What can make French wine confusing to newcomers is that often the name of the grape inside the bottle is nowhere to be found on the outside of the bottle.
That means to know what grapes are inside the bottle you have to know what is grown in the region named on the bottle.
For example, with white wines, Chablis means Chardonnay and Vouvray means Chenin Blanc. With red wines, Rasteau in the Rhone means Grenache, in Burgundy that red wine is Pinot Noir, Bordeaux is dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and Loire by Cabernet Franc. As you get to know French wines, you’ll understand the short hand behind Bordeaux blends or Rhone blends like Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the previous post.
So if you want a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Pinot Noir or a syrah or a cabernet franc or a sauvignon blanc with your meal, it helps to know which regions are known for which grapes.
Wines from the Loire Valley are a great illustration of this concept. Extending from the Atlantic ocean east toward the Mediterranean almost halfway across France in practically a straight line, each sub-region is famous for specific wine grapes. Near the Atlantic in the lower Loire you’ll find Melon de Bourgogne aka Muscadet, toward the center or the middle Loire is chenin blanc aka Vouvray, and further east ior the upper Loire is Sauvignon blanc in Sancerre.
And throughout the Loire Valley, you’ll find one red dominates: Cabernet Franc, best known as Chinon but also Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Bourgeil, St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Touraine and more generally located in the central part of the Loire Valley. .
Just about everyone else in France (and much of the world) dismiss Cabernet Franc as a blending grape (talk about god forsaken grapes!). But not those in the Loire where something about that predominantly underlying limestone terroir that turns it into something special and worth celebrating on its own. So if you’re a fan of cab franc like Sue is, you’ll want to seek wines from the Loire Valley where they have been growing grapes and making wine since 1 A.D.!
When we were in the Loire for the World Wine Tasting Championships sponsored by Wine Acuity, we visited a number of biodynamic and organic producers of the Loire’s specialties, and I’ve begun writing about them with these three completed in December: Vouvray’s Careme, pet nat, and two Cabernet Franc wines from Manoir de Tete Rouge. When we knew we were going to be in the Loire for the Championship, we knew we wanted to visit Amirault as well as Chateau Yvonne because we had written about their biodynamic wines previously. Today we feature Agnes and Xavier’s Amirault Les Quaterones wines: two sparkling cremant, one made with chenin blanc and one with cabernet franc, and three biodynamic cabernet franc wines.
Les Quarterones is located in Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil AOC on the edge between Samour and Touraine and on the right or northern bank of the Loire River which is the longest river in France and drains over a fifth of the country. In the map below, the Loire valley is in bright green which is fitting as it is known as the Garden of France; in the map above, it’s between the red and the yellow regions.
From this location, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil benefits from maritime climate as wells as continental. In addition to the influence of the Loire, the confluence of the Vienne river and the Loire create an important lake effect to temper the climate. Deposits of silt and gravel over time as well as sand with a third of the area planted on a form of limestone called Turonian chalk.
The confluence of the rivers, the variety and complexity of the soils as well as the wealth of vegetation and the slope combine to make the cabernet franc of this small AOC special and worth seeking out.
Planted in 1090 in the nearby Bourgueil Abbey, cabernet franc went by the name “Breton” after those who clamored for it in the middle ages, and some call it that even today. In Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil AOC, 98% of the wines are red with only 2% rose. And that red — you guessed it — is cabernet franc which must make up 90% of the blend to be an AOC wine. According to wikipedia, critics find the cabernet franc of Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil to
- have aromas of raspberry and graphite
- be more austere with more noticeable acidity than Chinon located across the Loire river
- be more aromatic, lighter and with more finesse than neighboring Bourgueil
- needs more age, and has more potential for aging than others of the region
In 2013, the AOC produced over 650,000 cases of wine.
With this brief introduction with tips to French wines in general (and in the previous one where I focused on the Rhone Valley and Chateauneuf-du-Pape), and here on the Loire in particular with a further focus on the small AOC of St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, let’s take a look five specific wines from Xavier Amirault, which you can ask for in the US as imported by Vineyard Brands.
In a later post, we’ll take another deep dive and share more from our visit to the vineyards and caves with notes and pairing about an additional cabernet franc.
Wines: Xavier Amirault is deeply committed to taking care of his team which he sees as people and planet. All wines are with organic, biodynamic, or undergoing conversion for certification. Many of his wines are imported into the US by Vineyard Brands.
We tasted the following wines paired with the meal above:
- Les Quarterons – Cremant de Loire – 12% alcohol – SRP around 20 euros
- Amirault – Rose Cremant de Loire – 12%
- 2016 – Les Quarterons – St Nicolas de Bourgueil – 12% alcohol
- 2015 – Les Gravilices – St Nicolas De Bourgueil – 12.5% alcohol
- 2015 – Le Clos Des Quarterons – Vieilles Vignes – St. Nicolas De Bourgueil – 12.5%
- Cheese plate:
Langres, mushroom brie, St. Auger blue, salt cured olives, fennel salami, genoa salami, pate
- Jolly Oyster lagunas and kumos from Baja
- blue cheese toasted walnut crostini
- grilled wild boar sausage
- Winter squash salad
- Grilled salmon and wagyu tri tip with beurre blanc with scalloped potatoes
- blueberry clafoutis using a recipe from Ojai Chef Robin Goldstein who we will be featuring March 14
Les Quarterons – Cremant de Loire – 12% alcohol – SRP 20 euros
100% Chenin Blanc purchased from a vineyard near Anjou under conversion to certified organic
dosage 7-8 grams per liter
This wine is imported the the US by Vineyard Brands; sample for my review consideration.
This is the third time we’ve tasted this wine. Our first time was a sample from Vineyard Brands that introduced us to Les Quaterones, next we tasted it with Xavier, and third at my house back in Ventura paired with the menu above. On the third time, after tasting so many wonderful chenin blanc wines in the Loire,what stood out most was that the wine is 100% Chenin Blanc, and it reminded me what a lovely, unappreciated grape it is today. Like how white zinfandel did a number on rose, which fortunately has been reclaimed, and too sweet, commercially made chenin blanc has made it so people turn their nose up, not even knowing what they are drinking. As we learning from our visit to Careme in Vouvray, chenin blanc made dry and picked to preserve acidity is beautiful wine that pairs well with lighter, fresh foods of the Loire Valley.
Does it say CHENIN BLANC on the bottle?? No it does not– not on the front or on the back: you must know that chenin blanc is the white wine that is commonly grown in this area AND commonly made into sparkling wine.
In France, we found the wine to be floral, fresh, light with bright acidity. Xavier explained that the floral notes come from the gravel soils. The wine is held for 24 months to produce a finer perlage.
In Ventura, with and without food we found:
Color: Very pale, tiny delicate bubbles, yet very foamy when first poured
Nose: Subtle seagrass, ocean breeze, sea shale, florals, minerality, I also got some interesting cinnamon and carnation, even rose petals; all is very light and subtle.
Palate: Fresh citrus, and minerals, with fruit up front, lingering finish with a creamy richness, and clay minerals on the back.
Les Quarterons Brut Cremant is a sparkling wine that is unpretentious and a clear, concise expression of the chenin blanc grape.
Pairing: I know we talk about sparkling wine and oysters all the time, however there is a reason for that. Lemon citrus in the wine meets the ocean breeze of the oyster and makes a perfect match. On the other side of the spectrum the blue cheese toasted walnut crostini also was a great match with the Les Quarterons, so very tasty. The fennel salami was beautiful as well. The herbal qualities in the salami made the wine shine. Super yummy with the Clafloutis dessert: the almond extract and almonds compliment the wine so well.
In Saint-Nicholas de Bourgueil, we also tasted:
Amirault Cremant de Loire Brut SRP 30 euros
60% chenin blanc, 30% chardonnay, 10% cabernet franc
What a great marriage of grapes! This tastes like a special event wine, one that has the complexity and palate to go with a meal from beginning to end. Loved the florals and finesse from the chenin, fruit and structure from the chardonnay, fruit and body from the touch of cab franc. The wine spent 42 months on the lees contributing to the depth and the mouthfeel.
In Ventura and in France, we tasted:
Amirault Cremant de Loire Rose Brut Natural – 12%
100% cabernet franc; no dosage
Gift from the winemaker.
Sue loved this wine! Xavier let us each choose a wine to take with us and this is the one that Sue chose and that we opened for this tasting. She loved the funky nose, and the fruit forward flavors. The finish of this beautiful wine had a hint of spice and bitterness.
Color: Salmon, rose gold, sun kissed apricot, small delicate bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass
Nose: Forest floor funk, a place where the ocean meets the forest, vibrancy of citrus flowers, kind of like waking in an orchard in bloom after the rain.
Palate: When we tasted it again at home, Sue remarked: “There was a reason this was the bottle of wine I asked for when Xzavier told us he would send us both home with a bottle of wine.” And we knew why– when and how would we ever be able to taste this wine again? Florals of violets and rose, raspberry fruit, fresh and light, but not heavy, it reminded me of cream soda or a raspberry sorbet. Such complexity without having too much crazy complexity.
Pairing: The Amirault brings out a lovely melon characteristic in the oyster, and the oyster in turn brings out the fruit in the wine. Our mushroom brie was perfect with the wine, forest floor meets forest floor. Sue made some crostini with St Aguer blue cheese and toasted walnuts. The saltiness of the crostini really bounced off the wine well. The rich fatty genoa salami was a good match for the Cremant de Loire. The Cafloutis was also brilliant with this wine. Sue made it with blueberries and cherry might be better, but it was still fantastic. Because this is not a sweet dessert, it works so well with the wine.
Start your meal with one of these sparklers and end the meal with one of the bubbly wines as well would make a perfect pairing that carries on from start to finish.
2016 – Les Quarterons – St Nicolas de Bourgueil – 12% alcohol
100% Biodynamic Cabernet Franc
Imported to US by Vineyard Brands; sample for my review consideration.
We tasted this wine both in France with Xavier and in Ventura without then with food. In France, our notes say, “Beautiful, elegant wine. Straight forward. Can be enjoyed with and without food. Great mouthfeel.”
In Ventura, we found:
Color: Maroon, Dracula, Dracula’s cave lit by moonlight!
Nose: This has such a Cab Franc nose, very vegetal, bell pepper, and celery, jalapeño, hatch chili, pine resin, incense cedar, and earth. After a while in the glass the vegetal blows off becoming more about the minerals in the glass.
Palate: The vegetal does not come through on the palate as much, cherry up front and jalapeño pepper and, cocoa finish.
Pairing: Sue thought it was really nice with the blue cheese and walnuts, but I was not as excited. With food however, it is a game changer. Without food, I did not get this wine at home like I did in France. With the simple blue cheese and walnut crostini, it makes the wine rich and smooth. Great as well with the mushroom brie and pate. Surprising that is was so sweet with the pate. Light enough to handle the fish because the beurre blanc brings richness and complexity and takes the dish to another realm. Without a doubt that is the best tri-tip that I have ever had, so full of flavor, but with the wine, it was just an okay pairing until I added the beurre blanc because it has just too much vegetal characteristic for me, and I even thought it was better with the salmon. The squash in the salad is also fantastic with the Les Quarterons, and I could imagine Sue’s squash gratin dish with this wine which we wrote about before because squash and Cabernet Franc go so well together. With the Clafoutis there was a sweet tart element. Not so tart that you did not like it, but not sweet to conquer the person with a sweet tooth but successful for most others.
2015 – Les Gravilices – St Nicolas De Bourgueil – 12.5% alcohol
Demeter certified biodynamic cabernet franc
This wine is imported the the US by Vineyard Brands; sample for my review consideration.
We loved this wine when we tasted it in France. The vineyard is located on the gravels between two rivers. Aged one more year in a large oak vat than the first wine; the oak vat ages it well without imparting an oak taste.
In Ventura, our notes suggest:
Color: Red bricks, cherry cola with a corral ring
Nose: Cinnamon, clove, earth, mushroom, forest floor, earthy dark chocolate, plum, elicits a great feeling of gratitude for me, not just because we got to experience the winery, Xzavier and his wife, but just because this is a contemplative wine that I want to hang out with a bit.
Palate: This is a young bright wine, a green pepper note comes across more on the palate than on the nose. There is a smooth silicone texture as it glides across the palate. Interesting tannins up front.
Pairing: The salty cheese and the toasted walnuts were so nice with the Les Gravilices, bringing out a beautiful plumy/ cherry fruit in the wine. The squash in the salad was perfect Neither one of us were very excited about the pate or the mushroom brie with the wine. We just wanted to get back to the squash. The boar sausage was alright, but not fabulous, This wine went so much better with all of the veggies on the dish. rather than the meats. I could become a vegetarian with this wine (with the right foods). It is a bit too medium bodied to handle some of the fat in the menu. However with the fish over the meat with the beurre blanc works so nicely. Sue did not like the Clafoutis with this wine at all. The dessert which is not sweet cannot handle the dry mineral characteristics of the wine.
2015 – Le Clos Des Quarterons – Vieilles Vignes – St. Nicolas De Bourgueil – 12.5%
Demeter certified 100% cabernet franc.
This wine is imported the the US by Vineyard Brands; sample for my review consideration.
Color: Dense garnet with a raspberry rim, dirty cherry.
Nose: Earth, minerals, sandalwood, baking spices, underlying vegitals of bell pepper and jalapeño. It needs to be there because that is what Cab Franc is, however this wine is so balanced with other nuances.
Palate: Bright cherry, raspberry, rhubarb, silky clay finish, super smooth, bright acidity, medium bodied, clean, balanced tannins.It is nice to have a medium bodied wine that has such nice tannins and heft to it. Tannins and earth as if in an Asalm black tea. So, so good.
Pairing: With the blue cheese and toasted walnut crostini it was the perfect WOW pairing! We both wanted to go there again. It made the squash in our salad so sweet and lovely. Really nice with the mushroom brie. Great with the pate bringing out a lovely fruit in the wine. So great with the squash, (every wine tonight so great with the squash). Fantastic with the salmon and the buerre blanc. Regional dishes go with regional foods. When Sue discovered that buerre blanc originated in the Loire valley, She decided that she needed to incorporate it into the menu, great decision! While this dish went quite nicely with the clafoutis, and with a bit of creme fresh it may have worked better with a hint of creamy richness to balance out the subtle sweetness of the desert. We talked about having a squash cup made from puff pastry and cream cheese base instead. The fruit in the dessert does not enhance the fruit in the wine. It is just not a great combination.
In general the sparkling wines went fantastically with the Clafoutis and several of the wines paired well with many of the courses.
So if you want to introduce a friend to French wine, there are many ways to do so. Unless you know what they like already — like how Sue loves vegetal, herbal wines like cab franc while I prefer racy, earthy wines like grenache — consider starting with a specific style or region then go from there.
If I am going to introduce a friend to French wine, I also need to introduce them to foods to make them shine, because so many French wines are superior when paired with foods that make them a star.
How do the French Winophiles introduce someone to French wine?
Read their posts by clicking the links below or check out our twitter chat by searching for the hashtag #Winophiles. Find our discussion questions here.
- Robin at Crushed Grape Chronicles shares “French Wine…Where to Begin?”
- Pierre and Cynthia at Traveling Wine Profs share “Exploring French Wine on a Tight Budget at Trader Joe’s”
- Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Cam shares “Deciphering French Wine Labels”
- Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Mediterranean Shrimp with a Corsican Wine”
- Jill at L’Occasion shares “Your Ticket To French Wine Is Actually A Map“
- Nicole at Somm’s Table shares “French Wine 101 Cheat Sheet”
- Pinny at Chinese Food and Wine Pairings shares “Learn about Wines from the Bourgueil AOC While Eating Pork Tongue Head Cheese + Napa Cabbage Salad”
- Linda at My Full Wine Glass shares “One Name to Get You Started on French Wine”
- Jane at Always Ravenous shares “Discover French Wine: Where to Start”
- Gwen at Wine Predator shares two:
- “Introduce a Friend to French Wine 1: Chateauneuf – du – Pape and Cassoulet”
- “Introduce a Friend to French Wine 2: Loire’s Amirault in Nicholas Bourgeil”
- Susannah at Avvinare adds “Start Your French Wine Study With Beaujolais ”
- Terri at Our Good Life shares “Newcomer’s Guide to French Wine: the Burgundies“
- Jeff at Food Wine Click! shares “French Wine 101: Taste for Yourself”