Planet of the Grapes: Lust for Loire
Everyone’s been talking about Loire Valley wines for the past few years. At least everyone who’s snugly inside the bubble where sommeliers, wine educators, and wine writers reside. It’s the same space where grower champagne, sherry, and Mosel riesling are always super popular. It’s the same space where some fancy wine columnist (ahem) tells you that you should be drinking (ahem) Muscadet with oysters.
This means, of course, that wines like Vouvray, Savennieres, and Anjou are prevalent on hip wine lists at trendy restaurants, but rarely do you see regular, everyday wine drinkers swiping them off the shelves.
The only exception would be a curious spike in the popularity of Sancerre among ladies in book clubs who are aroused by steamy BDSM fiction – Sancerre, of course, being the prefered tipple of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in the erotic bestseller “50 Shades of Grey.”
Without delving too deep into the connection between bondage and sauvignon blanc, perhaps “50 Shades of Grey” can do for Loire Valley appellations what Sideways did for pinot noir and Santa Barbara wine country.
Nathan Newport and Heinz Volquarts both hope that this will be the case. The two local wine enthusiasts, who work in financial sector and met as colleagues at Vanguard, recently launched ViNo Bliss, a fledgling Philadelphia-based importer, currently importing five wines available in the Pennsylvania state stores.
For now, Volquarts and Newport have focused on Chinon, a region famed for its eminently drinkable cabernet-franc-based wines. Chinon – usually with little or no oak barreling – has been a traditional house red in Parisian bistros for years, underscoring how well it pairs with so many different dishes.
Over dinner a few weeks ago, Volquarts and Newport explained how Chinon, about three hours southwest of Paris, is not a flashy region like Bordeaux or Champagne. “They’re farmers there. They’re very small and they are living a very quiet life,” Volquarts said.
When trying to gain the trust of Chinon winemakers, diplomacy was key. “We went in with a humble approach,” Newport said. “We don’t play hardball. If we came in and were jerks it wouldn’t work.”
When they approached one producer, Chateau de Ligre, “They said, ‘Well, if you want the white, you also have to take the red,’” said Volquarts.
Thank god they did take the red, because the Chateau de Ligre Chinon red is currently one of the best value reds at the PLCB store right now. Of course, table wines like this — with the savory herbal notes of the cabernet franc and no oak — are still a bit of a mystery to Americans. Said Volquarts, “A guy at the PLCB in Harrisburg told me, ‘If you can make the American public fall in love with cabernet franc, I will marry you.’”
Newport and Volquarts are taking the long view. ViNo Bliss plans to expand its portfolio soon, but right now there are no timelines. “We’re just having fun with this right now,” Newport said. “There’s no urgency. I’m not quitting my day job.”
Still, the pair see themselves as sort of evangelicals for Loire Valley wines. As we finished dinner, and the dregs of our Chinon, we watched a dozen young women file into the BYO for a birthday dinner – with three huge boxes of Franzia wine White Grenache. After we settled the bill, and rose to leave, Newport quietly approached the young women’s table.
“Take my card,” he said to one woman pouring herself pink wine from a box. “For the next birthday, I’ll set you up with some nice wines from the Loire Valley."
Château de Ligre Chinon Blanc 2011. Loire Valley, France. $19.99
100% Chenin blanc. Rich, aromatic, and flavorful with a fresh acidity that keeps it from being too fat or cloying. Beautiful nose of honeysuckle and flowers and crisp finish.
Château de Ligre Rouge Chinon 2010. Loire Valley, France. $15.99
100% cabernet franc. Like a bowl of fresh herbs and berries, balanced by a smooth minerality and racy acidity. Great value and a great BYO wine for grilled meats or salmon or eggplant, pizza, pasta, veggie burgers or pretty much anything else.
Château du Petit Thouars Touraine Cabernet Franc Reserve 2009. Loire Valley, France. $18.99
100% cabernet franc. Just outside the Chinon AOC, this cabernet franc spends 18 months in French oak, and the affect is a touch of vanilla to the typical savory cabernet franc. A nice introduction to the Loire for wine drinkers who love reds like Malbec or cabernet sauvignon.