Fyne Wines joined The Wine Merchant magazine for a short educational trip to the Central Loire Valley at the start of July 2015.
The ‘Central’ region of France’s Loire Valley covers several wine producing appellations in the vicinity of the town of Sancerre, approximately 130 miles south of Paris. Most instantly recognisable of these wine appellations are AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée - now more correctly, AOP or Appellation d’Origine Protégée) Sancerre and AOC Pouilly-Fume which virtually face each other on opposite banks of the River Loire, Sancerre on the left-bank (west) and Pouilly-Fume on the right-bank (east).
AOC Menetou-Salon, about 20 miles southwest of Sancerre, is slowly gaining some recognition for their similarity to the styles of AOC Sancerre and AOC Pouilly-Fume. Other lesser known wine regions are AOC Coteaux-du-Giennois, immediately north of Pouilly-Fume; AOC Quincy and AOC Reuilly, both just south of the town of Vierzon; and Châteaumeillant, to the very south of the region and about 75 miles south-southwest of Sancerre.
The Central Loire region is most well known for its white wine. Sauvignon Blanc is native to this region, and is used 100% for the AOC white wines. Several of the region’s appellations also produce red and rosé wines, either purely from Pinot Noir grapes, or from a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay, depending on appellation requirements and restrictions.
Read our tasting notes of standout wines, or full trip report below.
The full report reads:
There's always a friendly welcome for independents in the Centre-Loire and so it proved again last month when The Wine Merchant returned with a visit to some family domaines in the region.
Julia Jenkins of Flagship Wines in St Albans, Kelli Coxhead of The Wine Tasting Co in Winscombe, Somerset, Carlos Blanco of Blanco & Gomez in Chelsea and Stuart Campbell of Fyne Wines in Lochgilphead sniffed, slurped and tasted their way through everything from zippy tank samples to complex, multi-layered wines that had been in bottle for 20 years.
Although most independents would claim to have a reasonable understanding of the region - and particularly the wines of Sancerre - the visit gave the merchants a chance not only to assess recent vintages but to meet a new breed of winemakers who are gradually transforming their family businesses.
The visits concentrated on producers of Sancerre (Pouilly-Fumé), Menetou-Salon and Coteaux du Giennois but there was also an opportunity to get more familiar with the wines of Reuilly, Quincy and Châteaumeillant - appellations that make interesting and valuable contributions to the Centre-Loire patchwork.
Blanco described the overall quality of the Sancerres as "great", a sentiment echoed by Coxhead who was "really impressed" with the wine in all its forms - white, rosé and red. She says: "I've always thought of Sauvignon Blanc as a wine to be consumed young, but at Domaine Daniel Chotard we tasted a 1995 that showed great complexity of stewed apples and spice with intense richness, while the 2001 Classic Sancerre from Domaine La Villaudiere showed beautiful tropical fruit, honey tones and spice."
She adds: "What I found interesting is the oak-aged whites that are coming through, adding a different dimension to the wines, but without overshadowing the aromatics of the Sauvignon Blanc. This is a really exciting time for Sancerre to show customers a different side, with oak-aged whites."
At Blanco & Gomez, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines currently sell equally well. "I only stock one Menetou-Salon but will do more after this trip," says Blanco.
For Campbell, "Coteaux du Giennois was the real star of the trip". He says: "You think you know the Central Loire? Think again. Big flavours, intensity, lots to get your teeth into. Probably nowhere near as refined or polished as Sancerre, but therein lies its character, like the ruggedly-handsome younger brother... think Brad Pitt to Aiden Quinn in 'Legends of the Fall'. I think the Coteaux du Giennois has the most unfulfilled potential of all the Centre-Loire. I'll certainly be watching that space."
STYLISTICALLY, THE DIRECTION of travel in the Centre-Loire is being dictated, in many cases, by younger winemakers.
"It was great to see the enthusiasm and determination of the younger winemakers not to be deterred by tradition," says Jenkins, "indeed in some quarters throwing caution to the wind in terms of varietals, styles etcetera. They also value their heritage though, I think, so they will piggyback their new wines on the back of their predecessors."
Coxhead makes a similar point. "It was really exciting to see the new generation of winemakers coming through," she says. "Young winemakers who have travelled, worked in other countries and come back to their family vineyard to take the reins. It was lovely to see two generations working together and the fathers being excited about where the sons were going to take the vineyard and using different winemaking techniques, such as the introduction of oak. In the wineries we visited, those who have started to use oak - which adds another dimension to their Sauvignon Blanc - were keen to mention it wasn't new oak being used. They would buy oak at least one or two years old, also 600-litre rather than 225-litre, although this differed across domaines. The oak being used is there to add body and richness rather than heavily-oaked flavours."
Campbell expresses hope that the region won't see an oak revolution and lose its classic qualities. "I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the use of oak in maturing some of the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in oak or acacia barrels," he says. "Certainly the barrel-aged Sauvignons tended to offer far more flavour intensity and with a greater diversity of flavours than the classically unoaked; but on the other hand, their use could be perceived as altering the characteristics of what a Sancerre wine is understood to be."
Though he is quick to point out that "It's necessary to often challenge and break rules, creating something different to excite or revolutionise", he suggests that wines that really push the envelope should perhaps do so outside of the AOP umbrella.
He's keener on the trend towards a less interventionalist approach in the vineyards, which was a recurring theme of the visit - partly as a result of warmer average temperatures, but also a desire to work more closely with nature.
"It's great to see such an acceptance of the benefits of organic viticulture - and the practice of organic methods - by non-certified-organic winemakers," Campbell says. "Organic wines are very much in ascendancy these days with a lot of customers asking specifically for them. Like Tour de France cyclists cladding themselves in lycra to gain those extra seconds' advantage, organic practices are creating the edge in vinous terms. More than a marketing-thing, organic practices seem to be making a perceptible difference on the palate - which is why more and more wines are going non-cert, or not declaring their organic certification on their labels."
* Tasting of Centre-Loire wines (Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly, Coteaux du Giennois, Châteaumeillant)
* Domaine Daniel Chotard, Sancerre
* Domaine Patrice Moreux, Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre
* Domaine Philippe Seguin, Pouilly-Fumé
* Dominique et Janine Crochet, Sancerre
* Domaine de l'Ermitage, Menetou-Salon
* Domaine La Villaudière, Sancerre
* Domaine Clément et Florian Berthier, Sancerre, Coteaux du Giennois
Copied from The Wine Merchant magazine, Issue 39 (August 2015), Pages 19-21.