A Tale of Two Valleys
Updated: Aug 4
I've been part of a wine club with friends from grad school for over 5 years now. The wine club has survived jobs starting and stalling and ending, relationships coming and going and marrying, people moving across the city and beyond, and even members quitting drinking. It has turned out to be one of the more stable things in our lives, and I am pretty impressed that we've managed to keep the club going when every meeting ends with us drunkenly choosing a next date and then forgetting what date we chose immediately afterward.
This is what you need to know about our wine club - we make Power Point presentations. We do research. We have blind taste tests. We take notes. We send letterpressed invitations to guests. We watch the music video for Lisa Loeb's Stay at the end of every meeting. It's serious business (before we get too drunk to remember who is hosting the next meeting) (Ok, maybe Lisa Loeb happens after the drunkness).
Lately, when I have had the honor of hosting the Wine Club, I have been obsessed with the idea of terroir in my Power Points. Terroir, for those of you not in a wine club, is the idea that the tangible and intangible aspects of the place where something grows have an impact on that things flavor. It's in the soil, in the water, in the culture, in the history, in the air. My interest in the affect of terroir on the wines we are learning about translates simply to me adding bunch of beauty shots of the wines' regions in my presentations. My idea is that just seeing photos of the place where the wine comes from (since we aren't able to travel too far for the Wine Club meetings) helps you to understand the nature of the wine.
So let's test this theory as we compare wines from the Loire Valley in France to wines from the Rhone Valley! The regions aren't too far from each other, but boy are they different! Get yourself a couple of bottles and see if you can taste the terroir. If you are interested in the actual Power Point to accompany your sipping, you can access it here. All graphics are mine, but the photos are all stolen from the internets.
Ok, so we're looking at the Loire Valley and the Rhone Valley. Both are AOC's - formally designated wine regions with legal status. However, they are both huge, diverse regions, which begs the question - how can these wines have anything in common enough to be part of the same AOC? Sure, there are smaller, more homogenous designations within "Val de Loire" and "Côtes du Rhône," but is it possible for "Wines of the Loire" and "Wines of the Rhone" to mean anything at all? Check it out:
The east part of the Loire Valley is super flat. The west part is full of endless rolling hills.
The south of the Rhone is Mediterranean and dry. Winters are mild. The North deals with real seasons and wetness. Winter is real. Frost and fog are problems.
What even is that Tatooine madness? This is science fiction sand planet situation. The layers of sediments, the geomorphological impact of glacial movement, river erosion, flood plains, wind patterns... it's all so different and distinct and how can we say this is all ONE WINE PLACE? Is it all just marketing!?1?
Perhaps. And yet, could there be something deeper uniting all these diverse places? Most obviously, the regions' rivers literally connect all these climates and soils, and for millennia they have carved out regional identities as they have carved out river valleys. Let's see how this plays out in the wines that come from these places.
Starting with the Rhone wines: we're talking bold, strong flavors that are products of artful blending. We're drinking Syrah in the north and Grenache in the South. Maybe some Vignonier in there, too. You're going to get flavors like raspberry, violet, chocolate, heady apricot, rich honey, dark berries, licorice, wild flowers, and leather. Yes, this is kinky leather daddy wine.
Think bright sun, clear skies, serious winds (look up the Mistral), steep slopes, fast water. There is energy in these wines.
Now, let's talk about the Loire. Again, we've got over 500 miles of vineyards that are supposedly related in some way. Well, when you get some vin de Loire on your tongue, you're in for something delicate and intricate. We're drinking Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir. We're talking flavors of fresh stone fruit, nutty almonds, vanilla, bright berries, earthy red currant, white linden flowers, anise, pear, candied lemon drops, hazelnuts, graphite, citrus, beeswax, and honey. We're talking about all those weird wine flavors that you've always wanted to test out.
Think elegant castles, rolling hills, meandering rivers, quaint villages, beautiful seasons, ancient farmsteads, wet weather and rainbows.
So you might be thinking that this is all nonsense and it's all in the soil and climate - and you are totally right. The tuffaut soil in the western part of the Loire Valley makes the wines from Anjou-Saumur zestier. And yet, when comparing the flavors of the Loire wines with those of the Rhone, I find there to be a deep sense of place that transcends what we can point to as the effects of soil and wind and slope. But go get trashed and tell me what you think.
A final note : the Muscadet wines of the far western reaches of the Loire Valley are super different from the rest of the Loire wines. They taste like the ocean and pair amazingly with shellfish. They are also cheap! Maybe we'll do a whole different post about Muscadet and talk about eat expensive fish and drinking cheap wine. That's the stuff life is about.