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Ask a Somm: How Can I Find Great Natural Wine From the Loire Valley?

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.

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New to the Chicago scene is Oriole, chef Noah Sandoval's (Senza) 28-seat New American tasting menu adventure that counts plates like foie gras with unagi caramel and pear. Chiming in with wine is sommelier Aaron McManus, who offers two drinks parings, one focused on wine and the second highlighting beverages in general. Below, McManus considerings "natural" Loire Valley wine and how to search for it.

Q: I am really into "natural" wine lately, and I know that the Loire Valley in France is a hotbed for the stuff. That being said, not all Loire Valley wine is less manipulated, so how can I look in that area for that style of wine? Are there specific regions to look for on labels?

McManus: Simply put, the answer to your question is no. It is still really hard to categorize natural wines, and thus really hard to tell you where to look for them. Natural wines do tend to have a good amount of variation among vintages. Part of the reason it is so hard to give specific regions in that area is that some natural wine producers have been rejected by appellations because their wines are atypical. Some producers have left the AOC system because they think the rules are not strict enough, as far as what you can do to wine and still have the name on the bottle. So, they choose to label the wine Vin de France instead of the AOC they have used in the past. Vin de France is not exactly a region that I can tell you to look for.

There is still no legal designation or allowable label descriptor to differentiate natural wine from more conventional wines.

There are a large number of people trying to make natural wine in the Loire Valley. The problem is there is still no legal designation or allowable label descriptor to differentiate natural wine from more conventional wines. I believe there are a growing number of wineries choosing to make less manipulated wine. The quality of the wines continues to grow as these producers are sharing techniques. But "natural wine" still makes up a very small amount of the market, and without an easy to see label indicator, the consumer has to put in a little work to find this style. My recommendation to help the search along is to get familiar with importers that are known to bring in producers that focus on less manipulated wines, such as Zev Rovine SelectionsJenny and Francois SelectionsLouis/Dressner Selections. This will at least give you a starting point, but there are many producers of amazing natural wine not in these importers. That being said, with the help of a friend, I have noticed a large amount of producers from Auvergne that are producing natural wines

Some of the less manipulated wines that I love from the Loire Valley are:

  • 2014 Domaine Philippe Tessier, Cheverny Rouge ($20): The wine is a blend of gamay, pinot noir, and côt (malbec). The wine shows a striking balance between red and dark fruits, giving way to a dried flowers, spice and earth. The wine changed a lot in an hour when I revisited it. I would recommend placing it in a decanter for a while to show of some of the non-fruit element of this wine. There is something powerful and subtle in this wine, which makes me want to keep drinking it.
  • 2012 Catherine et Pierre Breton, Bourgeuil "Clos Sénéchal" ($30): I have liked this producer for a long time, and I had no idea that they were a natural winemaker when I started to like them. They produce wine in Chinon, Bourgeuil, and Vouvray. They only produce chenin blanc and cabernet franc. This wine is a cabernet franc. The nose of this wine is of raspberries, cherries, plum, pepper, leather and tobacco. The palate drinks a little bit darker, with fruits like currants and blackberries, but gives way to earthy and some gamey qualities.
  • 2013 Marie et Vincent Tricot, "White Light" Vin de France ($28): A small husband and wife team that put out the first vintage in 2003. Truly one of the most unique wines I have tasted in a long time. The wine is blend of chardonnay and muscat. I can’t think of a time I have had these varietals together. The nose reminds me of muscat with yellow flowers, peach, and orange. The texture of the wine had the weight and viscosity of a chardonnay with apples and ripe tropical fruit on the palate.
  • 2013 Thibaud Boudignon, Anjou Blanc ($26): A small producer who makes the best anjou blanc I have ever tasted. He only makes chenin blanc and cabernet franc. I have only tasted the anjou blanc, but it is incredible. It is ripe, but still refreshing and vibrant, with a nose of pears, white peach, and honeysuckle. On the palate it has lemon, tart apple, stony minerality and salinity. The wine's finish last for minutes, and is one of the most food-friendly bottles I have tasted in a while.

Have a wine-related question you'd like answered? Hit the comments.

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