From the heart of the Loire Valley to the center of your Thanksgiving table!

By Celia Strong

We sort of have a special wine this week. Not expensive special, but just sort of a rarity. And a really good learning experience for us. Because of where it comes from and the grape that makes it. So, let’s just get to it?

We’ll start with where it comes from. The Loire Valley in western France. From a commune, and an appellation, known as Saumur. (so-mer). The history of this town goes back for centuries and has connections to French royal families, the French resistance of World War II and, most importantly, it is the heart of the Loire Valley wine industry. The appellation Saumur covers reds (55%) and white wines (45%). Their white wines are mostly from Chenin Blanc, about 80%, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc used for the rest. There are over 2,000 acres planted with white varieties and yearly production, of white wines, is just over 500,000 gallons. The vineyards have calcium and limestone soils and the climate is temperate and maritime. There are hills in the area, mostly facing the Loire River, that act as buffers and protect the vines from cold winds that can blow in from off the Atlantic Ocean. We have to remember that centuries ago, the Loire Valley was where Parisians went during the hot months of July and August. Or, at least those who could afford a nice stone chateau along the river. This entire area is full of large and small chateaux. Makes for a different type of skyline, for sure.

Our wine this week is a white Saumur, made from 100% Chenin Blanc. I realize most of us are not big fans of Chenin wines. But, maybe, that’s because we haven’t had the opportunity to try some of the more obscure Loire Valley versions? Obscure only because they’re not well known, so they’re not easily found. A “Catch 22!” According to ampelographer Pierre Galet, Chenin originated in the Anjou area of the Loire Valley in the 9th century. Its name may be partly from being planted near Mont Chenin near the city of Tours. Recent DNA testing has shown that Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc may be related.

Chenin Blanc vines bud early and the grapes ripen mid to late in their growing season. In warmer vintages, when they reach full ripeness, they can make wines with great complexities and finesse. The age of the vine also has a lot to do with making more complex wines. (Often, in the Loire Valley, full ripeness isn’t easy to achieve, so many less ripe grapes are used to make wonderful sparkling wines.) It is said, by Chenin producers, that the climate where Chenin is grown will determine sweet or dry style of a wine, while the soil determines the body and flavors of a wine. Heavy clay soils can produce weighty, botritized dessert wines. Well drained and less organic soils produce wines with minerality. Limestone soils produce wines with heavy acidity. In Vouvray, where the soil is calcereous clay, the wines can be weighty and acidic. (Yes, to all of you who have enjoyed Vouvray. It is Chenin Blanc!) Up and down the Loire River, there are towns, whose names are also their wine appellations that make Chenin wines that are incredible. Loire Valley Chenin wines account for just 1.2% of all French wines.

Important for us, today, are the food pairings that these fuller bodied, dry Chenins can do. They are way more versatile than we would expect. (I sense this is partly a surprise because of our unfamiliarity with these wines. It’s hard to know them when American Chenins are so different.) Care has to be taken, though, to know which style of Chenin you have. Obviously lighter styles go with lighter dishes. Sweeter styles go well with hot, spicy foods, especially Asian and Hispanic. Medium body, medium dry styles can do well with rich cream sauces and pâtés.

Our wine is Lieu-Dit Les Epinats Saumur. Lieu-Dit is a label from a group of about 40 winegrowers. They came together in 1957, all smaller growers, and grouped together. The grapes for this Saumur grow on north-facing hills, with forests nearby that act as wind barriers. The soil is shallow pebbles, flint, some clay and some limestone. After pressing, the grapes are fermented at low temperatures for about two weeks. The wine is then aged in stainless steel tanks with a thin layer of its lees for three to four months. This wine is pale yellow in color, with green tints. It has a strong bouquet of lemon and lime and it is full bodied in your mouth. And, yes, it is good with all types of foods. Most particularly, it needs to be tried with a turkey dinner! Dry and full and a huge surprise. And a huge treat! Who’d have thought? For $12.99. A special Thanksgiving dinner white wine. A limited supply, though. Sorry. Enjoy!

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