Shine on, Chinon
Feeling the pocketbook squeeze on your Bordeaux collection? Opt for a Loire Valley red instead. The Loire’s three most renowned red wine appellations are in the warm, sunny Touraine region, which is smack-dab in the middle of the Loire Valley. Touraine’s vineyards surround the city of Tours, on sites known as the “Garden of France” because they are warmer than the grape growing regions to the west and milder than the temperamental climates to the east.
The three finest red wine appellations of the Loire Valley are Chinon, Bourgueil and St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. All three produce wines made almost entirely from cabernet franc, the same grape variety that comprises what many regard as Bordeaux’s finest wine, Cheval Blanc. Cabernet franc is also a fifty per cent contributor to two other Bordeaux nobility, Ausone and Lafleur. In fact cabernet franc plays a role in almost every red wine produced in Bordeaux, but it seldom commands the attention it deserves. It is no surprise that cabernet franc became the Loire Valley’s signature red grape: Tourraine was the favourite playground of King Henry II of England whose spouse, Eleanor of Acquitaine, held dominion over Bordeaux.
Theories abound as to how the grape gained its local name, breton. In the 11th century, transportation on the Loire River was managed by ferrymen from Brittany known as Les Bretons. In the 15th and 16th centuries the powerful Le Breton family (Claude Le Breton was the King’s Secretary of Finance) managed many chateaux in the region and may have planted the variety. Or, pundits have speculated the name is derived from Abbot Breton, who was asked by Cardinal de Richelieu in the 17th century to plant grapes on his Chinon and Bourgueil properties, thus appearing on notary certificates as “plants de l’abbé Breton” and later, “plants Breton”. The abbey theory is displaced, however, in looking at the work of François Rabelais, widely considered France’s finest – if not funniest – renaissance writer (c.1494-1553). Rabelais clearly mentioned the red variety two centuries earlier, “ce bon vin Breton, lequel qui poinct ne croist en Bretaigne, mais en ce bon pays de Verron” which means, “this good Breton wine, which doesn’t grow in Brittany, but in this good country of Verron (Verron being a site within Chinon).
Rabelais might have thought the region “good country,” but it is northern France after all and the wine can vary markedly from vintage to vintage, with cooler years producing tart red, leafy and vegetative wines. In warmer years, when the grapes ripen fully, the Loire’s finest red is immediately identifiable by its vivacious raspberry, violet and blackberry fruit.
Of the three considered appellations, Chinon, Bourgueil and St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Chinon produces the most elegantly structured wine, which is easy to remember in Asia as the Chinon name brings to mind the elegant chignon hair style first popularized in the Tang dynasty. In fine years, Chinon sings with vibrant red summer fruits and can age a decade or so before peaking. In lesser vintages, Chinon is a light-bodied cherry-red wine best drunk for immediate enjoyment. Bourgueil is slightly earthier and more rustic than Chinon and can take longer (about 4-5 years) to hit its stride. St.-Nicolas-de-Bourgeuil is lighter bodied than Bourgueil and best drunk while young. While the Loire Valley is renowned for its crisp white wines, no self-respecting Parisian Bistro would be caught without a red wine from the Loire Valley on its list – so why should we?