The Sparkling Loire

There was a great buzz in the shop, years ago, on the arrival of an award-winning sparkling wine. The initial allocation was stacked in a prime spot, the company had provided point-of-sale with the award emblazoned next to a very attractive price, and this had been hung next to the classically labeled bottles.

That stack didn’t last long.

I take no credit on my part for superior salesmanship; I knew nothing back then. Maybe it was the price that made the wine so popular. Maybe it was the in-store tasting we held that weekend. Though my recollection is hazy, I’m fairly sure excitement was due to the award—a Wine of the Year or something similar. But the most notable thing about this winewas that it was a sparkling wine not from Champagne nor from the New World, but from the Loire.

Australia’s hold on the British wine buying public had yet to occur and, strange as it seems now, their sparkling wines were barely featured on the shelf. These heaved with the numerous Champagnes, several bug brands of Cava and a Prosecco or two, but generally the lower priced ranks were dominated by France: Alsace bubbly, Crémant de Limoux, and several from across the Loire. Today you have to look hard for any sparkling wines from the Loire. The local supermarket here doesn’t stock a single one, even though their wine range is one of the best on the street.

Why have the sparkling wines of the Loire disappeared?

They have so much going for them. They’re made in the traditional method (with a second fermentation in the bottle, like Champagne). They have more flavour and better balance than most rasping Cavas, and sell cheaper than the current trendy Italian Prosecco. It’s not as if the grape varieties are totally obscure; there’s chenin blanc, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, plus cabernet franc for the rosé’s colour, in addition to the sole local variety, pineau d’aunis.

Last month’s major Loire trade show, the Salon de Loire, offered a huge variety of sparkling wines to sample from dozens of different producers. I must say nearly all offered far more interest than many a bottle of sparkling wine from Alsace I’ve slurped over the last year.

Of particular note are the Gratien Meyer Saumur Brut Rosé and Domaine de la Rouletière Vouvray Moussuex Brut ’07. Both were on display at the Salon, and both are gold medal winners at the Le Concours des Ligers competition to boot. This competition is run by the Union des Oenologues de France and the Loire trade bodies, and for the past 15 years, it has rewarded the finest Loire Valley Wines with various awards. This year over 2,000 wines were tasted by 300-plus professional tasters.

Spying the distinctive Gratien Meyer bottle reminded me that the popular wine from the old wine shop was from the same producer. It’s nice to see they’re still winning awards all these years later. Another producer of note is Jean-François Mérieau. Graphically funky packaging runs across their range of wines; the sparkling ‘Bulles’ is an 80% chardonnay traditional method sparkler, and the fun element of the wine is enhanced by the label bedecked with party balloons.

Founded by Edouard Langlois and his wife Jeanne Chateau and run today by Michel Villedey, the Maison Langlois-Chateau has kept its family character. Sparkling wines are their forte with the deliciously rich Quadrille (pictured) being the pinnacle of the range.  The mix of grapes—chenin, cabernet, and chardonnay—are sourced from their best vineyard plots: St. Hilaire, St. Florent, St. Léger de Montbrillais, Montreuil-Bellay, and Dampierre sur Loire. Each plot has a different soil profile, and each is superb.

With great pricing, cool and attractive packaging, and deliciously drinkable wine, I’m still in a quandary why the Loire sparkling wine category as a whole is so overshadowed. Perhaps it’s just the dictates of fashion, and their time to shine again is just around the corner.

Andrew Barrow

Andrew Barrow is the author of Spittoon, one of the top wine sites on the internet. A member of the prestigious UK based Circle of Wine Writers and WSET Diploma holder it would appear that total immersion in the online world of wine (with a sideline in food) is just a step away. Travel and photography are keen interests; I use my own images to illustrate the articles on spittoon and spittoonextra many of which I am mighty proud!