose and a dry, dense, fruit and tobacco flavor, with noteworthy tannins. $30-$40 it will cost you and it's worth it.

Costing about the same, amazingly, is a 1989 Domaine de la Chevalerie Cuvee des Busardieres Bourgueil. The nose of this 21-year-old wine was full and fragrant, smelling of spice and sea, and it tasted of brandied fruit and mellow vegetal notes. It ably showed the grape's aging potential. It wasn't as good as the $85 Olga Raffault Les Picasses Chinon, also from 1989—which has a metallic, paint-like nose, and a robust structure and tasted intriguingly of vegetables and celery tonic—but for $30, if was certainly worth it. You just try to find a Bordaux, Burgundy or Barolo from 1989 for that price.

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