Loire Valley whites

Like many of the world’s wine-growing regions, France’s Loire Valley has experienced rising temperatures and riper harvests in the last several years. The result, especially among signature sauvignon blancs, is that formerly lean and racy wines have taken on fleshier qualities. And while this may confuse critics and consumers alike, it’s a trend we might as well get used to. Assuming we can still recognize the characteristic minerality that gives these wines their unique profile, they remain distinctive and, in general, good values. With Chris Thomas of Vineyard Brands, I took an armchair tour of the Loire recently from sea to Sancerre. Here’s the result.

Near Nantes, at the confluence of the Sèvre and Maine Rivers, lies Muscadet de Sevre-et-Maine, a sub-region of Muscadet, whose prime grape is melon de Bourgogne. These can be fairly neutral wines, but a good example such as that produced by Château de la Rigotière, Selection Vielles Vignes in 2005, can be almost profound. The sur lie technique gives the wine a full, round quality atop a base of chalky minerality with lemon, grass, and peach all playing parts. At about $10 it’s a seafood-loving steal.

An even better bargain is the $9 Couillard Chardonnay Cuvée Prestige vin du pays Jardin de la France, 2005 (since superseded by vdp du Val de Loire). Sur lie elevage and partial malolactic fermentation lend body to what is a simple wine that nevertheless shows pleasant apple, then tropical, notes over a mineral foundation — great as an alternative to oaky chards at a fraction of the price of white Burgundies.

Chenin blanc is the basis of all wines in up-river Vouvray, wines that Karen MacNeil calls “gossamer, richly flavored and honeyed — even when dry.” We sampled two from Domaines de la Peu de la Moriette, produced by Jean Claude and Christophe Pichot. Their 2006 Vouvray (about $12) was soft yet firm, with hints of honeysuckle and candied grapefruit peel; it’s age-worthy, says Thomas. The 2005 Moelleux (look carefully for this on the label; it’s nearly double the price) offered the unctuousness of a Riesling with the same acid backbone. Baked apple flavors dominated, and thoughts of Thai or Indian food emerged along with the expected sugar-plum fantasies.

We’re in serious sauvignon-blanc country by the time we get to Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé; MacNeil calls this region the “quintessential expression of the grape,” and who are we to disagree when confronted with such wines as the graceful 2005 Domaine Cherrier et Fils ($21), a killer combination of lemon and chalky mineral.

Produced by Jean-Ives Delaporte, the 2005 Domaine Vincent Delaporte Sancerre ($22) traded some citrus for passion fruit, melon, and crunchy Japanese pears. “What a sauvignon blanc should taste like,” I noted — though I admit to missing the smoky quality Robert Parker claims.

A good antidote to New Zealand sauvignon blancs can be found in the Fournier family’s wines from both Sancerre and nearby Pouilly-Fumé. Their 2005 Patient Cottat Sancerre Vielles Vignes hinted of both lime and (this can be a good thing — in limited quantities) cat pee with some mineral. The Domaine des Berthiers 2005 Pouilly Fumé ($20) had a veiled nose with stony qualities, and showed lime peel and lemon on a bright and juicy palate — another great expression of the grape.

As a reward for undergoing this arduous voyage, Thomas then popped the corks on beautiful bottles of Bonnaire Cramant Grand Cru in both its rosé and blanc de blanc forms. (Sorry, but somebody has to do it.) At nearly $50 apiece, they are way over our budget, but if anyone ever offers, try not to trample those in front of you. Spicy fruit on the rosé, smoky apple and quince on the blanc de blanc … it doesn’t get any better.

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