Loire Valley's Overlooked Gems; Off-the-Beaten-Path Wine Varietals.
Here's a link to Wine Folly's Guide to Loire Valley wines if you'd like to reacquaint yourself with this part of France. Click here.
Let's start with Gamay. If you're familiar with this varietal, you probably know it from Beaujolais. Known as 'Pinot Noir's country cousin' (or at least that's how I call it), it's similar in many ways to Pinot Noir, but the spunky grape has a personality all its own. To describe Gamay, think of a Pinot Noir that's fuller in body, with thicker skins, and a tendency toward plump black fruit, soft tannins, and floral, fruity notes. At least, that's the current iteration of the varietal in these warmer years. In Beaujolais, just south of the Maconnais and north of Lyon, these wines are known for their food-friendly, bistro vibes and ability to express terroir in both an exciting and affordable way. More affordable at least, than say, exploring their northern cousin's wines of the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits. As a side note, you won't see the name of the grape on these bottles. They follow Old World winemaking traditions, thus taking their names for their regions. Morgon, Chiroubles, Chenas, Fleurie, Moulin-a-Vent, Brouilly, etc. are all names for different Beaujolais cru's. They are all 100% Gamay.
In the Loire Valley, Gamay expresses itself in a whole other light. Its fruit veers into a distinctly dark and mineral direction, sometimes tasting as though the vine wants to migrate to a structure more akin to Cabernet Franc. Part of the difference and similarity comes from climate; the Lower, Middle, and Central sections of the Loire Valley lie further north and west of Beaujolais and are generally cooler, though with similar granitic soils toward the east. We love it for its food-pairing versatility: Gamay from the Loire Valley is rich but light; its minerality and silky tannins make it a great wine to drink alone or with many different dishes. You could pair it with any number of rillettes, pate, Fromage, poultry, steak, salads, sandwiches, etc. The only thing I wouldn't try it with is white fish with citrus sauces.
From the Middle Loire, try this. https://championwinecellars.com/2017-chateau-pierre-bise-anjou-gamay/.
And, from the Upper Loire, try these wines. https://championwinecellars.com/2018-verdier-logel-volcanique-cotes-du-forez/ and https://championwinecellars.com/2019-les-vins-de-la-madone-gilles-bonnefoy-la-madone-cotes-du-forez-100-gamay/. Quick note about the Upper Loire, it's where the southernmost vineyards of the Loire Valley live. Regions like the Côtes du Forez, where the above wines are from, are closer to Beaujolais than the rest of the Loire Valley. This area shares the same climate as Beaujolais, though its soils are a combination of basalt mixed with granite. This soil combination stems from the fact that this area butts up on the Massif Central slopes, and these old volcanic soils have mixed with granite over time (totally oversimplifying this, but you get the picture). South/southeast facing slopes have the added benefit of more prolonged sun exposure, and these wines often come from Gamay St. Romain, a unique clone of Gamay to the Upper Loire.
Next, Grolleau, Pineau d'Aunis, and Pinot Gris. Grolleau and Pineau d'Aunis are two obscure grape varieties typically seen as blending varietals. Pinot Gris is also commonly used in blends, but only in the Lower Loire (Muscadet), known as 'Malvoisie' and used in the Coteaux d'Ancenis AOP. As far as taste goes, Grolleau can range a ton in flavor. In the Rosé d'Anjou AOP, Grolleau is the main varietal showcased to make this slightly off-dry rosé wine style. Notes of rose petals, strawberry, and a barely-there hint of black pepper are pretty standard for this type of wine. Alone, the grape can produce deep, intense flavors with vine age and be as versatile as Gamay from the Loire. Check out https://championwinecellars.com/2019-les-errances-tohu-bohu-pet-nat/ for a sparkling rosé petillant natural that incorporates a fair amount of Grolleau (and isn't sweet). The peppery notes are more apparent here, but that's probably because of the 30% of Cabernet Franc in the wine. You'll experience the rose petal and strawberry flavor of the varietal as well, and it's a charming pet nat for just about any time of the year. For a still red wine based in Grolleau, try https://championwinecellars.com/2018-les-errances-cartouche/. Fleshy, earthy strawberry notes combine with black pepper, bing cherry, and a core of graphite-esque minerality most fans of Loire reds will adore.
Pineau d'Aunis, I must admit, is one of my favorite obscure varietals. As a grape, it's much leaner than Gamay and Grolleau. Thin-skinned, a little finicky, tart, and super savory; maybe it's the spicy, wild strawberry flavors that get me, but either way, wines from this varietal are a must-try if you're in the mood for something all its own. Two regions within the Loire incorporate Pineau d'Aunis into their red wines; Coteaux du Vendomois and Coteaux du Loir. Lucky you, we have two red blends that highlight the grape available in our shop. From Coteaux du Vendomois (sounds crazy, but it's just a lesser-known winemaking region north of Vouvray), https://championwinecellars.com/2017-patrice-colin-rouge-vielles-vignes-coteaux-du-vendomois-pineau-daunis-pinot-noir-cabernet-franc/. And, from the Coteaux du Loir (Lower Loire, north and east of Muscadet), try https://championwinecellars.com/2018-la-guinguette-roche-bleue-aoc-coteaux-du-loir-80-pineau-daunis-20-gamay/.
Last but not least in our list of awesomely unknown wine varietals in the Loire Valley, Pinot Gris. Selfishly, we're bringing this up to highlight two things. 1) The Loire Valley has a lot of fun with their wines. In addition to their centuries-long history-making great white, red, and dessert wines, this part of France has consistently pushed the boundaries of winemaking in recent years. One of the first areas to embrace biodynamic farming practices is that a handful of vignerons are encouraging holistic ecological practices and changing the scenery. And though it might sound like a lot of hooey (and honestly, sometimes there are wine pitfalls too), there are great examples of this holistic thinking, most notably from the world-renowned Joly family. https://championwinecellars.com/2017-nicolas-et-virginie-joly-savennieres-clos-de-la-bergerie-roche-aux-moines-loire-valley-fr/ 2) Jerome Bretaudeau. A relative newcomer to winemaking, he tends his vines in Muscadet with tireless care and passion. He's been experimental in his wines approach and has used amphorae and concrete eggs in his declassified wines. Check out this link for an example of that. https://championwinecellars.com/la-justice-amphore-chardonnay-jerome-bretaudeau. His Pinot Gris called 'Maceration' is the first orange wine from this producer, https://championwinecellars.com/bretaudeau-maceration-pinot-gris-2018/. Like everything else he does, this wine doesn't disappoint. Fresh and fully vibrant, this radiant Pinot Gris is a beautiful look at the varietal. In the glass, the wine vacillates between delicious red apples, rose petals, and white peach. On the palate, its tannins from long skin-contact are evident but aren't harsh or flat. Their smooth, silky feel compliment the fruit, and a zesty citrus note carries the wine off to a lifted finish. A little decanting does this wine right, but it's not the end of the world if you can't.