On the Trail

Into the Loire Valley

David Driscoll
  A wind machine and heater stationed in a Touraine vineyard to fight against the ever-threatening Loire Valley frost.

A wind machine and heater stationed in a Touraine vineyard to fight against the ever-threatening Loire Valley frost.

My unintended wine career began around 2006 with a bottle of Loire Valley white wine from an appellation called Touraine, a crisp and clean Sauvignon Blanc that I bought from my future colleague Keelyn at the old K&L San Francisco store on 4th Street. Most of the white wines I had consumed up until my mid-twenties were either sweet, oaky, or both. I'd definitely spent a summer or two by the pool in Modesto drinking Yellowtail Chardonnay and thinking that was pretty sophisticated, moving on from twelve packs of Miller High Life and Rolling Rock. In between teaching elementary school in Chinatown and getting my master's degree from SF State in the evenings, I had been hanging out at a little wine shop near my apartment, killing time while waiting for my then-girlfriend (now wife) to get home. The guy who ran the place gave me a book about wine to read, so I started doing some simple research on the Muni M train as I rode between both ends of the city. The section about the Loire Valley stood out to me because 1) the wines were inexpensive and I wasn't necessarily raking in the cash at that time; 2) French wines had always been a complete mystery to me, so it was exciting to learn something about them; and 3) the book kept using the word "minerality" to describe the flavors, a term that seemed completely unlike the creamy, buttery, round-fruited characteristics I was acquainted with. So after work one day, I headed down to K&L, bought a ten dollar bottle of Touraine blanc, and had my first epiphany. Over a decade later, I was headed to Touraine for the first time .

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I could probably write a book at this point about the misconceptions that wine-drinking Americans have about French culture, but for the sake of brevity I'll just focus on one for the moment. In the United States, we like to see classical French wine labels on our bottles, old script with traditional-looking sketches of historical châteaux that give the impression of a conventionally cultural product. They make us feel like we're being authentically French. The irony of that gratification, however, is that many of the French producers I've visited with in my career couldn't be less interested in that type of outdated marketing and in no way adhere to that more rigid stereotype at home. They make those labels for their American exports because they know it helps to sell wine, but for their own domestic bottles they use kooky artwork with color, vibrance, and modern fonts. With the exception of Japan, there is no other country in the world I have come across that cares more about injecting verve and zeal into the aesthetics of everyday life. Sure, everyone in Paris wears black from head to toe, but it's always accented by carefully selected pieces of bright color that pop against that muted backdrop. Every single producer I visited in the Loire Valley this week had the exact same aesthetic working inside their winery, which were generally very traditional houses or buildings made from stone with clean white walls that acted like canvases for splashes of color and charisma. That quintessentially-French passion for lively art and joie de vivre is one of my favorite aspects of the culture, which is why I bristle internally when I hear folks describe French wine as stuffy or stale. That summation couldn't be less accurate when describing the wines of the Loire Valley.

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Our first stop was at Domaine Ricard where we met up with Vincent Ricard, the winemaker and proprietor whose colorfully-decorated reception room was pictured in the previous photo. We went into the winery to taste some of the almost-ready 2017s that were still finishing up in giant stainless steel tanks. I read a lot about frost in the Loire Valley in 2017, how large sections of vineyards had been wiped out in places like Chinon, Anjou, and Savennières. Luckily, Vincent told us, Domaine Ricard lost only about 20% of its crop in Touraine and while the yield is much less than in 2016, the wines are very good. Sauvignon Blanc is the key white varietal in Touraine and Vincent makes four different expressions of it, one from younger vines, another from a parcel of older vines, and others that see a bit of barrel aging. They were all fresh on the palate, showcasing textbook Loire Valley acidity along with a vivacious zest that matched the colorful labels he had printed out to show us. While many casual drinkers generally flock to Loire Valley whites from Touraine, the appellation makes a number of red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay, Pinot Noir, and a local variety called Côt, which is really just Malbec. The reds all had fleshy, concentrated fruit, matched by racy acidity and a crunchy cranberry tartness that was balanced by plenty of ripeness. All of Vincent's wines are absolute bargains when looking at the prices, but that's generally the case for Touraine (as I mentioned earlier). You can have a look at our current inventory as evidence to that with the equally delicious bargains from Les Roches and Idiart. 

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After touring through Touraine, we continued east toward the village of Quincy (pronounced more like can-see), another Loire Valley appellation known for its clean and fresh-tasting Sauvignon Blancs. It was there that we met up with Adèle Rouzé, the young winemaker who continued in her father's footsteps and makes some pretty outstanding stuff. Quincy was also threatened by frost in 2017, but with the help of space heaters and wind machines Adèle was able to fight off most of the cold spell. Domaine Rouzé lost very little fruit and the harvest went just as planned, resulting in energetic wines with plenty of fruit and lots of energetic drive. 

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The wine that really blew me away was Adèle's simple 2017 Quincy, probably the best wine I had from anywhere on the entire trip through France (including restaurant stops). We popped a bottle in her kitchen that she paired with a plate of warm galettes de pomme de terre, buttery puff pastries made with potatoes and a mild cheese. I'm definitely working on this for a future K&L wine club selection as I think the wine has the potential to transform palates and lives, much like what happened to me back in 2006. It's pure elegance in a bottle from front to back. I couldn't stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. 

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I already knew what some of you were thinking about that last photo, which is why I'm fully prepared with this next one. David, that looks pretty traditional to me. A classic white label, classy script, and a plate of French pastries? That doesn't seem all that kooky or colorful! That's why I had to show you Adèle's new marketing for both her domaine and the appellation as whole. It's a graphic novel that tells the story of how the Quincy appellation came to be and introduces the most important winemakers in the region at the end. I can't think of anything less rigid and more modern/artsy than educating consumers with comic books! 

-David Driscoll