A wine with attitude

in Wine by

By Celia Strong

A wine with an attitude. Imagine that. An attitude will get you through a bad day. An attitude will help you do things you don’t like to do. An attitude will make you who you are. An attitude is one thing, and a glass with an attitude is something else, which we are about to learn. With good attitudes we can discover the history and winemaking techniques before we taste our new wine for this week.

The wine is from France, the Loire Valley. The Loire is a river that runs from south of Paris westward to the Atlantic Ocean. There are 87 appellations in this valley — AC, VDQS and “vins de pays.” The majority of Loire wines are white, made mostly from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadet, aka Melon de Bourgogne. (The few red wines here are made mostly from Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Pinot Noir.) As a group, Loire Valley wines tend to have varietal fruitiness and fresh, crisp flavors, especially when drunk young.

The history of wine in the Loire is interesting and varied, depending on where along the 350 mile long river you pick to study. We are going to look at the most eastern end of the river, specifically the town of Sancerre. Sancerre was a medieval hilltop town, commune and canton, located in the area of Gaul that was settled by the Celtic tribe (Gaule Celtique) the Bituriges (or “kings of the world” as they liked to call themselves), and then the Romans. There is some evidence of a Roman temple dedicated to Julius Cæsar. It is possible that the town Sancerre’s name is a derivative of “Saint-Cere,” an anglicized version of its ancient name meaning “sacred to Cæsar.”  Sancerre is also a former possession of the Comtes (Counts) of Champagne. The town had six towers built around it, all meant to help protect it.

The Romans were probably the first to develop vineyards in Sancerre, in the first century AD. Besides being on a navigable river, the chalk-based soil fit the profile that Romans knew would grow good grapes. Also, being a hilltop town, the slopes around Sancerre made for perfect drainage for the vines. For a while, this end of the valley was linked to the Duchy of Burgundy. This is probably how Pinot Noir, Gamay and Muscadet (Melon de Bourgogne) made their way into Loire vineyards.

For a long time, the wines from the Loire were more popular in the Netherlands than in France or England. The Dutch used the river as their main entry way into trade with Europe. (The British used the Bordeaux rivers and grew fonder of those wines.) Later, after World War II, Loire wines gained a reputation in Paris bistros. For a while, Loire wines were popular choices for many who couldn’t — or didn’t  want to — pay the higher prices for Burgundy and Bordeaux wines.

The white wines from Sancerre and its surrounding areas are made with Sauvignon Blanc. This variety traces its origins to this part of the Loire Valley and Bordeaux. Its name comes from the French words “sauvage,” for its wild origins, and “blanc,” for “white.”  Generally, its wines are crisp, dry, refreshing, and it is grown in most wine producing countries around the world. In the continental climate of the Loire Valley, these grapes ripen slowly and are allowed time to develop a balance between their acidity and their sugar levels. This balance helps the development of more intense aromas in the wines. The chalk and Kimmeridgean soils of Sancerre produce rich and complex wines. (More chalk in the soil produces more finesse and perfume in the wines, while more gravel produces spicy, floral and mineral nuances.) Sauvignon Blanc grows better in cooler climates — too warm and the grapes get over-ripe and the resulting wines have dull flavors and flat acidity.  (Wine-speak for OK, maybe, but not so great.) It’s interesting to note that global warming is even interfering here. Some growers are finding that they have to harvest their Sauvignon Blanc grapes earlier than they used to in order to maintain their acidity.

So, our winery for this week is the house of Pascal Jolivet. Founded in 1987, this is one of the most dynamic producers in the Loire Valley today. It is based in Sancerre and owns more than 70 acres of vineyards in Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé across the Loire from Sancerre and some surrounding areas. (So, actually Pouilly-sur-Loire is the town across from Sancerre. Their wines are called Pouilly Fumé.) In addition, the Jolivet domaine has long-term contracts with prime growers.

Pascal Jolivet is a believer in natural winemaking. He uses environmentally friendly techniques in the vineyards and in his winery.  This includes biodynamic vinification — a longer, slower process that makes wines with finesse, elegance and purity with clean aromas and flavors. Jolivet does use technology to control his fermentation, not to interfere, though. Too much technology can result in heavy wines that don’t go well with food. (The wines of Sancerre are known to be great food-pairing wines!)

Jolivet makes several different Sancerre wines, sourced from different, specific vineyards; some with more, less or no barrel aging. Jolivet is known to say, “I have a strong philosophy that our wine is a beverage meant to compliment food.”

But, of more importance to us this week, is his Sauvignon Blanc wine made from a nearby vineyard. This wine is 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc, grown in a single, estate vineyard in the Chevery appellation. The wine is called “Attitude.” The 2012 Attitude is a brilliant straw gold color with a clear rim. Clean and fresh and youthful, it is classic Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc. It has delicate hints of lime, grapefruit, green apple and kiwi. A soft entry on your palate and a supple texture make it pleasant with food and by itself. What food?  Shellfish, raw, steamed, or broiled; white fish; chicken breasts; and veal. And my favorite? Goat cheese. In particular, Chevre. Up and down the Loire Valley, almost each town has its own version of goat cheese. Chevre is the goat cheese from Sancerre.  Try this wine with some Chevre and you too can have an attitude, even if you don’t usually like goat cheeses. Like we said, an attitude can help you do things you don’t like to do. A glass of Attitude can too! A glass of Attitude might help you like some new things. It sure can’t hurt. And that is a good attitude. For $16.99. Enjoy.