I recently was in France, checking out natural wine bars in Paris and attending an epic tasting of the wines of the Loire Valley. On my flight home, Moneyball was playing in the main cabin. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think that Loire Valley wine is a bit like Moneyball, which stars international superstar Brad Pitt and … who else? Most casual wine drinkers only know the Loire’s one megastar, Sauvignon Blanc of Sancerre. But there are so many more great wines.
Sure the name of another Loire Valley variety, Cabernet Franc, gets around. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Moneyball, it shows up in a lot of high-profile places (Napa, Bordeaux) but remains mostly a strong character actor. Arguably, Jonah Hill (as the fat brainiac) steals the film from Pitt. He’s got subtlety, pathos, and wry wit—much like the Loire’s greatest grape, Chenin Blanc, which can be bone-dry, semisweet, or flat-out honeyed, depending on how it’s made. And there are many other good, unknown players in the Loire—Romorantin and Melon de Bourgogne, for instance—as well as familiar favorites like Gamay and Pinot Noir, which have bit parts.
The Loire is a diverse collection of terroirs splayed along the Loire River as it makes its run west from central France to the Atlantic. It’s moderate, with warm but not-too-hot summers and a fair bit of rain from the Atlantic that keeps the whole place a vibrant green for most of the year. Soils run from the Kimmeridgian limestone that produces some of the best wines of Champagne and Chablis to various other iterations of calcareous soils, along with clays, schists, slates, and flints (known there as silex).
Why has the Loire evaded serious contemplation by so many wine drinkers? First, its sharply flavored, acidic, and intensely mineral wines are not easy on novices. Rather, the herbal, strident, and exotic flavors and sometimes teeth-rattling acidity of the Loire are typically the kinds of things that many drinkers turn to after they’re bored by their initial romances with the richer, sweeter wines of places like Australia, California, and Spain. Second, Loire wines can be victims of their own complexity. All that talent—from Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet Franc to Chenin Blanc and beyond—likes to strut its stuff in as many ways as possible. Therefore you get Chenin that’s sparkling, bone-dry, dry, semisweet, and supersweet. You get Cabernet Franc from limestone soils and from schist soils, each of which dramatically impacts how it tastes. Sauvignon Blanc can be a tour de force, as in Sancerre. Or it can be an airy, stony character of austerity and restraint. So much variety ends up producing a dizzying array of wines that are hard to nail down for all but the most attentive of drinkers.
Of course, Moneyball was about a guy trying to win in baseball by putting more on the field for less money. And that’s another way that it’s similar to the Loire, which year after year plays the game with more talent at every position than most other regions could ever imagine. And it’s all a bargain. As a friend said to me, “The Loire is the best at every grape it makes. No one in the world [with apologies to New Zealand] makes better Sauvignon Blanc. No one [with apologies to Cheval Blanc] makes better Cabernet Franc. And there’s no competition when it comes to Chenin Blanc.”
Indeed, the Loire never wins the pennant, but, like the Oakland A’s of Moneyball, it always fields a strong, competitive, and extremely compelling team for not much money. And we can’t ask much more of a set of wines these days.
I’ll write more about the specifics of the Loire wines in coming months. But until then, I just want to suggest that the region is worthy of your vote—if not for best picture, then maybe for a few other satisfying, meaningful awards.