Many of the cooler wine regions of the world have benefitted from the warmer growing seasons brought about by our changing climate, not least among them the Loire Valley of northern France.
The Loire Valley is the birthplace of a number of ubiquitous grape varieties, including Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Malbec (here known as Côt). And yet it has, to date, been somewhat overlooked by the consumer who, apart from the occasional foray into the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, has tended to focus on the more generous and consistent bottlings from Burgundy and elsewhere.
Broadly speaking, the Loire Valley can be split into three distinct regions. Furthest west is the Loire Atlantique where, in the Pays Nantais, vineyards are dominated by the Melon de Bourgogne grape used in the production of Muscadet.
In the Middle Loire white wines are made from Chenin Blanc and can be anything from dry to most unctuously sweet (and, indeed, sparkling), whilst reds wines major on Cabernet Franc. The reputation of both colours is rising fast. Outstanding Chenins from South Africa have started a keen renaissance for the variety, whilst spicily-structured Cab Franc has begun to steal some of the limelight from its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon and other close relative Merlot in the world’s vineyards (not least in Bordeaux).
In the Upper Loire Valley, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir rule the roost. And among the sea of producers and an ocean of thin, acidic bottlings there has always been a cadre of quality-obsessed growers whose output, year-on-year, has belied the vagaries of this northern climate.
And in recent years, as the climate has become less-and-less “northern” in character, such producers are bottling some of the world’s greatest wines, red and white. One such producer and his wines appear below.
Stephane Riffault, winemaker at Domaine Claude Riffault
Ever a solid and reliable source, this domaine (as is so often the case) has been transformed by a generational change into one of the finest in its region.
Stéphane Riffault and his brother Benoît studied wine making at the famous Lycée Viticole in Beaune. Whilst Stéphane returned to the family estate on the completion of his studies, Benoît stayed in Burgundy, marrying into the Boudot family, owners of Domaine Etienne Sauzet in Puligny-Montrachet. He is now wine maker at that celebrated address. At both estates the brothers are making very serious names for themselves.
Stéphane works organic and biodynamic vineyards. He has recently ceased making a rosé, preferring instead to concentrate on crafting the best quality red and white wines he can.
2019 Sancerre Les Chasseignes, Claude Riffault
£168 in bond a dozen Drink 2021-2029
“The 2019 Sancerre Les Chasseignes is a picture-book Sancerre from gravelly limestone soils ("calcaire de caillottes") that assembles the fruit from 11 east- and southeast-facing parcels at 275 meters in altitude. Aged on the lees for 14 months in oak, it opens with a clear, bright yet deep, intense and concentrated bouquet of crushed stones, lemon oil and a hint of fresh oak that disappears with air. Silky, round and very elegant on the palate, this is a full-bodied, wide, intense and juicy yet pure and stimulating Sancerre with remarkable finesse and lingering salinity. The long and complex finish reveals concentration, very fine tannins and the mouthwatering taste of crushed limestones. Refreshing lime and lemon notes on the aftertaste. A gorgeous wine with chalky veins and the vibration of great terroir.” Stephan Reinhardt
2019 Sancerre Monoparcelle 469, Claude Riffault
£150 in bond per 6 Drink 2023-2035
“From a single, southeast-facing 0.35-hectare parcel in the lieu-dit Les Sentiers, where 52-year-old-vines root in very shallow (50 centimeters) Kimmeridgian soils, the 2019 Sancerre Monoparcelle 469 displays a fabulously complex, pure and terroir-driven bouquet of iodine and crushed limestones with fresh lemon and stony notes that I find highly exciting. Full-bodied, elegant and refined on the palate, with mealy tannins and lingering salinity and grip, this is a still extremely young but exciting Sancerre with finely grippy tannins. The 2019 was vinified for 18 months in larger oak vats. To be bottled in March 2021.” Stephan Reinhardt
2018 Sancerre Rouge, La Noue, Claude Riffault
£168 in bond a dozen Drink 2021-2029
“From 30- to 58-year-old vines on terres blanches and marl soils, Stéphane Riffault's 2018 Sancerre La Noue was cold-macerated and fermented with whole clusters for a total of four weeks. It offers an aromatic, fruity, elegant and charming bouquet of red cherries, raspberries and redcurrant intertwined with stony notes. Concentrated, round and mellow on he palate, this is an elegant, already accessible and maybe too charming (?) Pinot with ripe black berry and licorice aromas on the aftertaste.” Stephan Reinhard