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Chenin Blanc is the most-planted variety.

The wines are fast gaining on elite regions like Burgundy and Bordeaux in terms of quality and reputation, but are still lagging behind in terms of price.

Dry wines are all the rage in a region that is traditionally known for sweeties.

The market for bubbly is growing fast, but too many sparkling wines seem to be run-of-the-mill cash cows.

The wines and philosophies of some crazies have caught the attention of international pundits.

Sound familiar? It should. The South African wine industry’s roots can largely be traced back to the Loire Valley in France and remarkably the regions still share many of the same challenges and charms. 

Much like in South Africa you get the feeling that it’s make or break time in the Loire – that this region has been the next big thing for a while, but is yet to take the step of actually becoming that big thing. And that if it doesn’t happen soon, the attention could shift to Alsace, Roussillon or Israel. You can only be the best-kept secret for so long!

The Loire’s most-planted red variety, Cabernet Franc, is also increasingly being lauded as more than a blending component or “the other Cabernet” – both locally and abroad.

The region’s success would bode well for Chenin Blanc and therefore South Africa at large. Which is why Chenin Blanc makers Dirk Coetzee of L’Avenir and Attie Louw of Opstal, De Toren winemaker and Franc fan Charles Williams and I chose the region for a wine trip.

While a visit to Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne can be as overwhelming as it is inspiring, based on their sheer world-apart prices and elite status, the Loire is both real and inspirational. You get the feeling that although it’s different and daring, it’s doable and complementary from a South African perspective.

The Loire Valley and its different appellations span over 280 kilometres. Our trip centred on Montlouis, Vouvray, Chinon, Saumur and Savennières. While we focused on Chenin Blanc, the Cabernet Francs were most enjoyable – particularly the lighter styles that are made for easy drinking.

The winemakers of the Loire are also open-minded and aware of and inquisitive about South Africa. Forget about the prejudices that come with typical French arrogance – these guys and girls are likely to welcome you with a fabulous cheese platter, the best wines they have to offer and a surprising openness about their winemaking and viticultural know-how – particularly if you’re from Afrique du Sud.

Think fresh

Too much wood is passé. The wines are bright and distinctly fresh – more so than the plusher and fruitier flavour profile we’re used to at home.

Yes, the sweet heritage abounds and the region still has its fair share of semisweet wines, but the Loire’s serious Chenin producers are putting their efforts into dry, elegant, fresh and delectably pure wines. Think big barrels, older oak, crisp acidity and remarkable ageability. And a very definite focus on sites and soils.

Too much wood is passé. The wines are bright and distinctly fresh – more so than the plusher and fruitier flavour profile we’re used to at home. Unlike South African winemakers who need to pick before the grapes are too ripe, their Loire counterparts hope for the longest hang-time, before the rot kicks in.

These opposites reflect in the wines and could be intriguingly complementary in the bigger Chenin picture. Like back home, Chenin’s versatility is evident in the Loire whites that vary from sparkling to sweet and basically everything in between. This would probably be lauded by wine enthusiasts, but one of the most significant modern regional success stories in white wine – Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – illustrates that a more typical and even predictable flavour profile could have wider appeal.

Winemaking in the vineyards

Any vines younger than 20 years – an age that vineyards are often replaced in South Africa’s higher-production regions – are regarded as “young”.

One of the Loire’s legends, Domaine des Roches Neuves’ Thierry Germaine, proclaims he would be able to make wine in Bordeaux because wines there are made in the cellar and therefore don’t sufficiently reflect terroir. The emphasis on vineyards is also reflected in the way a typical wine tour or even tasting is presented: Come rain or shine, the time is mostly spent in the vineyards, elaborating about viticulture and soil. Wide ranges of both Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, based on the different reflections of terroir, are common and fascinating.

Old vines are commonplace here. Any vines younger than 20 years – an age that vineyards are often replaced in South Africa’s higher-production regions – are regarded as “young”, says Evelyne de Pontbriand of Domaine du Closel in Savennières.

Although lower yields are often a concern, most old vines are treasured and expertly manicured. As in South Africa, there’s a strong drive to increase prices in order to sustainably retain this living heritage. In terms of new plantings and replacement vines, mass selections are favoured and valued.

What? You’re not organic?

Organic production is not uncommon in the Loire. In fact, it’s so prevalent that those who practise it no longer make a fuss about it. There are even entire appellations that are now organic.

Like back home, the switch to organic and biodynamic production was catalysed by prominent producers such as Nicolas Joly. The movement started in the ’80s and has had a significant impact on the winemaking philosophy and approach in the entire region. The motivation is more about life in the soil and the sustainability of terroir than about the birds and the bees. The winemakers assert that the quality of organic and biodynamic wines is better and specialised implements are constantly being improved to spread manure and compost and particularly control weeds.

While intrigued by these practices, my fellow travellers cautioned that weeds and terrain in South Africa are tougher and that weed control could be the most challenging aspect of organic or biodynamic production.

Limit the funk

There are some real characters in the Loire. Rebels with a cause who’re pushing conventional boundaries. Sound familiar? We attended a natural wine show in Savennières where there were some classy and impressive wines. But this good work was undone by too many attempts that crossed the line from funky to downright awful. While our gentle, diplomatic host, Evelyne, was forgiving, saying the natural bunch contribute to the region’s curiosity appeal, bad winemaking clearly annoys many who proudly wave the quality flag.

While Thierry is by no means conventional (he quirkily argued that all winemakers should have dogs in their lives), he likened bad natural winemaking to religious extremism – an unpleasant step too far! Sound familiar?

As published in the April issue of WineLand.

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