A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also Can you afford to ignore the Loire?
The popular zeitgeist among most of the wine drinkers I come across is that, perhaps as a reaction to an era during which particularly ripe, potent wines seemed to prevail, they are seeking fresh, lively wines that are not too high in alcohol, and don’t have any trace of oakiness. They are also seeking a high degree of authenticity and traceability; the word artisan has never been so freighted with positive attributes in the worlds of food and wine. Throw in a long history and many multi-generational producers, and you surely have perfection.
So why doesn’t the Loire do better? Chenin Blanc by the glass may be the faddish New York hipster’s delight this month but that is an isolated, and probably pretty temporary, phenomenon. In the UK, apart from the long-standing name recognition enjoyed by Sancerre, the Loire resolutely and inexplicably remains a minority interest.
There are remarkably few British wine merchants who specialise in the Loire. In fact I can think of only one, Yapp Bros, founded in 1969 as a Rhône and Loire specialist, but Jason Yapp admits that the proportion of Loire wine they sell has been losing ground, ‘most notably to the Languedoc’.
For him part of the problem lies with the French. ‘There’s loads they could learn about marketing', he moans, citing the shrivelling of the once-important annual Angers wine fair that took place earlier this month as one very concrete sign that the Loire’s producers and generic bodies could do better. ‘Some of the appellations just haven’t done enough to promote themselves', he thinks, although he singles out Saumur-Champigny’s remarkably consistent and cohesive young wine producers for praise.
There may not be enough champions of the Loire in the conventional wine trade in the UK but there is one British couple who, from their base in Chinon, have done their absolute damnedest to raise our consciousness of Loire wines. Charles and Philippa Sydney (pictured here in front of the Château de Chambord) have been broking Loire wines to importers and retailers in the UK since they left their jobs with Laithwaite’s in 1987. Charles, with a grizzled grey beard and intimate knowledge of every tributary of the Loire and the vineyards thereon, will doubtless snort on reading this, and mutter grimly, ‘if only she’d written about the Loire one tenth as much as she’s written about Burgundy’.
Sentiments like these have been his constant refrain for decades and, tasting his current range recently in London, I felt more sympathetic to his view than ever. I tasted a 2016 Muscadet, Jérôme Choblet’s Château de la Pierre selling for less than €3 a bottle from the cellar door, that would put to shame white burgundies at 10 times the price. I may be yet to taste a Loire Pinot Noir – even the most expensive Sancerre Rouge – that seriously challenges red burgundy, but a Loire Cabernet Franc from a good vintage can knock spots off many red bordeaux for grace, refreshment and value. And on Justerini & Brooks’ list, the £5 a bottle in bond asked for Domaine Beauséjour, Les Grenettes Touraine Sauvignon Blanc makes their New Zealand Sauvignons at two or three times as much look decidedly dull and overpriced.
As I worked my way round their tables of Muscadet, Sauvignons, Chenins from bone dry to lusciously sweet and Cabernet Francs and read on the tasting sheet for which company they were destined, I realised that there is virtually no importer or retailer in the UK (with such exceptions as Yapp, H2Vin, Christopher Piper, Les Caves de Pyrène and Under the Bonnet) – from the Co-op to Corney & Barrow – who buys Loire wine other than via the Sydneys.
To my mind this reflects badly on the British wine trade. It’s not as though the Loire is a long way from London; it’s very much closer than Australia and South Africa, to which British wine merchants seem to travel so frequently. But it seems as though most operators are happier to hand over the hard work to the Sydneys rather than sniffing out new talent for themselves. Perhaps the Sydneys do such a superb job that there is no need for any individual initiative – in which case the status quo reflects particularly well on this hard-working British couple.
But the status quo will not persist. Unusually for their generation, the Sydneys’ children have proved immune to the charms of the wine business. So when Chris Hardy, who used to be one of the top buyers for the big British retailer Majestic and had long had a family house in the Loire, approached them with an offer for their business, Charles and Philippa Sydney accepted readily. The three of them will be working together for the next four years, by which time Chris will presumably know almost as much about Loire wine as Charles, and may even have become as efficient as Philippa.
It is true that the Loire suffers some disadvantages compared with other established wine regions. It is far from novel and does not have an established secondary market – and many wine drinkers today are after either an investment dead cert or novelty. From a varietal point of view, it benefits from having a sea of the popular Sauvignon Blanc, but the two major grape varieties of the middle Loire, Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc, are neither fashionably obscure nor hugely popular. Although for those who look hard enough for oddities, such as the quirky UK importer Les Caves de Pyrène, the Loire can field grapes as fashionably left field as Pineau d’Aunis, Menu Pineau, Romorantin, Sauvignon Rosé and Grolleau Gris.
But the Loire’s major problem is the direct result of its being able to produce wines of such vivacity: vintage variability. Being France’s northernmost wine region means that, although climate change has helped, in some years unco-operative weather seriously affects quantity and/or quality. Loire producers were blessed by excellent quality in both 2014 and, especially, 2015. But last year was an annus horribilis in terms of quantity with devastating spring frosts, a horribly wet spring and early summer that seriously affected flowering and therefore further reduced the crop, nasty mildew, summer drought that caused vine shutdown and some sunburnt grapes.
But late summer rains arrived just in time to restart the ripening process and the result is some top-quality wine, albeit available in very much reduced quantity. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the world is not in love with Loire wine for the moment, but I do hope it won’t be too long before that happens once more.
In some cases it is the previous (good) vintage that is still available. The 2016 Muscadets have yet to be bottled.
Bonnet-Huteau, Les Dabinières 2016 Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine sur Lie
Jérôme Choblet, Château de la Pierre 2016 Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu sur Lie
Pierre Sauvion, Château du Cléray 2016 Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine sur Lie
Domaine Beauséjour, Les Grenettes 2016 Touraine Sauvignon (Justerini & Brooks)
Pierre Marchand & Fils, Les Kerots 2016 Pouilly Fumé Les Kerots (Adnams)
Alphonse Mellot, Génération XIX and Cuvée Edmond 2014 Sancerre (Laithwaite’s)
Vincent Pinard, Cuvée Nuance 2015 Sancerre (Justerini & Brooks)
Domaine des Forges 2015 Coteaux du Layon St Aubin 2015 (Fields Morris & Verdin, Tanners)
Domaine de la Taille aux Loups, Le Clos Mosny 2015 Montlouis Sec (Justerini & Brooks, Waitrose)
Domaine de la Butte, Le Haut de la Butte 2015 Bourgeuil (Justerini & Brooks, Lay & Wheeler)
Couly-Dutheil, Clos de l'Olive 2014 Chinon
Château de Targé 2015 Saumur-Champigny