When two fellow journalists asked me the other day what wines I was thinking about for Easter, I told them, almost without missing a beat, that I was leaning toward Loire Valley reds. One of them seemed genuinely surprised while the other seemed more perplexed and was clearly unfamiliar with the wines. Lamb, I explained, was a tradition in our family at Easter, and these reds, with their fresh acidity and minerality, match superbly with it, as I was reminded the other day at a dinner featuring the wines. I’m fairly certain that my choice would ultimately be forgotten or ignored by my colleagues; Loire Valley reds, after all, require a little work: it helps to be able to recognize some of the appellations, such as Chinon or Bourgueil, for example, or to know that the primary red grape is the cabernet franc, which expresses itself with elegance and complexity in the varied terroirs of the Loire (there is also some pinot noir and gamey grown in parts of the region). It also helps if you can can get past the notion that big fruit and high alcohol are requisites for very good wines.
The other night, we tasted more than a dozen reds from various parts of the Loire in a pre-dinner sampling and with various courses. For me, five of them really stood out. Yannick Amirault’s 2007 Bourgueil “La Coudraye,” $21, was grapey and delightful with refreshing acids, minerals and a touch of pepper. René Mosse’s 2008 Anjou, $23, was a bit closed at first but opened up nicely, showing notes of sour cherries and a bit of the green herb character that you’ll often find in cab franc. Bernard Baudry’s 2008 Chinon “Les Granges” is showing beautifully with wonderfully expressive and fresh aromas that transported me back to Bernard’s cellar (he’s on the left in the photo) , where we tasted Les Granges right from the tank, along with his other wines, a couple of summers ago. The ‘08 Les Granges is full of earth and minerals with vibrant red fruits that suggest cherry and raspberry. This is also a great value at $18.
As the lamb course was served (it was prepared exquisitely at New York’s Gramercy Tavern with salsify, hazelnuts and Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms), two reds from 2005 were served and demonstrated how these wines begin to evolve and mature with some bottle age. For one thing, the red fruits give way to darker berry flavors. The ‘05 vintage was also a warm and dry one and the two wines we tasted reflected this in their concentration and weight. Domaine des Roches Neuves’ 2005 Saumur-Champigny “La Marginale,” $40, was at once earthy and elegant and provided a seamless match with the mushrooms and the lamb, its ample blackberry notes supported by lively acidity. Another standout was Chateau de la Grille’s 2005 Chinon, a big and perfumed wine showing notes of leather, blackberry and some pepper. It’s not yet available at retail.
The hallmark of these wines is their dimension and subtlety. You’ll find yourself swirling them again and again, taking another sip, thinking about them some more and discovering something new. With moderate levels of alcohol, they are also made for food, especially earthy, slightly rustic, fare. They have Easter lamb written all over them.