Great Value Wines: The Undiscovered Sparkling Wines of the Loire Valley

As regular readers know, I love bubbles — not just Champagne but a wide range of sparkling wines from all over the world. Following a recent trip to the Loire Valley in France I thought I would share some of the less well-known treasures of the region — the sparkling wines. Delicious Crémant de Loire, Saumur and Vouvray sparkling wines. Perfect for any occasion, and all for $20 (or less).

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The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley wine region is large and diverse. It stretches all along the Loire river from the central vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, through Touraine, home to the well known wines of Vouvray, Chinon and of course the popular Sauvignon Blanc de Touraine; then through the historic areas of Anjou and Saumur with their splendid châteaux, continuing on to Muscadet country in the region of Nantes, where the Loire empties into the Atlantic ocean.

The Loire Valley is best known for its dry white wines. It also makes some exceptional dry red and late harvest sweet wine (more on those another day). But today the focus is sparkling wine. A variety of sparkling wines are produced in the Loire Valley, but the most important categories are the Crémant de Loire, Sparkling Saumur and Sparkling Vouvray wines. After Champagne, the Loire Valley is the largest French sparkling wine production area.

Loire Valley Sparkling Wines

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All of these wines are made using the traditional method, the same as in Champagne, whereby the second fermentation, i.e. 'la prise de mousse' (the taking of the bubbles) happens in the bottle. Also, as with Champagne, these wines are labeled according to their sweetness level, Brut being the most common style, which corresponds to a dry style, but can contain anything between 6-15g/l of residual sugar. Slightly sweeter styles will be labeled extra-sec, and drier styles than Brut are known as Extra-Brut or zero-dosage.

But it is key to remember these are Loire sparkling wines, not Champagne, which only comes from the Champagne region of France.

Crémant de Loire
Crémant de Loire wines can be white or rosé. White Crémant de Loire wines are usually predominantly made from the Chenin Blanc grape, which truly excels in the Loire. Chardonnay is also permitted in the blend. The rosé style is usually based on Cabernet Franc.

Crémant de Loire can be produced in the Anjou, Saumur or Touraine areas of the Loire Valley. Though most actually comes from around Saumur, some are a blend from all three areas, which creates a nicely complex final wine. The bubbles or fizziness in Crémant is usually gentle ranging around 3.5 atmospheres compared to 5 or 6 atmospheres for Champagne and other 'fully' sparkling wines. Crémant de Loire wines must age for at least 12 months before being released to the market, though top producers usually age theirs for much longer.

Saumur Sparkling
Saumur can be pétillant or fully sparkling, but can can only be made in the area of Saumur. In terms of volume, this is by far the most important sparkling wine designation of the Loire Valley. Traditionally Saumur Brut wines were regarded as simple and nothing to get excited about. However, today, a number of producers are turning out particularly memorable wines with pronounced minerality and complexity.

While these wines are only required to age for nine months before release, many producers (certainly the lovely ones that come to the United States) age for longer. Saumur Brut can be white or rosé and similarly to the Crémant, it is predominantly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. Chardonnay is also permitted in the blend to about 20-30%.

Vouvray Sparkling
Similar in style to Saumur Brut, except that the grapes must come from the Vouvray area. It only comes in a white style and is made pretty much 100% from Chenin Blanc. Though the regulations do allow for some Arbois in the blend. Again, there are some exceptional producers making wonderful top quality wines in this region.

The Taste of Loire Valley Sparkling Wine
While Chenin Blanc is not noted as a very aromatic variety, there is something very distinctive about its texture that is immediately identifiable in these sparkling wines. A slight waxy, oiliness, hint of wet wool, a touch of honey and baked apple gently interwoven with epicurean notes of freshly baked bread, brioche and biscuit.

At the Table
Sparkling wines are very versatile at the table. I would venture to say that they are probably the most versatile wine style when it comes to food. Of course these wines can be enjoyed on their own as a refreshing apéritif, but no need to stop there. They hold their own all through a meal — except dessert unless you are serving a sweet style — at least a demi-sec or doux.

Loire sparkling wines are great with shellfish and a variety of fish dishes, especially ones with a creamy or buttery sauce, as the acidity in the wine, accentuated by the bubbles cuts right through the rich sauce. They also work with white meat such as pork, rabbit or veal and of course poultry.

Wines to Try: Mary's Picks of Loire Valley Sparkling Wines

A strong sparkling wine disciple, I regularly try some wines from the Loire. These are some that I have tasted over the past 6 months.

NV Domaine du Vieux Pressoir, Saumur Brut, $16 - From the Saumur area, this wine was aged on its lees for 15 months and it has 30% Chardonnay in the blend. Lively, lovely bready notes, apple, citrus flavors and very refreshing.

2009 François Pinon Vouvray Brut Non Dosé, $20 - Lively, racy acidity and tangy with a persistent tingly mousse of tiny bubbles. Very minerally - notes of wet wool, smoke amid a cocktail of citrus, melon and orchard fruit. Very refreshing and long.

2009 François Chidaine Pétillante Vouvray, Brut, $20 - Vibrant, racy with a delicate, yet persistent mousse. Lots of flavor - citrus, orchard and stone fruit with a lovely bready/yeasty note.

NV Domaine du Viking Vouvray Brut, $20 - Spent almost two years on its lees, fresh, bright, minerally, citrus and apples with persistent bubbles and a delightful waxy honey note.

NV Champalou, Vouvray Brut , $20 - Round, full on the palate, leesy, citrus, orchard fruit with the telltale Chenin waxiness. Persistent lively mousse.

2001 Château La Tour Grise Saumur Brut, Non Dosé, $22 - While most Loire sparkling wines are non-vintage, this special vintage wine spent 7 years on its lees. Rich, complex, bone dry (and great value) - notes of jasmine, green tea, peach pith, exotic citrus, fresh toast and a slight nuttiness . Racy with a delicious backbone of minerality.

NV Château de Brézé Crémant de Loire Blanc, $22 - a blend of Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, lively, persistent bubbles that tingle gently on the palate. Notes of baked apple, quince, citrus with a hint of honey and fresh brioche.

Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant.

Related: Cava: Sparkling Wines of Character, Versatility & Value

(Image: Igor Klimov/Shutterstock; wine producers)

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.