The Lure of the Loire, an American Renaissance

 *Caption: Two Loire Valley revelers toast the region at a promotional Happy Hour during Vinexpo NY in March 2018.

 

Because of its proximity to Paris, the grace of its chateaux, the beauty of its landscape, and its quintessential “Frenchness,” the Loire Valley has a special allure to Americans. Until recently, however, this affinity didn’t include wine. While names like Chinon, Anjou, and Sancerre have stood out, and there was a wave of attraction for Vouvray in the early post-war period, American consumers had little appreciation even for these iconic wines.

 

 

Fortunately, as figures released by the FEVS (Fédération des Exportateurs de Vins et Spiritueux de France) show, and conversations with key people in the US wine industry indicate, Americans are finally seeing the wonders of Loire Valley wines. According to the FEVS, exports of French wines to the US have grown overall in the past few years with a 4.5% rise in value in 2016. Wines from the Loire Valley are among the most dynamic, at 9%, showing double the growth of France overall, and besting in percentages, both Bordeaux and Champagne. 

Compared to these iconic wine regions, the Loire Valley is peerless in diversity, with over 60 recognized appellations and protected geographic zones that stretch over 800 kilometers, over a dozen grape varieties, and multiple wines by different philosophies, styles and quality levels often side by side. There are large, almost industrial enterprises whose hallmarks are consistency and modest price, located in the same village as small, family-run properties that make minute quantities of personality-driven wines. The question to ask is: are Americans responding in one direction over the other?

No wine exemplifies the potential differences and similarities more than Sancerre. Its growth, both among large and small producers, has been phenomenal over the past several years, representing 43% of all Loire whites sold in the US - over 3 million bottles, a sum that exceeds all the region’s bubbly and still red and rosé wines combined. Indeed, between 2016 and 2017, the value of sales rose over 21%.  The wine’s success has been attributed to several factors:  a general appreciation for an expression of Sauvignon Blanc, the ease of pronouncing its name, the pleasure of drinking something different than one’s California Chardonnay-sipping friends, and the fact that it was the favored wine of Christian Grey, protagonist of the best-selling book and movie Fifty Shades of Grey. Sean Essex, a Houston wine professional speaks almost admiringly of the salesman from a major wine importer who anticipated demand just before the movie came out and made sure that his Sancerres were picked up by all his more affluent clients. “He simply killed it.”  But, Sancerre-love has an underside – so popular that it can get in the way of other wines. James Conley, service director at Keens Steakhouse in New York City, which boasts possibly the finest wine list among its peers, says simply, “I wish we could sell less.” Clark Terry, marketing manager for the import side of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant agrees, if for no other reason than they can’t keep it in stock.

Kevin McKenna, a partner at Louis/Dressner, one of the country’s most significant importers of artisan producer wines – and a specialist in the Loire Valley – understands the issue, but points out that similar wines from lesser-known appellations like Quincy or Touraine simply wouldn’t be noticed if it wasn’t for Sancerre. “They’re similar enough in profile, and they cost a lot less.”  Pascaline Lepeltier, master sommelier and partner of the New York restaurant and wine bar, Racine, has been noticing something else: people paying attention to Sancerre’s diversity of terroir – just like Burgundy.  “It will take a while, but it’s coming,” she says hopefully.

Anjou-born Lepeltier is perhaps the Loire’s greatest advocate in New York, and possibly the US.  Diminutive in stature, but brilliant in mind and spirit, she has done more to educate people about the glories of Loire Valley wines than probably anyone else. A sometime educator for InterLoire, the region’s marketing organization, Pascaline is genuinely passionate about virtually all grapes and wine styles in the Loire, but she holds a special place for Chenin Blanc. For her, it is “the world’s greatest grape” for its ability to adapt to express itself so differently in various terroirs, the longevity of its wines, its utility for various wine styles and simply, well, because she loves it. She is gratified that people, even in this age of Sancerre, have gravitated toward it in recent years. “When I first arrived in New York in 2009, Chenin wasn’t understood at all. Vouvray had a reputation of being a bit sweet – not what people wanted. But, gradually, when people started tasting drier versions, they took to them. They do well – Saumur, Savennières, Jasnières.” The volume of US Vouvray sales has risen by almost 30% in the past two years.

Jon-David Headrick became familiar with Loire Valley wines when studying in Paris. “They were cheap.”  He now lives in North Carolina and worked several years for the importer Eric Solomon/European Cellars – known for its lusty Mediterranean wines – before going off on his own to specialize in Loire Valley wines. Today, Solomon’s company handles his sales. He seconds Pascaline’s assessment about the rise of Chenin – adding that Americans have finally forgotten about the sweetish, bulk Chenin Blanc that used to come out of California. “Now, Vouvray on limestone, Anjou blanc and Savennières on schist, they’re phenomenal and great value.” Headrick mentions another factor: that winemakers in Savennières started allowing grapes to mature longer before picking. “The wines were austere before, very mineral – which is good – but they were hard to get to for years. Now, with more ripeness, their charms are accessible earlier. And, they still age.” Kevin McKenna notes another factor: the generational change in producers, the scene of young people who went to enology school, but didn’t come from winemaking families. “They had no legacy. The Loire was attractive for people starting off who could afford vineyards in interesting areas compared to Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhone. Some became stars, and there was a snow-ball effect, a self-propelling mechanism. A time and place that was defined by a particular sense of the wine world and a sense of farming and farming techniques.” 

 

Thierry Michon of the minuscule appellation Fiefs Vendéens shares a bottle with Jon-David Headrick

 

“The move toward organic and biodynamic practices since the 1990s, to make wines more pure, that was really important,” adds David Lillie, a partner at Chambers Street Wines in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. Lillie is considered one of the pioneering drivers behind introducing the region’s wines to New Yorkers. His interest started in the late 1970’s when he visited Tours with his now wife. “I got to know these small wines, Olga Raffault from Chinon, Pinon from Vouvray, and arranged to have them imported for a store I was working at.” It was Lillie who first brought Burgundy specialists Joe Dressner and Denyse Louise to the region. “But,” as Louise/Dressner partner McKenna is quick to acknowledge, the influence of importer Kermit Lynch, who was among the first to seek small, country producer wines and imported Charles Joguet from Chinon in 1977, was fundamental.  “He was the one who really started it.”

The new wave of winemaking wouldn’t have made much difference in the US without a major shift in American tastes. “When I arrived in NY (2009), the popular style was bigger, richer reds.  Definitely not the style of Loire wines,” recalls Pascaline.  “Over the years, the move away from big, over-oaked to higher acid, greater value, quality to price, really helped.”  Jon-David notes the same trend, with “buyers gravitating toward a fresher style of wine that the Loire has in spades.” And, they are usually a good deal less expensive than even an average Napa Valley wine.

For freshness and price, it’s hard to beat Muscadet, especially from the new wave of high quality, environmentally sensitive producers in the Pays Nantais. “They’re so easy to sell. Great value, great with seafood, light and fresh, it’s easy to move people from Pinot Grigio,” enthuses Pascaline. Jon-David Headrick says he does best with those sorts of wines on the coasts, Boston, Seattle, where seafood is an important part of the local gastronomy.  “But, you have to know that the oyster shed in the center of the country pours classic Muscadet, too.” 

The localization of gastronomy in the United States, the connection people around the country, in Nashville, Kansas City, Alabama, have to food, often because of local chefs who embrace local produce and smaller producer wines, is another factor that helps the Loire Valley. “[Local star chef] Franks Stitt in Birmingham is of enormous help. He’s a fan and lends us legitimacy. People trust and follow him. That’s essential,” adds Headrick.

While the majority of especially small-production Loire Valley wine is sold on the East and West Coasts, there is significant, growing interest in the center of the US, too. “We sell in 42 states” says McKenna, “not everything, but that’s because we don’t have enough.” One indicator of interest is the growing number of American importers who attend the Salon des Vins de Loire and satellite events like Dive Bouteille and Renaissance each February. “When we went in 1991,” explains McKenna, “there were just three of us.” “Starting in 2011-12, we started seeing more and more people,” adds Pascaline. “Now, it’s like being in New York. Everyone is there – buyers from all over the country.”

While white wines dominate the Loire wine scene, there is some movement for reds and rosés, with sales in the past two years growing by 10%, mostly for Chinon and Touraine, following the trend for more food-friendly wines. “But,” as Jon-David cautions, “a lot of people still like their big reds, and whereas the jump between dry white from one place and another isn’t so great, it’s harder, stylistically for a lot of reds.” Indeed, he reports that he has trouble selling many Cabernet franc-based wines unlike, unexpectedly, Malbec (Cot). “Who would guess?  Even stranger is the fact that Pineau D’Aunis rosé does really well – a grape no one knows.” Unexpectedly too, interest in Pinot noir-based Sancerre rouge, is fading. Bourgeuil, St Nicolas de Bourgueil, Pineau d’Aunis, Cot, Gamay, especially the ‘glou-glou’ wines are all strong for Louis/Dressner.

Another category of wine with big growth is Crémant de Loire, which at 22% by volume, offsets declines in sales of sparkling Vouvray and Saumur Brut. “I have to say that no one has ever asked me for a Crémant de Loire or Saumur Brut,” says Pascaline.  “Pétillant naturel, yes, often, but the other wines, not at all.” Jon-David reports that Brut rosé, made from Cabernet franc sells well. And, Louis/Dressner is happy with sales of sparkling Vouvray.

For the importers interviewed, the type and price of wine are important factors to determine which venues – retail shops or on-premise, restaurants and wine bars – to direct sales towards. On-premise dominates, especially for fresher, value-priced wines, red and white, like Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre satellites, or simple St Nicolas de Bourgueil, that can be offered by the glass, as well as more complex wines such as Chenin blanc with age, Bourgeuil, Chinon, or wines from lesser-known appellations; Vin de France from outstanding producers, too. A phenomenon mentioned by Pascaline, Kevin, and David, is that producer names are often more important to consumers than appellations. They like what a producer like Jean-Pierre Robinot does, and they ask for him, never mind if it is Jasnières, Coteaux du Loir, or Vin de France. Higher end wines, like single vineyard wines from Bernard Baudry are mostly sold retail. 

And, a lot still depends on the market. “Cabernet – Napa Cab – is still king in Houston,” declares Sean Essex. “I Iove to lead people to other things, but that’s how it is. Up to 65% of customers follow trends and show off. But, there’s an opportunity to educate the other 35%. If they like Sancerre, I can introduce  Vouvray. If they like California Pinot noir, I take them to Oregon. Then, France. Eventually a Loire Valley Cab franc. It’s all part of the wine journey.” 

 Written by Jamal Awny Rayyis