A Mostly Loire Valley Wine Dinner

The wine dinner at the Penn Club on Wednesday featured Loire Valley selections from the Mellot family of Sancerre, who’ve been at it since 1513. No way were we going to skip this one, so we put together our party of six and subwayed down to West 44th Street, where Claudia, Frank, Peter and Michael were waiting for us, glasses of 2010 Le Rabault Rosé in hand.

One hundred percent Pinot Noir, the wine had a gorgeous ruby tint, not at all that pink and salmon wash of the provençal rosés we’ve been drinking all summer. This wine had body and a solid acidity that demanded food. Our host for the dinner, Maxime Leger – whose business card ennobles him with the title Brand Ambassador USA – suggested goat cheese as the best accompaniment for the rosé when served as an aperitif. Indeed, as Margaret pointed out, the creamy cheese cancelled out the sharp tartness to produce a lovely conjunction of flavors and textures.

Our first course was Pheasant Terrine with pistachio and truffle, and quince compote. The wine was 2010 Le Montarlet, a classic Sancerre made from 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Generally speaking, old world sauvignon blanc favors terroir over fruit. New world specimens, especially from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, have distinctive citrus flavors, especially grapefruit, although the experts often identify the flavor as gooseberry and passion-fruit, neither of which would I be able to identify in a supermarket, let alone a wine. While nicely flinty and crisp, our Sancerre had an unmistakable grapefruit flavor.

The defining geological feature of Sancerre is the chalky Kimmeridgian limestone that comes to the surface in the outer vineyards of the Loire, as well as in the southern regions of Champagne and in Burgundy, most particularly Chablis. This is the same vein of limestone that is exposed in the White Cliffs of Dover. The soil that overlies the stone is a crumbly mixture of clay, and calcium and magnesium carbonates from fossilized shells, called marl. The wine grown over these Jurassic-era oyster beds are, unsurprisingly, the perfect accompaniment to oysters.

Across the Loire River from Sancerre is the appellation of Pouilly Fumé, where a somewhat different style of sauvignon blanc is vinified. Here the soil contains more clay, accounting for a fuller, fruitier wine than neighboring Sancerre. For our next course, Steamed Alaskan Halibut Fillet with choucroute and fois gras, we sampled a 2010 Pouilly Fumé, Le Troncsec. High levels of iron in the soil add a smoky flintiness to the wine; locally, the grape is known as Blanc Fumé, or smoky white.

This wine raised lots of questions for Maxime, our brand ambassador. Even after allowing for the reduced acidity and increased fruit characteristics of the appellation, I still could not account for the softness and hint of sweetness in the wine. Oak? No, Maxime assured us, fermentation and aging were strictly confined to stainless steel. Then malolactic fermentation? No, again, per Maxime. What then? Kimmeridgian marl, said he, although a little unintended malo is, in my opinion, more likely.

As we pondered the mysteries of the Pouilly Fumé, the next wine was being poured, 2009 Saumur Champigny Le Boisclair. Here was a deep red wine made from Cabernet Franc, from the Saumur region west of Sancerre. It was a light bodied, refreshing quaff with a floral nose (violets?), and hints of raspberries and strawberries. It stood up smartly to Braised Boneless Short Rib, organic kale and fall mushroom risotto, providing a fruit-driven counterpoint to an otherwise rustic, earthbound course. Frank particularly liked this wine, calling repeatedly on Orlando, our waiter, to refill his glass.

The Loire Valley is home to many chenin blanc-based sweet wines, including Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume, and some varieties of Vouvray. As it happens, however, the Mellot family doesn’t make any of these, so for our dessert of Butternut Squash Tart (think pumpkin pie) with liquorice honey and Tahitian vanilla ice cream, we drank 2009 Château Villefranche Sauternes.

Sauternes is located in the left-bank Graves region of Bordeaux and is made primarily of sauvignon blanc, sémillion and muscadelle grapes that have been infected with the fungus Botrytis cinerea. Infestation requires moisture and, if the weather stays wet, will kill the crop. When an infected crop dries out, however, the grapes begin to turn to raisins, in a process known as noble rot. From these grapes, often picked one berry at a time – in Germany called TBA, or trockenbeerenauslese, meaning selected harvest of dried berries – come the great dessert wines, including the legendary Château d’Yquem.

Our more pedestrian Château Villefranche was golden in color, with a floral nose, laced with white stone fruit and vanilla. It was light, despite its 14% alcohol, with a good balance of acidity and sugar. As has become customary at the Penn Club, after pouring the dessert wine for the table, Orlando left the bottle in front of me. I discreetly refilled my glass.  At the conclusion of the meal, as we prepared to leave, the bottle, alas, was empty.

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