Standing in the shadow of France’s more renowned regions for a long time, the Loire Valley is experiencing a revival that has seen some of its wines jump to the very top of the ladder in terms of desirability and prestige.
A few years ago, Loire reds were written off by most people as unripe, green, peppery wines of little interest, whilst most people associated its whites with overcropped, green Sancerre that was entirely devoid of character. Apart from a handful of producers who showed the world that Sauvignon Blanc had the right to be counted among the world’s best varieties, such as Didier Dagueneau, and Nicolas Joly who fought for biodynamics and the recognition of Savennieres and his appellation, the Coulee de Serrant, there was very little happening here. Fast forward to 2016, and the Loire is clearly among the most fashionable wine regions in New York, San Francisco, London or Paris. Sommeliers and ‘informed’ wine lovers there fight over bottles of the region’s top wines, and Clos Rougeard is arguably the most instagrammed wine of all, illustrating that estate’s rise to the absolute top of the hierarchy in French wine.
With few of its great wines imported in China, and even fewer of the wines being known, here are some of our favourite, and arguably most important wineries of the region.
Clos Rougeard, Chacé
No other estate has driven the Loire renaissance as much as this family-owned winery in Chace. With a focus on making wines with as little intervention as possible, attention to detail in every aspect along the way (the used barrels come from Chateau Latour), and some of the most careful winemaking in all of France, Clos Rougeard’s reds and whites are among the most sought-after wines globally. No matter whether it’s the ‘simple’ Saumur Champigny, often called Le Clos or the top cuvee Le Bourg (which is aged in 100% new wood for up to 30 months and comes from a small 1ha plot), this is a winery that produces wines of remarkable quality and longevity. Anyone with an interest in great Cabernet Franc or Chenin Blanc ought to at least taste one of these wines once in their life.
Cellars of Clos Rougeard
Edmond Vatan – Clos de la Néore, Chavignol
This estate could be part of a selection of cult wineries you have never heard of. Making wines from a tiny 1ha parcel in the best part of the Monts Damnés vineyard in Chavignol, Anne Vatan makes wines that are traditional Sancerres unlike pretty much any of the overcropped versions that most associate with this appelation. Vatan picks when everyone else has finished, and his wines are aged in ancient barrels to impart as little flavour or aroma as possible. In their youth the wines are tight and at times unyielding, but with age, they blossom into wonderfully rich, yet focused wines that are without doubt among the finest on the planet. Unfortunately, finding a bottle produced by the so-called “Henri Jayer of the Loire” is easier said than done, with only a couple of 1000 bottles made every year…
Francois Cotat, Chavignol
The only other estate to come close to Vatan in terms of quality in the Loire, Francois Cotat’s vineyard holdings are hardly large, making up no more than 3ha in total. Winemaking is in some ways similar to Vatan, in that the grapes are picked when they are very ripe, and vinified in old, large casks to produce wines that are pure and rich. At times, Cotat’s wines have been known to reach alcohol and residual sugar levels that exceed those allowed under the Sancerre appellation, meaning that some of the appellation’s very best wines are declassified and sold as “vin de table”. This is without doubt one of the biggest bargains in the wine market, as these wines are not particularly exensive yet.
Xavier Caillard – Les Jardins des Esmeraldins
Without doubt the most idiosyncratic of these producers, Xavier Caillard’s methods of winemaking hardly make sense in the modern world. Making wines from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, his first vintage’s white (1999) was released after 8 years in the barrel…equally, his labels are pretty much the same regardless of colour or style of winemaking. Buy the 2001 white, and you are faced with a sweet wine. There is some 2008 red that has seen some whole cluster fermentation and has more in common with a great Burgundy than it does with a red wine from the Loire. If it weren’t for the fact that these are wines that are almost impossible to find, Caillard would without doubt be a superstar in the region, as his wines are truly captivating.
Les Jardin des Esmeraldins
Eric Morgat – Savennieres
A quiet man, Eric Morgat made his first wine in 1995, when he decided to purchase land in Savennieres rather than make wine in Layon, where his family owns the Chateau du Breuil. In the ensuing years, Eric has aquired a number of parcels bringing the total vineyard surface up to 6ha. It is not surprising that his wines count producers such as Jean-Yves Bizot among their admirers: the work in the vineyard is done extremely carefully with very low yields, and several tris during harvest, so as to ensure perfectly ripe fruit. In the cellar Eric works mainly with wood, so as to produce wines that are rich, and complex and somewhat break with tradition in the same way as Xavier Caillard does with his very particular style of élevage.
Drawing up an exhaustive list of a region as dynamic as the Loire is almost impossible. There are too many producers making wines that have very little in common with the image of a region producing light wines of little interest. Instead, estates such as these have raised the profile of the region to the very top of the range in France.