This is our first installment in an extensive series of “Sauvignon Blanc Regional Tasting Profiles” authored expertly by our Resident Master Sommelier, Catherine Fallis (a.k.a. grape goddess.) These pieces are meant to highlight the world’s major Sauvignon Blanc producing regions and provide you with an overview of the styles, flavors, and characteristics of wines they produce. These make for great reference sources when exploring the world of Sauv Blanc, choosing a wine for a particular meal, or understanding why a particular wine is how it is. Enjoy and share with other Sauvignon Blanc enthusiasts! Cheers, Bryan Dias, Executive Director, SIAG.
SAUVIGNON BLANC – THE LOIRE VALLEY
Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess®
Known as Le Jardin de la France, or France’s garden, the Loire Valley is a producer of wines enjoyed often and everywhere around the globe…
As the cradle of French civilization, the area has long attracted nobility. French kings built summertime chateaux and hunting lodges in the 16th and 17th centuries, bringing their household staffs along, including sommeliers and chefs. The wines, as well as Antoine Careme, the world’s first celebrity chef, were discovered here.
Today the region is France’s fourth most visited, its largest white wine producing region, and its third largest producer of AOC, or Appellation d’Origine Controllee wines. A large percentage of that is Sancerre, the dry, crisp racy wine enjoyed at the start of the meal as an aperitif, or “opener” of the appetite.
Sauvignon Blanc thrives in the Upper Loire. Once planted mainly to Chasselas, and only switched over as Sauvignon Blanc was easier to graft, the wine was not considered great until Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé were discovered in nearby Paris in the 1960s. The climate is continental, as the vineyards are in the center of France, not the center of the Loire Valley, and the soils vary slightly in the different appellations, or AOC’s, but all are on a base of Kimmeridgian limestone, a unique subsoil composed of tiny fossilized shellfish bound in clay, found only in Southern England, across the channel, and into Champagne and the center of France. There is nothing like it anywhere else on the planet, and the wines grown in it, in such cool conditions, often express a flinty, stony or chalky character. Vineyards are planted near the river as a buffer from harsh conditions.
Sancerre is the largest and most significant producer of quality French Sauvignon Blanc. Vineyards are planted on steep slopes at altitudes of up to 660 feet, where vines are enjoyed sheltered, sunny conditions and the moderating effect of the river. Terres Blanches, Caillottes, and Silex topsoils impart unique minerally flavors to the better wines.
Winemakers work to preserve the taste of the soil, which is quite the feat given the star quality of the local varietal. While not a diva, cool climate Sauvignon Blanc, especially when less ripe, is pungent, herbaceous, savage even – “sauvage” in French is “wild,” and in the case of the grape, unruly and productive. When reined in and just ripe enough however, the resulting wines offer the epitome of French elegance. The terms “gooseberry” and “violet” stay in my memory banks as I had to look them up to figure out what they were talking about – those Brits. They use words that may be foreign to us. But at Cost Plus I found Gooseberry jam and in Healdsburg, a little vial of violet oil and I was on my way. The use of oak is uncommon. A recent and heart-wrenching trend across the valley has been to try and imitate the wildly popular New Zealand style which mixes tart with tropical. This is not at all classic.
Sancerre with the local Chevre, goat cheese, and a crusty loaf of bread is delicious. The cheese and the wine both have ample acidity, or tartness. Another classic pairing is with white asparagus. Here is an excerpt from an upcoming story about my travels in Europe. I am an Au Pair living in a Chambre de Bonne, or maid’s room, with a family on the Rue de Babylone in Paris, and have been invited to dine with the family.
“So we sit, and I notice different plates than usual. We each had before a plate with a built-in wedge, as if put there to hold something up. We had a weird fork I had never seen before, even in the books at the library at hotel school – and I looked at a lot of forks, even got to know what some of them were for. Within seconds, we are entranced, spellbound, as the maid serves us one by one with great reverence as if she holds the first born son of a King in her hands. She rests the tender white spears gently on the wedge of the plate, so that they sit like a see-saw tip end up. She then circles us again, offering a sauce only the French could have created – so light and delicate yet so buttery and rich- which she drizzles gently over each spear. The room is silent. Madame looks at Monsieur, they nod, and we begin to eat. With this feast – the great feast of the white asparagus – we are served a delicate, slightly herbaceous Sancerre. The white asparagus was sublime, delicate, earthy, soft, delectable. The wine was perfect. It was in the background playing a supporting role, not the star of the show, its crispness perfectly cleansing the palate of any luxurious remnants of that silky sauce.”
If Sancerre is concentrated and elegant, Pouilly-Fumè (say “pwee – foo-may”) across the river from Sancerre is heavier, mellower, bolder, earthier, and smokier with noticeable flint and often oak notes. The best vineyards have Silex, or flint and clay topsoils, which give a gunflint minerality. Gravelly, sandy vineyards give fruitier wines, and Sauvignon Blancs grown on clay here are creamy and round, less angular than Sancerre. Sommeliers consider Pouilly-Fumè wines more complex and long lived. Didier Dagueneau was a local, very passionate renegade, whose Pur Sang, or “pure bred” Blanc Fumé de Pouilly was a game changer for the varietal.
Chilled seafood and light fish dishes are ideal with this wine, as are light meat dishes accented with green vegetables, such as peas or green beans. A particular favorite pairing of mine is chilled foie gras torchon on toast points. Though Sauternes is more classic, I like the mirroring of creamy texture and earthy flavor plus the gentle palate cleansing of the wine’s acidity.
To the west of Sancerre, and farther from the river banks, Menetou Salon enjoys the same Kimmeridgian base soil. The wines in this often-overlooked appellation are as expressive of their varietal as they are in Sancerre, but they have a unique floral or even chamomile leaf quality not found elsewhere. Like Sancerre, these wines are unoaked, crisp, bone dry, and elegant. They pair beautifully with light fish dishes or Zucchini blossoms stuffed with goat cheese.
No one said pronouncing French wines was going to be easy. One taste of this wine, though, and it all comes together. You literally can’t see as your eyes are closed tight and tearing up from the extreme, raspy acidity. Say “can’t see.” You’re welcome. All kidding aside, the wines here, while perhaps a tad more biting due to their more remote inland location on the Cher tributary, enjoy a Kimmeridgian base and often offer floral, mint and earthy white pepper notes. Pair with grilled leeks on toast or chile-lime macadamia nuts.
Adjacent to Quincy and also on a base of Kimmeridgian soil, Sauvignon Blanc here ripens nicely and offers notes of dried herbs and white flowers. More lime content in the soil here ramps up the acidity even more though. Don’t confuse this AOC with Rully in Southern Burgundy. Pair with citrus-marinated goat cheese, or pork, duck, or salmon rillettes with brioche.
~ Catherine Fallis, Master Sommelier – A successful wine and service professional, Catherine Fallis, a.k.a. grape goddess® is an approachable and entertaining wine expert who brings wine down to earth. Her diverse wine background as a salesperson, sommelier, distributor, and supplier helped Catherine become the well-rounded and thorough expert she is today. She understands all facets of the wine business, and is a frequent speaker, event host, educator, and consultant for corporations, consumers and the wine trade. She is a highly sought after wine expert and spokesperson for the wine industry. Visit her site, PlanetGrape.com here…
See her Summertime in a Glass Profile here…- See more at: http://www.sauvblanc.org/sauvignon-blanc-regional-tasting-profile-loire-valley/#sthash.8nArAajj.dpuf