If New York offered a certain pleasing uniformity in its wines, the Loire delivered far more varietal variety. This was immediately apparent in the VAL DE LOIRE TOURAINE CLOS ROCHE 2001 which had a pungent, earthy aroma I would have guessed as Gamay (the Beaujolais grape that's also grown in the Loire) if I didn't already know otherwise. It had some rich cherry like fruit on the palate and was surprisingly robust the product of a warmer vintage? Oddly, I noticed its tannic structure more the next evening than on first taste. A distinctly different wine, especially tasted amidst the New York competition and certified organic, for what that's worth.
The CHINON SOURDAIS 2000 LES CORNUELLES (from old vines in a specific vineyard and bottled unfiltered, but machine harvested and aged in wood) was a dark horse in more ways than one. Deceptively simple on first nose, it unraveled as it was swirled until it gave off the 'pencil shavings' smell that so enamors the much-loved wine writer Jancis Robinson and the loose-leaf 'tobacco' aromas that I have come to personally associate with Cab Franc - as well as some hummus like flavors. There was plenty raspberry and cranberry fruit hanging round as well, while on the palate, it balanced a youthful exuberance with a subtle dark density. In its earthy simplicity, it served both as the reason why so many people like Loire reds, and why so many others barely notice them up against bigger and bolder competition. Served up to some neighbors 24 hours later (we had to do something with the left-overs!), it quickly received a second round of compliments. At $17, it's an ideal complement in both price and vintage to New York's Millbrook for anyone who wishes to bring our entire taste test down to two bottles.
(Parisians tend to drink Chinon chilled. Cassius are a couple of cool Parisians whose new album, Au Reve, makes an ideal compliment to the Sourdais.)
Our resident Finger Lakes expert had arrived with his two donations brown-bagged, which made it plainly obvious that at least one, if not both, would be from the Finger Lakes His first offering was, indeed, the aforementioned Hosmer. The second bottle caused more confusion. I found it lighter in color than many others on the table, and while it still had plenty acidity, it was a little too green and bitter for my liking. Tart was one word thrown out. Tight was another. A 'baby diaper' aroma was noted by yet another, who I assume doesn't normally go for that type of thing. And several people found it woody, causing them to assume it had seen Long Island-style oak treatment.
It turned out to be an OLGA RAFFAULT CHINON NON-FILTRE LES PICASSES 1997, which may not mean much to the average punter surfing through these notes, but should you check your pocket-book guides, you'll see that not only is '97 meant to be a classic year in the Loire, but that Raffault is considered one of Chinon's top producers. As such, there was considerable surprise that such a highly-rated bottle should be getting such a unanimous thumbs down but this also showed the (occasional) benefit in tasting a wine blind, without preconceptions. One disappointed fan of the wine later observed: "The '97 Olga may be closing up. One I had a few months ago was not nearly as expressive as one from a year ago while still having more to show than this example." The average drinker who doesn't get to taste a wine's development every few months might learn from this experience to go with a more forward wine or be assured by a store owner that an older bottle is currently "showing" well.
The CATHERINE ET PIERRE BRETON BOURGUEIL 1996 GALICHETS is "usually a delight," to quote one of our tasters. And it hails from a winery that not only practices biodynamic farming, but whose family name (Breton) is the local name for the Cabernet Franc grape. Add in the fact that the vines are over 50 years old, and that 1996 was the second in a trio of strong Loire vintages, and we had every right to expect greatness. Yet the nose was extremely tight it would probably have benefited from decanting and while there was plenty of fruit there once we gave the wine some time, the herbaceous quality of it (if quality is indeed the word) overpowered me, quickly putting it behind the Raffault 97 on my taste sheet. In defense, both these wines had eased up somewhat by the following night, which speaks to their cellaring potential. Still, I came away confused that the vegetal aspect of Loire wines, usually associated with under-ripeness, seemed more obvious in hot Loire years than cooler New York ones. There's an explanation for this somewhere but I'm not quite sure I have it.
Finally, not one but two guests had been kind enough to bring by a JOËL TALUAU ST-NICHOLAS-DE BOURGUEIL 1996 Vieille Vignes. This proved serendipitous as the first bottle turned out to be corked. Unfortunately we didn't realize as much until we came to taste it at the end of the line, and a rapid decanting of the second bottle failed to open the nose up quickly enough. As such, I have a feeling that some of our group particularly those who didn't know what to expect from the Loire selection missed the pleasures of this wine. Those who do know this wine were cautious in their criticism. "The Taluau was just starting to pick up when I left," wrote one. Wrote another (so poetically I must name him as Chris Coad), the Taluau showed "the usual tightness and impenetrability for the first few hours (with a whiff of barnyard), then progressive softening, the hard cran-cherry feathering out to brick-dustiness at the edges, hints of brown tobacco emerging. I don't have another three hours to wait for the gravelly-stony streak to come out of hiding, but I know it's in there, biding its time."
It certainly was in there as I found out the next night, after it had been exposed to air for 24 hours. (Being that it was in a decanter as opposed to a bottle, it was the only wine that we forgot to restopper at the end of the night.) What was left of it had taken on an almost magical quality: a soft, alluring nose whispering all kinds of seductive delights, and a warm, fleshy taste on the palate that made it by far and away the most sensual of all the Cab Francs. It was rapidly disposed of that second evening by ravenous house guests rarely exposed to such teasingly dressed wine. And if you think I'm getting a little elaborate in my descriptions, I found this one tucked away in my 1999 Food and Wine Pocket book (which could be subtitled Wine Buying For Dummies), referring to the same wine: "deep flavors of cherry liquer and Valhrona chocolate." Anyone who knows their Valhrona from their Cadbury's should inform the rest of us asap. (Or start a web site recommending chocolate to music!) Clearly a winner given enough time to breathe, it's worth pointing out that the Taluau is just $16 at Chambers Street Wines (whose web site states that "it's a candidate for decades of cellaring"), making it cheaper than much of the surrounding competition, most of the Chardonnay and Cabernet sauvignon found in California, and less than half the price of the better-rated Californian Cab Francs - thereby again emphasizing the great values to be found in Loire reds.
Part 4: Conclusions
Part 1: The Basics and The Regions
Part 2: The New York Wines