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Tuesday, 20 December 2022 14:30

Six Things I Learned in the Loire

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On a blistering June day, my suitcase rattling over the hot cobblestones, I made my way by through the village of Amboise in the Loire Valley, where my tour with the Wine Scholar Guild was about to begin. That night, in an 18th century hotel decorated in a style my spouse describes as “manic grandma,” the group toasted our safe arrival and talked about what had brought each of us there. Though we were a diverse set—with wine professionals from all over the map, and a handful of enthusiasts outside the industry—we all seemed to agree on one thing

: that tasting wine in the place it was made with the people who made it would tell us a more complete story about the Loire’s wines than we’d ever learned before.

In other words, we’d come to the Loire to put its wines into context. It's impossible to describe the overwhelming sensory whirlwind that I experienced in the span of that week, but I’m happy to share some of what made the tour one of the highlights of my wine education.

Tasting similar wines can be tough…

Compared to memorizing facts about grapes and soil, tasting has never seemed like the hard part of wine education. However, once I arrived in the Loire, I realized I’d been doing it on easy mode. Back home in the classroom, tasting wines from vastly different climates and grapes had made it much easier to articulate the differences between each wine. But on my Loire tour, I found myself tasting wines made from the same grapes and grown in the same small area, often in quick succession, with just enough time to scribble notes.

It was a boot camp for the senses. To distinguish minute variations in vintage, climate, soil, and winemaking style, I had to not only develop my palate, but use every bit of my previous wine education to make sense of what I was learning and put it into context.

…but my sensory memory is better than I thought it was

I’ve never been accused of having a good memory. I hold a world record for phone chargers forgotten in hotels. But as I tasted throughout the trip, I found myself referring back to the library of flavors I was developing. I started making more nuanced connections between the flavors of the wine and the winemaking and winegrowing techniques I was learning about.

Take the Loire’s famous Chenin Blanc. Almost unconsciously, I went from having a basic sense of what the grape tasted like—high acidity, apple, citrus, honey and straw notes with age, according to my textbooks and the one or two examples I’d tried—to developing both a broader sense of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc’s style. I began to understand the variations in flavor that come with grape-growing environment and winemaking technique. In a few short days, this process became more automatic, my senses and knowledge growing steadily more connected.

Wine styles in the Loire are as diverse as its climate

Though Chenin Blanc gets all the hype, the Loire is home to a staggering range of grapes, both regional—like the Pays Nantais’ Melon de Bourgogne, rarely seen elsewhere—and international grapes like Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Oddballs like Pineau d’Aunis and Romorantin make appearances, too. And each of these grapes is made in a staggering array of styles, from savory and reserved to big and bold.

My tour was the best possible opportunity to dive into the minutiae of Loire wines’ flavors. The broad-strokes picture I had of the Loire from previous wine education—Chinon is X, while Bourgeuil is Y—became richer with detail. And I gained a greater appreciation for the kinds of winemaking that challenge tradition and resist simplistic depictions of the region.

Innovation is alive in the Loire

At every winery we visited, winemakers were excited to share the results of their experiments. From the glorious pet-nat at Amboise’s La Grange Tiphaine (appropriately called “Nouveau Nez,”—that is, “New Nose”) to the lines of concrete eggs and amphorae at Gétigné’s Domaine de Bellevue, it was hard not to share the winemakers’ enthusiasm for the new and unusual.

Innovation in the Loire often, ironically, often takes the form of bringing back older practices, like reintroducing untrendy-but-once-common grape varieties like Grolleau. In fact, revitalized traditions seem to be the Loire’s signature approach to sustainability. The vignerons we met talked about reducing their use of environmentally destructive agribusiness products in favor of more traditional practices, like cover crops, polyculture, plowing, mulch, and manure. Many vignerons we visited came from generations of winegrowers, and talked about their families’ firsthand experiences of the effects of abandoning traditional methods, not only on the environment, but on wine quality.

Loire food and wine go hand in hand

The tour wouldn’t have been complete without trying the Loire’s wines with its legendary food. While the tasting rooms were fun—and while my inner ten-year-old loved exploring the wine caves—food pairings were where we saw the wines at their best. “Pairing” doesn’t fully convey what was happening. Of course, a food ecosystem that had evolved for centuries alongside the Loire’s wines would go well with them. The French word mariage perhaps describes it more accurately: not a date, but a longstanding union.

The connections between winemaking and the greater ecosystem of the Loire were made clearer than ever after eating freshly caught fish from the Loire River or vegetables from one of its many farms. It was easy to appreciate winemakers’ desire to preserve the health of the ecosystem around them. The mariage depends on it.

Loire wines often challenge American palates

I came home to New York with as much wine as I could fit in my tiny carry-on, excited to share it with friends. But the first friend I served some of the Loire’s famous Cab Franc—a guy I’ve seen drink unmixed birthday-cake-flavored vodka with no hesitation—wrinkled his nose. I found the culprit: too much Brett for his taste. I poured him a cocktail and finished the bottle myself.

I’ve encountered this situation before, but never more than with Loire wines. Hard-to-pronounce appellations and an enormous range of styles don’t help matters. It’s hard to explain exactly what Loire wine is without a map and a PowerPoint presentation. And while many of the Loire’s grape varieties are familiar to Americans, the fruity and accessible styles common in the U.S. are found far less often in the Loire. High acidity, robust tannins, and native yeasts may not faze wine enthusiasts, but everyday American drinkers don’t encounter these styles often enough to get familiar with them.

Fortunately, this looks to be changing. The Loire’s U.S. exports have steadily grown over the last five years, which hopefully means Loire wines are finding fans outside of diehard enthusiasts. I’m glad to have become one of the diehards. The Loire needs evangelists, not just in America. And with our trip, the Wine Scholar Guild handily produced a new crop.

Andrew Triska

Andrew Triska is a wine writer, therapist, and DipWSET candidate in New York. His wine blog can be found at weirdtimesinwine.com; as a therapist, his four published books include 2021's Amazon Best Seller Gender Identity Workbook for Teens."

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