To conclude our recommendations for festive tipples, with New Year’s Eve upon us Sophie McLean ventures into the Loire, to find a sparkling alternative that serves as a celebratory homage to Chenin Blanc…
From the bottom of my wine glass springs a line of fine, delicate bubbles. At the liquid’s lip, they vanish with all the raw energy of a sky full of shooting-stars. Once on the tongue, the bubbles loll with bright effervescence, drawing all cerebral focus right into the moment – present and fizzy. The time is approaching 12:30pm, it is July and I am in the Loire. We are sitting in a restaurant – one that from the outside appears just like any other yet, on the inside, a vast and spacious, cave-like establishment is revealed. Rough, textured walls of white tuffeau stone rise upwards into the blue sky above us, framed by a giant, domed, ceiling skylight. The temperature is cool like the décor, which in its modern style brings attention back to glasses at the table – our current reason for being – and smart, lucid conversation.
Less than 24 hours earlier we arrive by TGV to a town just outside of Tours, having done an excitable pass-by of Le Mans, home to the world-renowned motor race that spins through the area every year. At a similar speed we are soon enraptured by this region’s other cultural offerings – pretty landscapes, an enchanting array of French castles, excellent local restaurants, fields of golden sunflowers, and miles upon miles of pleasant, green vines. Indeed, this huge area, one that stretches all the way from the middle of France to the Atlantic Coast, is France’s third largest producer of AO wines, and offers the most diverse range of wines and in the country. From starting our journey in the UK, where British palates still dominate the growing global thirst for bubbles, it seems delightful happenstance that our mission over the next few days should be charged with all things exactly that.
Those with fingers on the vinous pulse will already know the Loire for its many fine wine examples from esteemed producers in Sancerre such as Didier Daggeneau, quaffable Anjou rosé, crunchy Saumur Cabernet Franc or the glowing varieties of excellent Chenin Blanc. What often gets overlooked yet, perhaps thanks not only to its proximity to Champagne, are its fantastic sparkling wines. Cremant de la Loire may have been popular in the early ’80s (my parents even had it at their wedding in 1983), and sparkling Touraine or Brut de Loire of other sorts may have escaped the greater bubble-gum, but with some brilliant producers – younger movers and shakers and those with more substantial heritage, ever-more drinkable examples are being made. This is a region and style of wine that deserves another visit – and all without the smack of ‘copycat’.
Back at lunch I am sitting opposite Juliette Monmousseau, great grand-daughter of Justin-Marcel Monmousseau who bought the prestigious Maison Bouvet-Ladubay in 1931. This well-known sparkling family have been recognized for making outstanding examples of Loire Brut ever since, as well as offering incredible underground cycling tours through their extensive network of ‘caves’ (those with a love of social history can read the tales from the estate’s official historian – it is a magical place that aches with period drama and fictionalized costumed storylines). In continuation then of the area’s more serious analysis, and when talking about influences and competitors, Juliette comments: “We didn’t grow like [the region of]Champagne because we didn’t only focus on one wine”.
This perhaps could be the hymn-sheet written for the whole of the Loire Valley, such is their excellent, enticing, all box-ticking array (here fussy b****ds can be well tolerated!). But the bubbles do have something credible to say. “I have my ideas from Champagne,” confesses our host Sophie from pretty Château de l’Aulée. Indeed, many of the best sparkling producers here started out in Champagne. Sophie grew up in the Marne Valley – where champagne’s third grape Pinot Meunier famously grows, and so bubbles are perhaps intrinsic to her being. The Loire, without its comparative hefty real-estate pricetags but similarly matched surroundings, offers a more affordable place to play-out this specific dream. We talk about the rise of Cava and Prosecco outside of France (Freixenet, I spy, has an address here at the end of the road), but Sophie agrees: “I think people understand that it is different.”
Like many ‘grown-up’ champagnes these wines are now beginning to show that they are also capable of taking on some age. At Domaine Champalou, a smaller producer in Vouvray, we are honoured to be able to try a 30 year old example of their tiny domaine’s Vouvray Brut, sabraged for our delight and entertainment, and adding apt ceremony to this very rare of openings. What results is an intense honeyed, toasted nose with flecks of white truffle interspersed with other savoury characteristics like wild mushrooms. As this is their only sparkling wine, they offer us the chance to try some of their still wines too. What glugs into our glasses next is a fantastic Chenin Blanc called ‘Le Portail’. This is a wine so good, our host tells us of how his son, currently interning in every winemakers’ mecca of Meursault, Burgundy, showed an older version of this wine to some of his colleagues blind, only for them to think it was something out of the Côte d’Or instead.
Perhaps there is an intended latent beauty in the fact Le Portail means ‘gateway’ – a strong sign of things to come where other traditional (method) grapes are coming up against dramatic changes in climate elsewhere. In this reassured excitement, Madame Champalou tells us of how their 1.5ha plot of land has grown to 21ha in 35years. “With one variety of grapes we can have five or six qualities of wine!” again alluding to this most versatile of raw ingredient. Why is Chenin so perfect for sparkling wine then amongst other things? “It is very delicate, fresh and nervous,’ says Sophie at Chateau l’Aulee, and when talking about her 100% Chenin Blanc Cremant, she says, “the idea is to give real taste to the grape variety”. The young chenins can be acidic and sharp, but with some age they show a wonderful diversity of flavours. They are crowd pleasers that can be worked hard to show off their greater finesse.
When we move on to visit Saumur’s more-commercially driven Akerman Cellars, it amuses us all to see that the Loire Sparkling wines were also once recommended ‘for invalids’ – especially those ‘of a gouty or rheumatic disposition’ – as advertised in 1885 by J.N Bishop and Anderson of Coopers Row, London. They were also wines of serious prestige – if the Ladubay cellars are anything to go by. Today, crisp, clean and very pleasantly consistent in quality without being fancy or pretentious the wines we try region-wide all generally over-deliver on price too. Paired with the finest food at locally-acclaimed Michelin-starred La Gambetta, or simply with something more simplistic from the local charcuterie, you could say the Loire offers the girl next door of sparkling wine – well balanced, and an all-round welcome sight for anyone lucky to frequent their company. These are bottles and bubbles to watch, but first and foremost, almost certainly to drink. Watch out Burgundy and Champagne.
We visited: Domaine Champalou, Chateau de l’Aulee, Maison Bouvet-Ladubay, Ackerman and fils, Chateau de Montgueret and Domaine de Brize. All offered excellent wines filling a variety of style and price points within the trade