THE Loire is France’s longest river. It rises in the mountains of the Ardèche, flows north for 250 miles until it reaches the hills of Sancerre, when it begins to swing to the west past Orléans, and then surrounded by its most famous vineyards, rolls serenely by the cities of Tours, Angers and Nantes to the sea.
Way back upstream, almost in another world, there are other vineyards, whose wines are among France’s better-kept secrets. Four hundred hectares of vines lie on the west bank on the lower slopes of a sturdy range of granite hills.
The main grape variety here is Gamay, as it is in the Beaujolais, just across the next range of hills to the east. Gamay has been favoured in many parts of central France because it ripens early and crops reliably, and can be readily turned into light, refreshing wine.
Light Gamay reds from the upper reaches of the Loire used to be sold as country cousins of Beaujolais – perfect fare in the days when French workers always looked forward to a glass or two to wash down their midday meal.
These days, with Beaujolais still saddled with the image of weedy ‘nouveau’, the growers of the Côte Roannaise and the Côtes du Forez have chosen to hitch their wagon to the rising star of the Loire Valley proper, proclaiming that their wines have “their roots in the Loire”.
This should be co-operative country par excellence, but a number of independent growers are proving that this quiet backwater of French viticulture is capable of producing something more than just friendly, country wines. I visited the best of them three weeks ago: Robert Sérol in the Côtes Roannaise and the husband-and-wife team of Odile Verger and Jacky Logel in the Côtes du Forez, and was impressed.
Robert and his son Stéphane own around 25 hectares of vineyards on the warm slopes of the Monts de la Madeleine at Renaison. They’ve invested steadily in both the winery and the vineyard. A new cellar will be open to receive the 2012 harvest and they are busy planting new vines for the future.
They are in the enviously happy position of being able to sell all they make each year. Most of it is drunk in France, including at the superb three Michelin-starred Troigros Restaurant in nearby Roanne, for whom they have created special wine. A little wine is also exported, including their excellent Cuvée Vieilles Vignes, my excellent wine of the week.
It is made in just the same way as the best of Beaujolais by loading whole bunches of hand-picked grapes into a tank.
The fruit at the bottom is crushed by the weight of that above it and slowly begins to ferment. As the sugars are turned into alcohol, carbon dioxide is also produced.
Heavier than air, it sits at the bottom of the tank. Now blanketed by carbon dioxide, berries that remain intact begin to ferment internally without the aid of yeasts.
Eventually they too split and a normal yeast fermentation takes over, but not before this ‘semi-carbonic maceration’ releases heady aromas and helps to give the wine a particularly bright colour.
The idea is simple, but the Sérols adjust it in a number of subtle ways to produce a range of wines, some light and fruity, others more richly concentrated and age-worthy.
Odile Verger and Jacky Logel have been making wine since 1992 on 16 hectares of organically tended vines at Marcilly-le-Châtel, scattered among 12 separate plots.
As in the Côte Roannaise, they have mostly warm, sandy, granitic soils, but outcrops of basalt here, great places on which to build castles, also provide a different growing environment, which Jacky says tends to make wine that’s more citrus in character than the slightly peppery wines grown on granite.
Although the slopes of the Côte du Forez are further south than the vineyards of the Côte Roannaise they are also at a higher altitude, which means a cooler climate. Frost is a hazard – it struck only last month.
The wines on balance are lighter and more delicate than those made by Robert, but this hasn’t stopped Jacky from experimenting with a patch of Malbec.
“I planted this year as a bit of fun to play with in my retirement,” he grins. I suspect that even with global warming, the wine is likely to be a bit under-ripe, but as he shows no sign of retiring, he might yet be pleasantly surprised.
Both properties have diversified into white wine. The Sérol family showed me a deliciously fragrant Viognier and Jacky came up with his own version as well as a terrific dry Pinot Gris.
Jacky comes from Alsace where the greatest Pinot Gris in the world is made. It’s a variety close to his heart.
A change in the law also means that, to his great delight, he’s now free to experiment with Riesling and Gewurztraminer – wines with roots in the Loire and a strong Alsatian accent.
The wines of the Upper Loire will never line the supermarket shelves here, but they’re well worth trying whenever you see them. And if you’re heading for the Mediterranean sun this summer, why not take a detour and visit these terrific wineries?
You’ll find a warm welcome.
WINE OF THE WEEK
Robert Sérol, Côtes Roannaise, Vieilles Vignes 2011 £7.95 (special offer) The Wine Society
A perfect reason to join the Wine Society, this deliciously summery red has a heady aroma of fresh cherries, juicy acidity and bags of crunchy red fruit. Try it with charcuterie – or lightly grilled lamb chops.
The Wine Society scores with some great wines from the Loire. Their Muscadet de Sèvre et Main, sur lie, 2010, Domaine des Ratelles, made almost 500 miles downstream from the Côte Roannaise is another real bargain, with its mouth-wateringly fresh tart green apple fruit and tangy, salty finish. Like my wine of the week, it’s at this special offer price until July 15.
Keep the Jubilee spirit going with Hugel’s Jubilee Riesling 2005 (£20 from the Wine Society).
It’s crafted by Etienne Hugel, the twelfth generation of winemakers in arguably Alsace’s best-known wine family, from grapes grown on the superb Grand Cru site of Schoenenbourg. Still tinged with green, it has a wonderfully complex, intense aroma of ripe lemons, spice and a touch of kerosene. Dry, citrus and concentrated, it has a very long spice aftertaste.
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