Wine of the Week: Biking — and drinking — my way through Loire Valley

WASHINGTON — As I bike through the countryside of the Loire Valley in France, fields of harvested wheat, corn and sunflowers are occasionally interrupted by perfectly manicured vineyards. They seem to spring up as unexpectedly as the fall showers that appear and subside, dotting the landscape in a game of tag between shadows and sun.

Everywhere you turn, there is some grand château or castle, reminders of a bygone time when royalty ruled the land while villagers did their bidding and made their wine. This was a time when the wines of the Loire Valley were held in greater esteem than their counterparts in Burgundy or Bordeaux.

Rolling hills add a certain bucolic charm to the scenery. Unfortunately, their appeal is quickly replaced by irritation as I plod along the incline, rejoice at the apex, and glide down the other side before facing the next upward battle.

But I have two things going for me during this six-day trip through one of France’s most picturesque appellations: First, I can occasionally engage my electric bike’s motor to provide a bit of assist on some of the steeper hills. And second, there is always a glass or two of wine waiting for me at the end of the day’s journey. And it is for the wine — and camaraderie — that I have agreed to undertake this journey.

It all started 18 months ago when our good friends from college, Bruce and Janet, sent us a catalog of biking adventures from a certain tour company. They followed this up with a Skype call, where they personally reassured my wife Cindy (also from the same college crowd) and me that we would love this trip.

“You’ll see France from a different perspective,” they said.

“You’ll love the wine,” they said.

“The exercise will be good for you,” they said.

Well, two things turned out to be true: Never trust your college roommate, and we loved the wine.

Located in central France, the Loire Valley spans the middle section of the Loire River. It is often referred to as the “bread basket” of France, due in large part to the large fields of grains, abundant fruit orchards and numerous vineyards.

In this June 19, 2014 photo, bikes sit parked in front of a cafe in Amboise, France. There are hundreds of miles of bike trails through the châteaux towns of the Loire Valley. (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)

The Loire Valley is divided into three wine growing sections. The Upper Loire includes the white wine grape sauvignon blanc, found in the regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The Middle Loire is dominated by chenin blanc (white wine) in the regions of Vouvray and Saumur, and cabernet franc (red wine) found in and around the region of Chinon. The Lower Loire, which spills into the Atlantic, goes through the Muscadet region and is dominated by wines made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape.

There is also a vibrant sparkling wine culture in the Valley, where Crémant de Loire accounts for the second largest sparkling wine produced in France, after Champagne of course.

Today, our focus in on the two main white grape varietals: sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc. The lovely red wines, made from Cabernet Franc, will be covered in a future episode.

I think you know me well enough by now that you know that I love starting off any occasion with sparkling wines. The Non-Vintage Jean-Marc Gilet Vouvray sparkling wine is made from 100 percent chenin blanc, and features aromas of pink grapefruit, mango and baked bread. Flavors on the front of the palate of white peaches, roasted almonds and white flowers are supported by notes of tangerine and tangy minerality on the elegant finish. Delicate and complex, the subtle sweetness is balanced by excellent acidity. $20

A delicious introduction to the Sancerre appellation is the 2016 Salmon Sancerre Vieilles Vignes. Made from old vine sauvignon blanc, the nose of ripe pears and orange cloves is truly memorable. In the mouth, the wine feels lush and full with flavors of pears, apples and the ever-present mineral notes. The finish is crisp, refreshing and well balanced, with hints of lemon peel popping in at the end. $27

Another sauvignon blanc from Sancerre to savor is the 2017 La Croix St-Laurent Sancerre. This wine has a nose of honey and minerals that is rich and powerful. On the palate, it is intense, yet bright with predominate flavors of pear, white peach and nectarine. The finish is long and lush with hints of wet stone that really shine at the end. $27

Wine produced in Vouvray and made exclusively from chenin blanc, like the 2017 Pichot Vouvray which has a lovely nose of peaches and nectarines. The full mouthfeel offers up more peach fruit flavors and additional notes of ripe pear, guava and cloves. The long finish is full and rich, with notes of wet stones and spices. The wine offers an excellent value and a solid introduction to this splendid region. $20

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