New Choices

Loire Valley winemakers begin to export their red wines

On a recent visit to Detroit to showcase his family’s famous French white wines, Pierre Jean Sauvion, of the prominent Loire Valley wine family of the same name, introduced something a little new and different in his portfolio: a red wine.

In this country, we know the Loire Valley for its delicious whites named Sancerre, Reuilly, Quincy, Muscadet, Vouvray, and Pouilly Fumé. But we do not know much about its reds, despite the fact that Loire producers have been making serious red food wines for decades — sold mostly in France.

For years, the only red Loire wine seen here has been from Bourgueil, yet reds are also made in Sancerre, Saint Nicolas de Bour-gueil, Chinon, and Saumur-Champigny.

Thankfully, reds are becoming available here. Sauvion has added his Chinon to the list. It is made from 100 percent cabernet franc grapes.

Maison Sauvion’s top of the line is Château du Cléray Muscadet, which sells for $27. Other wines are Sancerre, Vouvray, Rosé d ’Anjou, and the Muscadet Sèvre et Maine — priced at $13-$18.

White wines are made from sauvignon blanc, and generally have a mineral, flinty, dry, and brisk character in the mouth, and intense citrus and grassy aromas. Overall they are crisp and fresh. The Sauvion Chinon is straightforward and uncomplicated;  it’s firm and steely with cherry and limestone undertones. It’s medium-bodied and has a refreshing quality, thanks to the acidity.

Chinon is most famous for its castle, where Joan of Arc claimed to have received instructions from God to raise an army to drive the British out of France. The town is also the home of Rabelais, the Renaissance writer and gustatorian.

About 10 years ago, a generational shift in the Loire valley’s wineries brought in new ideas to winemaking and sales, and a view toward expanding distribution. The changes coincided with the 2003 vintage, one of the hottest summers ever recorded, which produced hugely ripe wine crops and changed how Loire wines could taste.

“We were a little afraid to show our red wines,” Sauvion said. “We weren’t very proud of them.” When the younger generation winemakers tasted the new vintage, “it changed at that point for the new generation. It was an eye-opener. So we started pushing for a little more maturation, and we began to understand the wine growing in a very different way.”

Add to that the changing tastes of consumers wanting brighter, fruitier wines, and you have the impetus for a big shift. In 2003, the years of the oak barrel and big buttery finish chardonnays began giving way to a new idea of what made a good white wine. Grapes such as chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, and riesling started challenging chardonnay’s reign.

Today, the panoply of whites is vaster, and the choices are wider with varieties such as viognier, marsanne, and roussanne adding to the selection.

Chardonnay is still a top seller, but the taste buds of wine drinkers have been changed by a range of other white varietals and wine regions.

“There is a move to lively, softer wine. People are tired of oak and big wines,” Sauvion said, and his Muscadet, Sancerre, Quincy, Vouvray, Saumur, and others, Chinon included, are very much at the heart of why.