We’re in the Loire Valley


I arrived today in the chilly Loire Valley of France, which is still one of the more under-appreciated wine regions, and I’ll be posting from here during my week-long look at the wines of the Loire, which include such well-known appellations as Sancerre, Vouvray, Muscadet and Chinon, but also many others that deserve to be better known. The centerpiece of my visit is a three-day event here in Angers, in the central Loire, known as the Salon des Vins de Loire. It’s a giant tasting that attracts hundreds of winemakers who hope to make an impression with their latest offerings on the world’s importers, retailers, restaurants and journalists. I’m here with a small group of American wine writers invited to attend the event and sponsored by InterLoire, the region’s wine trade body. The tasting and spitting begin bright and early tomorrow.

This afternoon, we had a delightful warm-up at Domaine Richou just a few miles outside Angers. Didier Richou, seen above on the right, took us around his vineyards and poured his expressive, terroir-driven chenin blancs, both dry and sweet, as well as his red gamays and cabernet francs. I’ll have details on our tasting shortly.


Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

For more than three decades, Merry Edwards has been making a range of small-production pinot noirs from various appellations in California’s Sonoma County. The 2006 Russian River Valley “Flax Vineyard” Pinot Noir is one of the bestlabel_2007_flax Merry Edwards wines I have tasted. This ruby-colored wine is all elegance, made in a style that eschews the over-the-top, massive-fruit style that has come to define too many California pinot noirs in recent years. The Flax Vineyard, from which the grapes are sourced, is planted entirely with the Pommard clone of Burgundy, and the wine, focused and reserved, is refreshingly Burgundian in style.

It shows a gentle but firm tannic structure, ample acidity and notes of sweet cherry, spice and cocoa. We enjoyed it, slightly chilled, with a pan-roasted sirloin steak with which we wanted a “lighter” red. The 2007 vintage is currently for sale, at $54, from the winery.  (Received as a press sample.)


A singular sauvignon blanc

One of the more unusual California whites I’ve tasted recently comes from Sbragia Family Vineyards – the 2008 “Home Ranch” Sauvignon Blanc from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County. This is a singular sauvignon, notable for its rich complexity combined with refreshing acidity and minerality and an attractive $20 suggested price.IMG_4777[1]

That complexity includes loads of tropical fruit and notes of honey and butterscotch, orange, white flowers, ginger and even a touch of spearmint, which make it a wine to sip and savor rather than quaff. Fermented in stainless steel and aged in three-year-old oak barrels, which it give it a subtle wood underlay but none of the cream or vanilla of new oak.

The bottle is sealed, by the way, with a “Vino-Seal” glass closure, which, for me, is yet another welcome alternative to cork beyond screw caps and plastic closures that are now widely in use.  More information at Sbragia’s Web site. (Wine received as a press sample.)


Wine and chili (and football)

I have a friend who is a Minnesota Vikings fan, or, more precisely, a Bret Favre fan. My friend is from Wisconsin and rooted for the 40-year-old quarterback for many years when he played for Green Bay. That’s why this year, with Favre leading Minnesota to the doorstep of the Super Bowl, my friend is a Vikings fan. In any event, I, too, enjoy football in these exciting last weeks of the season. So when my friend invited me to watch the Vikings against the Giants, I didn’t hesitate. It didn’t hurt that the invitation came with the promise of homemade chicken chili, and that, of course, would give me the chance to bring along a terrific wine. But which wine?

It turned out my choice was just about unbeatable as we sipped Bradford Mountain’s superb 2005 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, which is made from organically grown grapes. Like many zins, this one is relatively high in alcohol, at 14.6 percent. But unlike some, it’s a model of balance with refreshing acids that keep it from being overpowered by robust foods. It was a great complement to the delicious chili with its sweet and spicy tomato base (thanks again to my friend’s wife).

As the Vikings handed the Giants a season-ending 44-7 defeat, the wine was the real winner with its concentrated blackberry and blueberry fruit, mocha, herbs and smooth but solid tannic structure. It would be nice to repeat it all with the Vikings and the Jets in the Super Bowl. I know who I’ll be rooting for. The wine has a suggested price of $28 and 1,950 cases were produced. More information at Bradford Mountain’s  Web site.  (Wine received as a press sample.)


Petit Chablis

Chablis still causes confusion, thanks to the California brands that co-opted the name for their jug whites decades ago, the same brands that created such infamous reds as “Hearty Burgundy.” In fact, the real Chablis is about as far from California generic as you can get. Chablis, of course, is the northern outpost of France’s Burgundy, and its stony soils produce some outstanding chardonnays, most of them made without exposure to oak.

I received several chablis for review the other day aPetit-Chablis-2004nd was so   taken by the first one I tasted that I wanted to let you know about it. The 2008 Petit Chablis from Domaine Bernard Defaix is a full 180 degrees away the rich, often-overbearing California style that, for better or worse, has come to represent chardonnay to many wine drinkers. Petit Chablis is the appellation for some of the outlying area of Chablis, and the wines tend to be light on the palate and relatively easy on the wallet.

Defaix’s Petit Chablis, about $17,  is defined by a strong minerality with notes of green apple and lemon and lime peel. Its refreshing acidity and alcohol of just 12.5 percent make it almost thirst quenching as an aperitif. A rounded, slightly creamy finish gives it added dimension and moves it beyond a mere quaffing wine. Made for shellfish and simply broiled fish. Imported by Winebow, Inc., New York.


A Winning California blend

I’m sipping a very nice California blend tonight that is almost Bordeaux-like in its elegance. It’s the 2007 Blues Cuvee from Longoria Wines in Santa Barbara County. And yes, the label has a very cool painting of a guitar-strumming bluesman on the label. But that’s beside the point. The wine is a winning  blend of 31 percent cabernet franc, 27 percent merlot, 24 percent syrah and 18 percent cabernet sauvignon.


Notes of dried red-berry fruit, coffee bean and herbs are supported by good tannic structure and great balancing acidity that make it a pleasure to drink even with a high 14.8 percent alcohol (other California wineries please take note).  It sells for $28 and with production at just 150 cases, you’ll want to buy it directly from the winery.  Also check out Longoria’s crisp, refreshing 2008 Albarino-Clover Creek Vineyard, a lovely California take on the Spanish-Portugese variety, at $23. (Wines received as press samples.)


Notable winter reds

At 17 degrees here in New York , some hearty reds I’ve enjoyed  in recent days come to mind.

From the far reaches of my wine collection, Chateau 48401Lagrezette’s 2000 Cahors “Le Pigeonnier” demonstrates what a few years of bottle age will do for malbec grown in Cahors in southwest France. Cahors is usually quite rough when young, but this one, at nine years old, had given up most of its rough edges when I served it with some steaks grilled in the fireplace the other night. Notes of blackberry, black cherry, mocha and cedar. A superb wine. When I looked for retailers that carried it on wine-searcher.com, there was exactly one listing: Gary Vaynerchuk’s Wine Library in Springfield,  New Jersey,  which offers it at $154. Obviously a wine for special occasions.

From Italy’s Piedmont, Marchesi di Gresy’s 2006 Barbaresco “Martinenga” is an excellent wine from the famed Barbaresco appellation. Made from the region’s signature nebbiolo grape, I was surprised by its accessibility at this youthful stage. Light ruby in color, it’s softly tannic with delicious fruit, showing notes of raspberry, cherry, tobacco and  earth.  Irresistible. For all kinds of roasts (we enjoyed it with homemade spaghetti and meatballs). $55. Imported by Marchesi di Gresy USA, Napa, California.

From the south of France, Hecht & Bannier’s 2006 Cotes du Roussillon Village is a winning blend of mainly grenache with smaller amounts of syrah and carignan with notes of sweet blackberry, cherry and earth. Bright acids balance the 14.5 percent alcohol and make it an excellent partner for pan-seared pork chops, sirloin steak and lamb. The suggested price is $25. Imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, New York.