As London struggles through the dark and miserable start to the year, the skies a uniform and oppressive grey. It’s at times such as this that you need a wine which can beguile even the most jaded of palates. It is those reds from the Loire, at turns delightful, light, fresh and quaffable, that I yearn for now.
The Loire runs through the heart of France, rising in the Massif Central and running its way west to the Atlantic enjoying all along its course a gentle and temperate climate well suited to, amongst others, the Cabernet Franc grape. It is a vine that yields light refreshing wines with a palate of raspberries and blackcurrants, but which in the right conditions yields up something yet more intriguing and alluring.
In the Middle Loire, around the rather pretty town of Saumur, the grape comes into its own. There is a long history of viticulture stretching back to the Romans in these parts. The climate is sheltered but cool and this gives a distinct freshness to the wines and helps to keep the alcohol low but the palate clean and bright. That ripe summer fruit and enticing acidity is all there in a classic Saumur AOP and these wines are wonderful for a light and late lunch when it’s mainly about the conversation and the gossip. They have a tendency towards naughty ribena and are typically unfussy, uncomplicated wines and frankly, all the more endearing for that.
A little further up river at Bourgueil they produce a wine which pushes the Cabernet Franc grape to wild and heady places. Those raspberry and cassis notes vie alongside a charming herbaceous character and an animal funk. It can sometimes feel like a glass of Bourgueil picks you and plonks you down, not in Kansas but in Oz.
Though the Cabernet Franc grape is also capable of offering more sophisticated and well mannered charms. If a Saumur can have a pleasing naivety, its neighbour Saumur Champigny can be have a certain maturity. On the nose they have not only those typical red fruits but also a little sense of the forest, some interesting leather and spice, a little hint of the darker side of things to temper the joyful summer berries. On the palate those fruits come to fore but a certain meatiness, a gamey quality lingers. It is a tonic for the weary and would suit a similarly reviving meal, a little cold roast chicken perhaps or some particularly good air dried ham.
The Loire valley has been the playground of kings and courtiers drawn there by that pleasant climate. Their fine chateaux linger still now and above Saumur stands a mighty relic of the ancien regime. But warmed and cooled by the same sun are those vines which yield such beguiling wines.
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