The Loire Stikes Back – the Stock Exchange CEO with shears

New World competition raises the French game

During the last 50 years, the glory that is French wine has had to face up to three challenges. The first happened in 1976 – when at a blind tasting in Paris, Bordeaux Cabernets were defeated by their Californian counterparts. Both parties profited from this slap in the face – people learnt to respect California and Bordeaux took up the challenge, and today the top wines of both wine regions are sold for astronomical prices.

The second great challenge came in the shape of Australian Chardonnay giving white Burgundy a run for its money. This success story came to a sad end after two decades of world dominance: Australian Chardonnay lost prestige resulting in a downward price spiral, while white Burgundy is still a respected member of the wine aristocracy.

The third challenge affected Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc – coming all the way from New Zealand. Although there is apparently only a small chance that the French can repeat the success of the New Zealanders, one thing is for certain: Sauvignon Blanc flourishes globally. Based on land under vine, it stood in 13th position among the white grapes in France in 1968, while today it’s in third. In New Zealand, during the last 15 years, the area of its land under vine grew six times. Breaking the autocracy of Chardonnay, it has been the most popular white variety in British restaurants since 2012. New Zealand’s success came in handy for the French as well: as the number of ‘Kiwi cuvée’ fans grows, more and more people want to learn about the Old World original as well.

 

The Villebois story

There’s an interesting twist in the history and the name of the Villebois Estate. In 2004, Joost de Willebois, a successful Dutch financial expert, former CEO of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, learnt that an ageing owner of a long-established winery with no heir was about to sell the winery in Touraine, close to Sancerre. Willebois had been living in Bordeaux for a number of years and had even done a winemaking course. Having wanted to make his own wine since young adulthood, he jumped at the opportunity. Teaming up with four of his friends from university, within a decade they turned the outdated small cellar into an internationally successful winery that sells 3.5 million bottles a year.

From Willebois’ side, the passion for French culture and wine has deeper reasons: his family is of French origin. The family tree of the Villebois can be traced back to the 12th century. Joost de Willebois is the direct descendant of Jean de Villebois, who lived in the first half of the 17th century. Honouring him, the name J. de Villebois appears on the labels of the winery’s top category wines. That’s how the Dutch branch of the family that changed the first letter of its name to ‘W’ got back to its roots.

Villebois’ chief winemaker, Thierry Merlet, studied in Beaune and Bordeaux and had worked for a longer period in Oregon and New Zealand before returning home. It’s partly from his experiences that the estate’s wines successfully blend the colourfulness and the technological cleanliness of the New World with the taste and elegance of the Old World. The vineyards cultivated by Villebois are rich in limestone, which adds unique character (the middle part of France was once covered by an ancient sea and people still find fossilised shells in the vineyards). In the operations of the winery, great emphasis is placed on protecting the environment – during the last decade they cut down on the use of non-renewable energy resources by 60%, and also successfully slashed their use of chemicals and water. Today, the winery cultivates 75 hectares of land, therefore the assortment is very wide: seven different wines are bottled from Sancerre alone. The labels of the single vineyard and village wines are white, while the labels of the entry-level wines are black. The aim is the same at all levels – to capture the essence of Loire wine that fuses New World diversity with Europe’s elegance.

 

The homeland of Sauvignon Blanc

Alongside the longest and most peaceful river, stunning châteaux appear one after the other. The Loire Valley was once the shop window of the royal court’s vanity, today it’s the place of favoured holiday homes of rich Parisians. However, alongside the river important wine regions also line up: the upper part of the Loire is the homeland of Sauvignon Blanc; Muscadet located at the estuary is the most important place for producing ‘fish wine’, and between the two ends, the range is bewilderingly colourful: white, sweet, rosé and red wines are made from Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc. Some 70,000 hectares are in production altogether, from which 4 million litres of wine is made annually, with which the Loire Valley is the third most important wine producing area in France.

Although, the name we know today as Sauvignon Blanc was first used in Bordeaux, according to our current knowledge, it emerged from the Loire Valley. Its two most famous places of growth can be found on the upper part of the Loire: in Sancerre and in Pouilly-Fumé. Although the two regions are only separated by the Loire, locals strongly believe that the river is the border of two different worlds. However, the wines do not support this theory, and you should be one heck of a taster to tell them apart just by tasting them. Furthermore, very similar wines are also made in the regions that lie to the west of Sancerre, in Reuilly, Quincy and Menetou-Salon.

The aroma profile of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc is usually less loud, the wines are more structured, drier and elegant than their New World counterparts. Still, Sauvignon Blanc can’t pretend to be something else here, either. Therefore, we can expect that on the greener side of maturity for grass, nettle, pineapple and gooseberry to meet with pronounced acidity. Meanwhile, on the more mature side – elderflower, melon and mango notes ornate the fuller and more mellow wines. The blending of grapes of different levels of ripeness is also an accepted practice in France, although they don’t balance firmer acids with residual sugar.

Despite the fact that the oak forests known all around the world for their excellent barrels are to be found here (Nevers, Allier and Tronçais), the majority of the wines are made in tanks. Barrel ageing is a relatively new thing here and we can only encounter it in the case of top category wines. The distinctive note of barrel-aged Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés is considered to be flint.

 

 

The Loire strikes back

In 2008, the ‘orphans’ of the Loire Valley, that is the winemakers of those areas that were left outside the villages acknowledged as part of the appellation, teamed up and hired one of the most outstanding New Zealand experts, Sam Harrop MW (Master of Wine) as consultant. Based on his recommendations, they refined their cultivation methods and technology, and with state support they also created the Sauvignon Blanc de Loire Project with the aim of improving the quality of the wines and making them more popular on foreign markets. Owing to the work carried out by them, the formerly often boring or disturbingly green wines reached an international level, while the prices remained more than competitive compared to New World Sauvignon Blanc. Today, it’s not a lucky (or unlucky) dip anymore to take a bottle of Touraine or even a Loire Vin de Pays from the shelves, as the Villebois wines also perfectly prove.