The Wine Column: Loire Valley Whites

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The Independent Online

Now that we're umbilically connected to France, and not just by Arsène Wenger, it's surprising its closest wine region, the Loire Valley, doesn't have a higher profile here.

Now that we're umbilically connected to France, and not just by Arsène Wenger, it's surprising its closest wine region, the Loire Valley, doesn't have a higher profile here. But its proximity to Paris means competition for the Loire's best wines is fierce.

Along the length of its 1,000-kilometre span, from the hills of the Auvergne to the Atlantic coast, the Loire River connects a host of small wine appellations. These produce not just juicy reds from the gamay, cabernet franc and pinot noir grapes, but fragrant sauvignons, pretty rosés and sprightly sparkling wines. And chenin blanc's range of whites runs the gamut from bone dry to the lusciously, gorgeously hedonistic sweet Coteaux du Layon and Bonnezeaux. With such a kaleidoscope of vineyards and family wineries, the Loire's very diversity – and unpredictable climate – make it impossible to deliver the same sort of consistency as that found in Australia.

Despite the many excellent sauvignons now reaching us from South Africa, Chile, Australia and above all, New Zealand, there is still not enough to go round. And with sauvignon poised to be the new chardonnay, now more than ever Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé are in demand for their minerally complexity. In response to the New World challenge, Sancerre is becoming one of the eastern Loire's most dynamic appellations. Investment in its small wineries and vineyards is helping maintain the wine's special vibrancy and sense of place. 2000 was a good vintage for Sancerre, 2001 a little more patchy.

In neighbouring Anjou-Touraine, the chenin blanc grape has also been given a new lease of life by growers who now pick the grapes later and riper, sometimes using small oak barrels to enhance the wine's richness. More demanding than its counterpart from South Africa and Australia, its better examples are richer and more complex.

Even muscadet, one of the better performers in the Loire in 2001, is undergoing a revival at the sur lie level. The steely streak of acidity running through the best 2001 muscadet sur lie, which gathers extra flavour and freshness from staying on its dead yeast cells, will make for some wonderfully refreshing and not-too-expensive glasses of dry white in good time for the summer.

A Selection of Loire Valley Whites

2000 Coteaux du Giennois, Les Belles Vignes, £5.49, Waitrose

From Bonny-sur-Loire, a good value, herbaceous sauvignon with elderflower-like aromas and grapefruity bone dry fruit in the mould of a mini-sancerre.

2000 Sancerre Domaine Jean-Paul Balland, £9.75-£9.95, Berry Bros & Rudd, London SW1 (020-7396 9666); Hicks & Don, Edington, Wiltshire (01380 831234)

Taut, crisp, bone-dry style of Sancerre with a refreshing spritz.

2000 Sancerre Blanc La Moussière, Alphonse Mellot, £11.99, Sainsbury's

Exceptional fruit fragrance, citrus-crisp fruit and an intense, full-bodied, minerally-flinty character.

2000 Sancerre Vieilles Vignes, Fournier, on special offer at Majestic at £8.49 to 6 May; £8.98, Asda

Attractively scented sauvignon blanc whose concentration from old vine richness is neatly balanced by its crisply refreshing zip.

2000 Château de Varennes, Savennières, £8.99, Oddbins

Fans of vouvray should enjoy Bernard Germain's golden Anjou white, a richly honeyed style of chenin blanc whose dried fruits flavours are refreshed by a cleansing streak of acidity.