Focus on Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc

Vintages 2008 and 2007 presented growers at the eastern end of the Loire Valley with a series of challenges at crucial points in their growing seasons, both of which were to some extent mitigated by favorable late summers. Two thousand eight tends to have the edge on 2007 here by virtue of greater intensity. Neither vintage approaches most of the 2005s, especially, or the 2006s in terms of richness and depth. But both years offer wines with good concentration, clarity and precision, and healthy acidity. Obviously, a number of examples are simple, dilute or both; but ’08 and ’07 have also yielded standout examples, and these wines mostly come from the best sites and from producers who were willing to cross their fingers and wait for dry weather, which for the most part they got into October in both years.

While acidity levels in 2008 and 2007, which both featured cool summers, are similar, the 2008s typically possess an extra degree of concentration due to yields that were off by a quarter to a third of normal. Late June hailstorms passed across most of the vineyards that produce Pouilly-Fumé, as well as parts of Sancerre, and a significant portion of the crop was destroyed or had to be dropped. Fortunately, the end of the summer of 2008 was pleasant if not especially warm, with drying north winds during the second half of September keeping the grapes healthy, encouraging slow maturing of the grapes, and increasing concentration through dehydration.

François Cotat told me that he was pleasantly surprised by the ripeness his grapes achieved, especially in Le Cul de Beaujeu, which he said was “completely due to the winds.” A number of growers I visited this past summer told me that they were able to pick their vineyards “à la carte,” or at their leisure, thus assuring a variety of cuvées and the chance to do creative blending of components. Picking late is usually dicey business in this northerly region as fall can come quickly and bring rain and its attendant maladies. Those conscientious growers willing to take risks were able to harvest into the second week of October without diminished acidity.

Two thousand seven got off to a good, very early start, as elsewhere in France, but the summer was cold and rainy, which brought on mildew and stunted the grapes’ maturity. Even though September was warm and relatively dry, much of the fruit simply didn’t achieve full ripeness, so numerous wines lack real stuffing and their acidity can be shrill. Here’s a vintage where older vines planted in the best, southern-exposed vineyards prove their worth. I’d buy carefully from 2007 but if you stick to the top growers there are plenty of fresh, immediately appealing wines out there. Fans of racy Loire sauvignon should pay attention to 2007, Benjamin Dagueneau said, “because the wines are really precise and fresh, in contrast to the 2006s and 2005s before them, which are all about size and power.”

I concur with this opinion: just as impatient drinkers are enjoying the fruit and delicacy of 2007 Beaujolais while finding the very rich and brawny 2005s to be less fun at this stage, there’s a lot to be said for Loire Valley sauvignon from years of moderate ripeness and bright acidity.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that prices for the 2008s and 2007s have rolled back a bit from the high-water mark set for the 2005s. A number of American importers told me that producers across the Loire Valley have been extremely flexible in their pricing and responsive to the weakened dollar and general market slowdown. In fact, more than a few importers told me that this practice is in direct contrast to most of their Burgundy producers, who seem oblivious to the fact that the U.S. market won’t absorb a good but generally not outstanding vintage like 2007 at prices close to those of the great 2005s.

While Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are still the most expensive versions of sauvignon blanc in the market, there are still many wines that offer outstanding value relative to other world-class whites, and most of these latter bottles cost only a bit more than upper-tier sauvignon blancs from New Zealand and California. Many good examples of Quincy, Ménétou-Salon and Reuilly, which are usually 25% to 35% less expensive than Sancerre, can be found for the price of good New Zealand sauvignon blanc. My notes below also include some pinot noirs and rosés from the producers whose sauvignon blancs I have featured.