Wines of the Month
Is it too late to jump aboard the Loire bandwagon? I don't think so. For the past two or three years, the wine press has been trumpeting the string of successful vintages (particularly '95-'97) in France's Loire Valley. Predictably, some wines have become much more difficult to locate as collectors, speculators and other wine magazine fans have scooped them up. Of course, prices tend to rise with demand, and the Loire has been no exception.
So why am I still advocating Loire wines? And why do I believe that the region still offers many great values? There are several reasons. First, the wine press (and price increases) have tended to focus on just a few wines from a few famous producers. While Domaine des Baumard Quarts-de-Chaume has more than doubled in price over the past few years, many of their other wines (e.g. the Savennières recommended in this column) have maintained fairly steady prices. Many of the biggest price increases have been for the sweet wines of Quarts-de-Chaume, and to a lesser extent, Bonnezeaux and the Coteaux du Layon, leaving a wide variety of excellent dry wines for the careful consumer. Granted, there have also been price hikes for dry wines, such as Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, but you can still find many world-class wines at reasonable prices from these regions.
Second, those price hikes have focused almost exclusively on the latest vintages. Are you enamored of Loire sweet wines, but you don't want to pay the latest prices? Then you should know that many of these wines age beautifully. And that if you look carefully, you can still find bargains from the vintages B.H. ("Before Hype" or pre-'95). While many wine publications don't seem to want to acknowledge it, excellent wine was made in the Loire before somebody decided to cover the region five years ago, and the rest of the big publications followed suit... One wine that comes to mind is the Domaine des Baumard Cuvée le Paon Coteaux du Layon '89 (reviewed on the Boston Wine Expo 2000 Highlights page), which is still available in the Boston area for about $20 (750ml). Unlike many regions, some of the dry white wines of the Loire also reward aging (e.g. Savennières again), and you may find bargain-priced older vintages on the shelves, or in closeout bins, since most people (and retailers) either don't understand these wines or don't have the patience to wait for them. Many consumers, particularly in the US, are used to buying and drinking only the newest vintages of white wines -- which is a reasonable policy when faced with many of the fat, over-oaked and under-fruited mass-market wines, but isn't as good of an idea if you happen to be buying a tightly-wound Savennières (some of which will reward aging for a decade or more).
Finally, Loire wines were seriously undervalued before the recent hoopla, and in many cases, even with the price increases, they still are. Yes, the percentage markups can seem large, but when you consider how low the prices were at the start, the new prices don't seem quite as bad. For example, New Zealand is seen by many people as a hot exporter of high-quality, good-value Sauvignon Blanc wines. And don't get me wrong, I love some of their wines and think that there are some excellent values. However, with Cloudy Bay well over the $20 mark around here (I've seen it for $28), and other wines starting to approach that price level, the prices of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre start to seem quite reasonable, especially when you consider their long history of producing quality wines from Sauvignon Blanc, compared to New Zealand's short (but admittedly strong) track record. From what other region can you find 11-year-old world-class dessert wines for less than $30 per (750 ml) bottle? Or ageworthy dry whites , such as the Baumard Savennières reviewed below, for $9 (admittedly at a closeout, but easily available for about $14-16)?
So what wines should you seek out from this region? Answering that question would probably take several columns, since there are so many different types and styles of wine, not to mention producers. The Loire Valley is an exceptionally diverse collection of appellations, with wines ranging from very sweet (e.g. Quarts-de-Chaume) to bone dry (e.g. Sancerre), sometimes even in the same appellation (e.g. Vouvray). What else would you expect from a region making wines from grapes ranging from Melon de Bourgogne, to Folle Blanche, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Chardonnay (not to mention lesser-known varieties such as Arbois and Romarantin)? I think that the best advice I can give you, at least in the limited space of this column, is to take advantage of the relatively low prices and experiment a bit.
Sharp-eyed readers will note that I didn't even start on any of the wide variety of red grapes grown in the Loire (e.g. Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon), nor have I listed any of the red wines in this column. And, yes, there is a reason for the omission, beyond the limitations of space and tired fingers. The fact is that I've not tried many Loire reds that I thought were both very good and very good value for the money. Is it possible that I haven't tried enough of these wines, or that I've just tried the wrong ones? Certainly. However, for the moment, I'm just recommending searching for the many values in white wines from the Loire. Anyone who is truly upset by that idea should feel free to send me examples of reds I should try. However, while I'm waiting, I'll be perfectly happy drinking my delicious, inexpensive white "Loire-gains."
The wines of the month are all dry whites from the Loire, including two vintages of Domaine des Baumard Savennières (made from Chenin Blanc) and a Didier Dageneau Pouilly-Fumé (made from Sauvignon Blanc). Fitting the title of the column, none of these wines cost more than $21, and all were purchased on sale!
Domaine des Baumard Savennières '95 -- Seems very
shy at first, then opens up a bit with aromas of lemon, honey and
pear. Slightly more expressive on the palate, with more lemon,
grapefruit, and honey, along with notes of yeast, fresh corn
tortillas, and even a slight hint of cherry. Finishes with citrus,
apple and yeast flavors along with promising acidity. Surprisingly
good now, this wine will be better in a few years. Found for $8.99,
an awesome closeout deal.
Domaine des Baumard Savennières '96 -- Opens with a
forward lemon and grapefruit nose, along with some mineral notes.
More fruit-driven than the '95, with flavors of lemon, apple, pear,
grapefruit and a hint of peach, along with a nuance of wet stones to
add some complexity. The flavors lead harmoniously to a long,
lingering finish. Neither as acidic nor as powerful as the '95, but
still elegant with good fruit flavors. I think this one will mature
earlier than the '95 and is drinking better now (though it still
needs time). Found on sale for $12.
Didier Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé "En Chailloux" '96 --
Rich citrus nose, with grapefruit and lemon aromas. In the mouth, the
wine shows more grapefruit flavors along with some melon notes. Some
telltale Sauvignon Blanc herbal notes show up in the mid-palate,
along with some hints of sweet vanilla. Seems to have quite lush
fruit, particularly for a Loire Sauvignon Blanc. Long, powerful
finish of citrus and melon, with herbal and fresh-cut grass
undertones. Not as much acidity as I would expect, and with the lush
fruit providing such good drinking, I wouldn't save this for too
long. A bargain at $21 in the markdown bin.
As always, your comments are welcome.
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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.