Sommelier training for a wine blogger – what you need to know about the Loire.

What most people know and appreciate is there are some very key regions in France.  In fact some of the most important wine regions in the world are found in France.  You have Bordeaux, Burgundy, The Rhone Valley, and Champagne, just to name a few.  However one region that is hugely popular around the world, but I feel is a bit unappreciated in this market, is the Loire.  In the wine world it ranks up there with the other regions I mentioned, but for some reason it gets a fraction of the attention in this market.  I don’t often see it on wine lists and I visited an LCBO on Friday afternoon and only found a handful of bottles in vintages (to about 30 of each of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and the Rhone).  It is for these reasons that I found myself fortunate to be at the Toronto Sommelier Training on the Loire last Tuesday, at Loire Restaurant on Harbord St, just west of Spadina.

Make no mistake about it… I am not a sommelier.  I am trained in wine via WSET which is a strand of education differing slightly from the formal Sommelier programs (though in my opinion, equally as complicated) and I am a writer.  However as you are reading this post I think that benefits you, as I try to take a bit of a different approach than a sommelier might.  I try to normalize a complicated subject and help everyone understand and appreciate all wines and regions.  I try to provide key takeaways and recommendations and write as objectively as I can.  My job is not to create wine lists, a complicated role which involves food and wine pairing considering cost and consumer preference.  However last week I found myself in a room with Toronto’s top sommeliers learning about the nuances of the Loire from arguably the top sommelier Toronto has to offer, Mr. John Szabo (more on John in a moment).

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With that as the basis for this post… here is what you need to know about the Loire.

First, they make outstanding white wines.  In the eastern side of the region you get Sauvignon Blanc dominating with bottles that will be labelled Sancerre or Pouilly Fume.  Those are the classic regions of production, but the grape will be Sauvignon Blanc.  It is different Sauvignon Blanc than you’ll find in say New Zealand.  More mineral than perfume and more citrus than tropical.  Moving west you will also find the amazing wines of Vouvray (Chenin Blanc) and Muscadet (Melon Blanc).  The Vouvray’s are rich and vibrant white wines, whereas the Muscadet’s contain strong minerality and stone flavours.

Second, though I consider the white wines to be the biggest focus of the Loire they are also a classic region for red wines made from Cabernet Franc.  Look for bottles labelled from Chinon.  They are much bigger, bolder, and more tannic Cab Franc’s than we find in many other regions in the world.  Personally as a grape variety that not is typically one of my favourites, I prefer the Loire style of Cab Franc to most made elsewhere.

Third, they make high, high, high, acid wines.  Enough sometimes to make your mouth water for minutes after you taste them.  This has two distinct advantages. First they can be great age worthy wines, including the whites.  The acid will help the wine stand up over time and develop in the bottle.  Second the acid makes these wines outstanding food pairing wines.  Loire Sauvignon Blanc is possibly the most classic pairing with goat cheese and Muscadet is hands down the most classic pairing with Oysters and really most fresh white fish.  But even beyond those two examples there is a tremendous range of pairing flexibility with the Loire wines.  If you don’t have a huge wine cellar and find yourself constantly struggling in the kitchen with your wine and food pairing, the Loire offers some very safe bets.  It’s tough to keep enough of an inventory at home to properly pair with your everyday cooking.  Put at least one Loire white and one Loire red in your wine fridge and you’ll impress your guests and you’ll never be overly stumped again.  They might not always be the best or most classic pairing like some of the examples I gave, but they are versatile which is a key for home cooking.  Here we also uncover the key reason that this was a Sommelier training.

Finally, they converted me.  I knew the basics, but I was not the most knowledgeable of the region.  I have always loved Muscadet, but have been generally critical of Sauvignon Blanc and Cab Franc on multiple occasions.  Knowing those are two of the biggest grapes of this region had led me to obnoxiously avoid the wines.  Now I am converted.  The wines of the Loire are truly unlike any other in the world.  They are the benchmark for these classic grape varieties and everything else is either trying to copy them (many Ontario examples) or purposely differentiate from them (New Zealand) to create their market.  But the Loire is the benchmark.  It didn’t hurt that since they are excellent food pairing wines, the seminar was held over lunch at Loire Restaurant, a quaint little spot at 119 Harbord St owned by two wonderful gentlemen who hail from the Loire.  As you can guess, the food was outstanding and was paired perfectly.  It also didn’t hurt that the tasting and a full one hour PowerPoint training session, was led by Master Sommelier John Szabo who is hands down one of the best in the business.  John has a way of speaking about wine that I personally strive for.  He is one of the smartest wine educators I have come across but speaks about the subject with ease making it easy to understand.  He is also a talented story teller and is well travelled.  So he has stories to back everything he is speaking about which are unique and entertaining.  It was pleasure to finally meet him and take away a thing or two about the way he carries himself in the wine world.

So all Loire all the time?  I’m not sure I would go that far.  But I will keep one or two bottles in my fridge to help with wine pairing at home (which periodically I do struggle with, without reaching into the depths of the cellar).  I will also keep my eyes out for more Loire wines on Toronto restaurant menus, hoping that the sommeliers in the room took as much away from the seminar as I did.

– Mark
Follow me on Twitter: @towineman

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