Exploring France, the Loire Valley, beginning with Sancerre & Touraine

I will admit that I typically drink domestic wines.  I like to buy local and so I support California Wineries as they are the closest.  I am finding that I want to expand a little and find out how my beloved California varieties compare with the same varieties from their country of origin.  The amazing variety of fragrances and textures that can come from the same variety of grape grown in different soils and climates, then the differences in the winemaking style that can be completely individual or as influenced by an area and the palate of that area’s people.

Today we are exploring Sauvignon Blanc and how the variety expresses itself in the place it is said to express itself best and that is Sancerre in the Loire Valley in France.

The Loire Valley is located in the North West part of France along the Loire River.  It has a cool northern climate similar to Champagne, but is one of the most diverse growing regions in France. The area is known for making straightforward wines that express the terroir.  You will find pure expressions of the grape here.  You can divide the region into 3 broad sections, the west near the Atlantic where you will find Muscadet; the middle where you will find Vouvray; and the east end, which home to Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume.

Our journey with the white wines of the Loire begins here, on the east end of the valley in Sancerre, and then drift a little back toward the middle to Touraine.

Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume come from the eastern end of the Loire.  Sancerre sits on the west side of the river and the vineyards here are on a cone shaped hill with white chalk slopes.  On the other side of the river you will find Pouilly-sur-Loire where Pouilly-Fume is made.  I have heard many tales about the origin of the name Pouilly-Fume; some say the name comes from the morning mists, some say the flint like character in the wine, some for the bloom on the grapes that looks smoky.  While many say that you do get a smokey, flinty character from the Pouilly-Fume wines, most experts cannot tell the wines of Sancerre from the wines of Pouilly-Fume, so when choosing a wine, I went with a Sancerre and then ventured a little further to choose another wine to set it against.

The Sav Blancs from Touraine are decidedly less expensive than those of Sancerre and so one of these went into my basket.

Touraine is located on the east end of the middle part of the Loire Valley.  This area around the city of Tours is known for Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc but a good portion of their wine is Sauvignon Blanc.  This area is where the tributaries the Cher and the Indre enter the Loire River.

Domaine Guenault 2012 Touraine Sauvignon Blanc

Domaine Guenault 2012 Touraine Sauvignon Blanc

Domain Guenault is owned by the Bougrier family and is located on the steep slopes over the Cher river.  They are 5th generation negotiants in the Loire Valley.  In addition to this property they have domaine and winery holdings in Anjou and Muscadet.

Sancerre while now thought of as Sauvignon Blanc, also produces Pinot Noir.  In fact before the phlloxera outbreak in the 1860’s, the vineyards here were planted mostly with Pinot Noir and Gamay.  As they replanted the new white Sancerres were considered the counterpart to the simple uncomplicated Beaujolais.  The area of ‘Sancerre’ includes the city of Sancerre and 14 other parishes on the left bank of the Loire.

Christian Salmon Sancerre

Christian Salmon Sancerre

Domaine Christian Salmon has been growing grapes in Sancerre for 6 generations.  The vineyards are located on the finest slopes in Bue, the parish just west of Sancerre.

As to what to pair with these wines?  Sancerre is noted for standing up to bolder flavors and over and over I read that it went well with grilled salmon with mango salsa, so…we picked up some Atlantic salmon and mangos and as it was cold out, I pan seared it.  Also suggested were salad greens and sharp flavors like vinaigrettes and capers, so we had a side salad with those items.   Sancerre and goat cheese was noted as a match made in heaven.  Specifically if you can find Crottin de Chavignol to pair with it.  I could not, but found a trio of goat cheese Crottin.  We popped open the garlic & herb and the Natural cheeses and spread them on Brioche crisps.  These were incredibly tasty with both of the wines.  We were also hungry enough that we added some Thai lime shrimp skewers and vegetable goyza.  Both went fine with both wines.

Goat cheese Crotini and Brioche toast, Thai lime shrimp and vegetable gyoza

Goat cheese Crotini and Brioche toast, Thai lime shrimp and vegetable gyoza

Now to the wines.  In the glass the Sancerre was lighter, almost clear and had a little touch of effervescence.  It was crisp clear and bright with terrific citrus notes.  The Touraine was much more golden in the glass.  It also had a weightier mouthfeel and you immediately got citrus and petrol on the nose.  Petrol, I know…but in a really great way.  Both wines were lovely, each in their own way.  You could tell that they were both Sauvignon Blancs but they still were very different from each other.  I love that the same variety of grape grown just 141 miles away, can be so different in a wine.  Both of these wines are much more subtle than the big brassy Sauvignon Blancs that you get from Australia and I also found them more nuanced than many California Sav Blancs that I know.

Next we will venture further west and enjoy some Chenin Blancs from Vouvray and Savennieres!

Adventures with Savignon Blancs

whitesaviog33120133I’ve been on a Savignon Blanc kick lately and it’s totally by accident.  I had a day off and Michael was working and I took myself to a movie and lunch.  I asked for a recommendation to pair with my lunch at The View Winebar and Joey  took the time to be sure to find something I would like.  After determining that we were going white and that I was having gnocchi au gratin she suggested a Sav Blanc.  I hesitated.  I am not usually a Sav Blanc girl, it’s a little too tart and often…I searched for the word and she replied “metallic”.  “Yes”.  “Wait” she said.  She popped open a new bottle and poured me a bit.  It was lovely.  Definitely a Sav Blanc and with the distinct grapefruit on the nose, but without that overly sharpness that I often get from a Sav Blanc.  So I enjoyed a glass or two of this lovely Savignon Blanc from Francois Chidaine Touraine Blanc 2010 from the Loire Valley.  It was perfect to cut through the fat in my luscious gnocchi au gratin and was really pleasant to just drink on it’s own.

Last night Michael and I went out to dinner at Grape Street Cafe.  It’s been awhile since we have had the opportunity to have dinner together with our schedules.  I ordered the Smoked Salmon pasta and asked for a recommendation for a flight to pair with it.  Our waiter suggested the Sav Blanc flight as the dish has a creme sauce.  This flight included Walnut Block “Collectibles” from New Zealand, Auntsfield Estate from New Zealand, Ferrari Carano Fume Blanc from Napa and Vogelzang 2009 from Napa.  Okay so not really Napa.  I came home and did my research today and found that the Vogelzang makes estate Savignon Blanc with fruit from their vineyards in Happy Canyon.  The winery itself is located in Santa Barbara.

So first my tasting notes on these wines.  Last night I snapped a shot of the flight menu, then put it away so that I could just taste the wines without being influenced by the winery or location.  The first wine (The Walnut Block) had a gorgeous nose!  There were lovely floral notes (it felt like more than one) lime leaf and zest and then subtle grapefruit.  I wanted to dab this wine behind my ears.  It was heavenly to smell.  On the palate it was aromatic with perfect acidity.  It was light and clean and was beautiful to balance the fried calamari we had as an appetizer.  The second wine (the Auntsfield Estate) was everything you expect from a Savignon Blanc.  It had big grapefruit on the nose and on the palate it was bold and tart.  The third wine (the Ferrari Carrano) was the Fume Blanc.  It reminded me of the Carhartt Savignon Blanc that I love so much.  The nose is a nuanced grapefruit and citrus but on the palate it is much more dimensional.  It is less tart and more balanced and rounded with a touch of sweetness.  The final wine was the  Vogelzang 2009 Savignon Blanc.  I was immediately surprised that the wine was more golden, but I didn’t look too closely in the dark light.  On the nose I immediately got oak.  On the palate I got the tartness of a Sav Blanc but then also a peat note that made me wonder if someone had scotch in this glass.  At the end of the night as I was getting to the bottom of my tasting glass, I noticed a squiggle of something burnt on the bottom of the glass.  Well, that would do it.  So my tasting on that wine has to be tossed out. But….after visiting the website I did find that this wine is aged in neutral chardonnay oak for 10 months.  So…maybe I did taste some in there?  Who knows.

Okay so now for my research on the wineries!

Francois Chidaine has been producing biodynamic wines for a while, but that’s not what he’s about.   As is typical of french wines this is not 100% Sav Blanc, it has a small percentage of Chardonnay.  His 40 to 80 year old  vines are trained low to hug the ground and by hand harvesting happens in mid October.  He does not encourage malolactic fermentation but lets the wines sit typically for a year on the lees.

Walnut Block in Marlborough New Zealand is named after the iconic walnut tree that is the regions oldest at over 100 years old.  The vineyard uses a three cane system and organic practices.  The Savignon Blanc is a wine that they say will cellar for up to 3 years.

Auntsfield Estate  is Marlborough’s first and oldest Vineyard.  The history page on their website is fascinating!  Filled with great stories!  My favorite….Bill Paynter who took over the property in 1905 and ran it until 1931 when the vines were removed and the land turned over to other farming had his final cask of wine hidden away and his sons were told it was only to be opened at his wake.  During shearing season while he lay ill his sons realize that the shearing shed was very quiet.  They found the shearers all asleep in the shed, having found and imbibed on the hidden cask the night before.  They now grow Savignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on the property.

Ferrari-Carano is a winery that I go way back with.  I remember enjoying their wines at their Casino in Reno at the opening of the state of the art theatre with Smokey Joe’s Cafe.  So I have a fondness for them.  As to Fume Blanc, well that I fell in love with thanks to Mike Grgich and the fabulous pourer at his winery that suggested we take a split and pair it with the Tuna Burger at Gott’s Roadside.  So…here I bring together two loves.  And mind you last night, I had put the wineries out of my head as I tasted the wines, and this was one of my favorites.

Villa Fiore is Ferrai-Carano’s hospitality center.  They have tastings upstairs but I suggest setting up for  a reserve tasting in the Enoteca Lounge downstairs.  It is well worth it.  And allow yourself time to stroll the stunning Italian gardens on the property.  We enjoyed visiting a few years ago and long to return.  There is a coveted bottle of  their Tresor in my cellar.

Vogelzang Vineyard with it’s tasting room in Santa Barbara as I mentioned before grows it’s fruit in Happy Canyon, CA one of California’s newest appellations.  Located in the Santa Ynez valley (which has become one of my favorite areas) they  have a longer stretch of heat during the day because the morning fog burns off earlier than in the rest of the valley.  In addition to Savignon Blancs they grow Cabernet and Bordeaux Varietals.  Like most Santa Barbara County vineyards they don’t just grow grapes for themselves, they also supply grapes to well known wineries including Foxen, Dragonette, Fiddlehead and others.  I look forward to getting to Santa Barbara and doing a tasting here!

So…no longer afraid of Savignon Blancs I have a new appreciation for the range of this variety!