Loire hopes raised, dashed Wine: What you get in the Loire Valley may be fine, but what gets into this country is mostly disappointing.

July 21, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

There's something deliciously appealing about the idea of tasting the crisp, dry wines of the Loire Valley of France in the middle of a steaming Baltimore summer.

The reality is a bit less exciting.

A recent gustatory tour of the wines of this oft-overlooked region uncovered a smattering of excellent wines, but also much evidence of why the Loire is so often overlooked by American wine drinkers.

With the exception of Sancerre, the quality of the Loire wines available in U.S. wine shops -- at least in Maryland -- is terribly inconsistent. It hasn't helped that the region is coming off a string of erratic vintages since the glory years of 1988-1990.

My re-exploration of Loire wines was largely inspired by the recent publication of an ambitious and well-written book called "A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire" (Henry Holt, 1996, $27.50) by Jacqueline Friedrich, an American woman who has lived in the region for many years.

According to Friedrich, the Loire is "France's last great unexplored viticultural region." From reading her detailed accounts of the feats of winemakers whose names are totally unfamiliar, I can only conclude that many of the finest wines of the Loire never make it to American shores. Conversely, some marginal producers have found importers. That's the wine biz for you.

In that river basin are made an astonishing array of wines, but most of them are quite ordinary.

One of the classic Loire styles is dry, smoky, herbal white wines made from sauvignon blanc (a grape known locally as blanc fume). These wines are an acquired taste. Rare is the novice American wine drinker who takes to their aggressive, edgy style easily. With their refusal to pander to the New World sweet tooth, they are perhaps the most resolutely French of all French wines.

More than most wines, Loire sauvignon blancs need to be served with food. They are particularly suitable partners with seafood, especially when it has been grilled.

The Pouilly-Fumes I tasted recently were mostly disappointing. Only the 1994 Jean-Claude Chatelain Pouilly-Fume ($20) showed the kind of smoky, herbal intensity you expect from these wines.

The results from Sancerre were more encouraging. High marks went to the 1993 Jean Reverdy & Fils "Vignoble de la Reine Blanche" ($16), the 1994 Alain Pabiot "La Merisiere" ($13) and 1994 Guy Saget "Vieilles Vignes" ($15).

Another Loire style, from the region of Touraine, is the cabernet franc-based reds of Chinon and Bourgeuil. These wines have their passionate advocates, but they are seldom exported. When they do reach American markets, they typically come across as underripe and overly tannic Bordeaux wannabes.

Vouvray is home to some of the least understood and least

appreciated sweet wines in the world, but the best of them are worthy rivals of the finest Sauternes or late-harvest German and Alsace wines.

Seldom encountered

Unfortunately, American wine buyers seldom encounter these wines. Most of the Vouvrays brought to this country are simple, fruity, slightly sweet wines -- often no more complex than sugar water with a dash of lemon juice.

Most of the Vouvrays tasted for this article were no bargains despite modest price tags. The most successful was the slightly sweet 1993 Chateau Moncontour ($12), which showed lively, peachy fruit, racy acidity and an appealing touch of mineral flavor. It makes for refreshing summertime drinking, though $10 would be a more appropriate price.

A better bargain was the 1994 Domaine de Vaufuget Vouvray, which was less complex but more realistically priced at $7.49.

The Loire runs down to the sea near Nantes, home of the dry white wine known as Muscadet.

I'm afraid I gave short shrift to this popular, but hardly classic, style of wine. These bone-dry, light-bodied, acidic, mineral-flavored wines are much loved as an accompaniment to oysters, but their range doesn't go much further than that. The few I tried for this article did not merit a recommendation.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that the Loire will continue to be the least appreciated of France's great wine regions for many years to come. To experience it the way Friedrich has, you'll just have to buy a plane ticket.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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