Wine lovers are always searching for the taste of terroir in their wines, but they rarely taste wines in their terroir.
I experienced the latter — literally — in one of the strangest wine tastings I have ever enjoyed. It happened on a cold, damp day late in March last year, near Bourgueil, a small wine town in France’s Loire Valley. I was touring with Ed Addiss and Barbara Selig, the husband-and-wife team that is Wine Traditions, a specialty importer based in Falls Church, and Ben Peach, a friend of theirs who’d abandoned wine retailing in the District for life in France. Addiss had made an appointment with Sandrine Deschamps, half of a husband-and-wife winemaking team, who met us at her winery. But instead of showing us her barrel room and bottling line, Deschamps hopped into her SUV and led us through the winding streets of town and up the hillside to the Grand Mont vineyard, the highest and farthest from the river in the Bourgueil appellation.
On foot, we followed her into a tunnel under the vineyard, into an old quarry that had provided much of the stone that built the town of Bourgueil. During World War II, the labyrinth sheltered Resistance fighters; Deschamps pointed out their anti-Nazi graffiti along one wall.
About 10 years ago, she explained, a group of vignerons had bought the quarry with the idea of using it to store wine and developing it into a tourist attraction. Some vineyard equipment had been placed in a few alcoves; here and there, vine roots from the vineyard above snaked through the ceiling in their quest for moisture. But mostly the cave showed evidence of its previous incarnation as a mushroom farm. There was fungus everywhere: dripping from the ceiling like stalactites, oozing from the walls and encrusting the stone table on which Deschamps had arranged our tasting, for which there were several glasses and a few bottles of wine.
“C’est champignons!” Deschamps said of her table covering. Nobody was tempted to pry some off for shaving onto our evening salads, however.
The Loire Valley is known primarily for its white wines: crisp sauvignon blanc or muscadet and luscious chenin blanc. Cabernet franc dominates the region’s reds, though gamay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and malbec make cameo appearances. For years, the reds had a reputation of being underripe and astringent. Warmer vintages over the past decade have made the wines riper but not ponderous, and some importers have crisscrossed the region searching for the most talented producers. At their best, Loire reds are fresh and invigorating, tasting of black cherry spiced with white pepper. They often have a smoky, savory, leathery quality I call “Grandpop’s library.” Chinon is the best-known area, followed by Saumur, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil.
Unfortunately, Loire reds are underappreciated in our market and therefore underrepresented here. But try to find them. Their medium weight makes them ideal reds for summer, and their robust flavors can stand up to hearty meats in any season.
They also appeal to wine explorers: those oenophiles who love delving into the intricacies of why wine tastes like it does. Bourgueil, for instance, is a small appellation, yet it contains three distinct terroirs, as Deschamps explained that day in her mushroomy alcove. (Visits with French winemakers often turn into geology lessons.) Those terroirs are marked by gravelly soil (gravier) near the Loire, clay mixed with flint (argilo-silex) on the slopes around the town, and chalky soil (tuffeau) on the plateau above the town, where we were standing. The wines progress accordingly from the gravier’s soft, supple and young-drinking wines to the tuffeau’s tannic, minerally wines with enough structure to last a decade.
Deschamps’s own wine, the La Fontaine aux Fougeres Myosotis 2008, was made from cabernet franc grown organically in the mid-level, argilo-silex, vineyards. It showed clean, spicy fruit flavors and minerality from the flint in the vineyard soil. A few months later, this wine became part of the Wine Traditions portfolio, along with one from another producer, Bruno Dufeu, grown on the Grand Mont vineyard above our heads. True to its terroir, Dufeu’s wine is powerful, structured and age-worthy.
As Deschamps led us from the maze of tunnels back into the sunlight, I realized that in a short time I had gained a substantial understanding of a small but enchanting French wine district, one well worth exploring.
Red wines from the Loire Valley show some diversity of grapes, but cabernet franc is the star. Unless otherwise noted, these are exclusively cabernet franc. They are also noteworthy for their lack of new oak. Loire vignerons apparently do not feel compelled to kill forests to make wine. Bravo! Unfortunately, these wines are not widely available in the Washington area; distributors told me that for some reason, they sell better in other markets.
Domaine Bruno Dufeu Cuvee Grand Mont 2008
*** GREAT VALUE
Bourgueil, France, $15
From the tuffeau (chalky soil) on the plateau above the town of Bourgueil, this wine is stunning for the price. It is deep and richly structured, with black cherry, peppery spice and earthy animal/leather notes. It finishes with soft, supple and savory tannins. It should age well for five to 10 years. Worth stockpiling.
Wine Traditions: Available in the District at Cork Market; on the list at Cork Wine Bar and Petits Plats. Available in Virginia at Chain Bridge Cellars (formerly Cecile’s Wine Cellar) in McLean, J. Emerson Fine Wines & Cheese in Richmond.
Domaine des Baumard Logis de la Giraudiere 2006
**1 / 2
Anjou, France, $20
This wine played tricks on me. It was nondescript at first — almost reticent — as if it were evaluating me instead of the other way around. But when it realized I wasn’t going to force it to fit a preconceived idea of what a red wine should be, it drew me close with enticing floral notes and a pure, mineral core. It is a blend of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon.
M Touton Selection: Available in the District at Rodman’s, Sherry’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Watergate Wine & Beverage. Available in Maryland at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits in Annapolis, Wine Harvest and World Gourmet Wine & Beer in Potomac; on the list at La Ferme in Chevy Chase.
Manoir de la Tete Rouge Bagatelle 2009
**1 / 2 GREAT VALUE
Saumur, France, $15
Cabernet franc grown organically on chalky tuffeau soils, this wine exhibits all of the Loire hallmarks: dark fruit, savory tannins and a spicy, earthy tobacco note that lingers like a fond memory.
Potomac Selections: Available in the District at Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits. Available in Maryland at Calvert Wine & Spirits in Hunt Valley; Mt. Washington Wine Co., Wells Discount Liquors and the Wine Source in Baltimore. On the list at B Bistro, Grand Cru and Helmand Restaurant in Baltimore. Available in Virginia at Arrowine in Arlington Au Domaine in Alexandria, Chain Bridge Cellars in McLean, Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market in Richmond.
La Fontaine aux Fougeres Myosotis 2008
**1 / 2 GREAT VALUE
Bourgueil, France, $16
Made from organically grown grapes, this wine is lively with floral, earth and leather flavors. It is nicely balanced and ideal for drinking now, slightly chilled, with burgers or steaks from the grill. Don’t forget the mushroom sauce.
Wine Traditions: Available in Virginia at Arrowine and Whole Foods Market in Arlington.
Domaine de la Colline 2009
Chinon, France, $15
From a very ripe vintage, this wine is light and expressive, floral and mineral. Chilling it slightly will enhance its fruit and reveal an inner verve, the way a breeze imparts energy on a warm day.
M Touton Selection: Available in the District at AB Liquors, Circle Wine & Liquor, Cleveland Park Wine and Spirits, Rodman’s, Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, Watergate Wine and Beverage; on the list at Bistrot du Coin. Available in Maryland at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits in Annapolis; Cork & Fork in Bethesda; Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in Hyattsville; Frederick Wine House, Old Farm Liquors and Viniferous in Frederick; Rodman’s in White Flint; Silesia Liquors in Fort Washington. Available in Virginia at various Wegmans locations, Wine Made Simple in Charlottesville; on the list at Zin in Staunton.
***Exceptional **Excellent *Very Good
This article, minus the photographs, was published June 8 in The Washington Post.
Photo credits: Me