Pretty much every winemaking region of any renown has a thing. They all make other things, some of them make lots of other things, but there will be one style of wine above all for which they are famous. Normally it’s a red – think Bordeaux, Tuscany, Rioja, Piedmont, Barossa, Rhones north and south, the Douro, Mendoza. Occasionally it’s a white, as in Champagne, Marlborough or the Mosel valley (or the entirety of Germany, really). Yeah, if you want to quibble you could point to Burgundy and say it has two roughly equal things, but then you don’t want to quibble, so we’ll just move along.
So, what’s the Loire’s thing? I recently went to a small tasting of Loire wines, and anyone leaving it would have had absolutely no idea: there were a few sparklers – one mainly chardonnay and two mainly chenin blanc – four whites – a muscadet, a sauvignon blanc and a couple of chenins – a solitary rose, four reds – made either from gamay or cabernet franc – and finally a sweet chenin. And it’s hard to argue that they included anything they should have left out, either – in fact, they should probably have added a malbec, or cot as it’s known thereabouts, while pinot noir, made with great success in Sancerre, might also be feeling a little miffed at its exclusion. The Loire’s thing is everything.
At 629 miles from top to toe, the Loire is significantly longer than the 557-mile Douro, the 505-mile Rhone, the 339-mile Mosel, or pretty much any other winemaking valley you might care to compare it to, so a little added variety is perhaps understandable. But there is one connection between its varied regions, or at least very nearly all of them: if you start at the sea and head east, drinking all the way, you’re unlikely to find an overpriced wine until you hit Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, getting on for 400 miles later (though you may have found walking became a struggle some time earlier, either for reasons of fitness or inebriation).
You’ll start off with muscadet, which even under the UK’s enthusiastic approach to wine taxation rarely costs more than £10 retail (a blessing for the drinker and a curse for the producer, many of whom have gone out of business over the last decade; the relatively recent introduction of some top-end sub-zones is part of a campaign to make winegrowing there a little more commercially viable) and that pretty much sets the tone. Rustic reds, soft roses and an awful lot of cheap sauvignon blanc will follow on your journey, and your wallet won’t feel the hit until you get tempted by the chenin blancs of Vouvray, whose top wines can be had for something in the region of £25 and are still bargains.
It’s a complex picture, and most wine drinkers aren’t fans of complexity (not even in their wines, in many cases). But that’s the only picture that Loire people feel able to paint: “The Loire Valley is France’s most diverse wine region, producing exemplary wines in every style,” is the first thing they’ve got to say about themselves on their own promotional website. And it’s true, of course, but perhaps they need to change tack a little, to find something that unifies them, a single umbrella beneath which all can shelter, and which they can then start to sell to the world. It won’t be anything as straightforward as a grape, a style or a colour, but they could pick the one word that most consumers hold most dear: value. With a thing like that, they couldn’t possibly lose.
D&D restaurants in London are currently in the middle of a Loire wine festival, which has another week to run, so if you’re feeling so enthused get down to one of their gaffs and test the water. More information here.
See also: Loire Valley sauvignon blanc – long Touraine over us