ANGERS, France (Reuters Life!) - More than 600 Loire valley winemakers gathered in Angers earlier this month for three days of tasting and touting their terroirs.
But the vignerons, whose vineyards are spread along the banks of river's 630 miles, are as varied as the terroir or soils they till and the more than 740 million gallons (28 million hectoliters) of wines they produce each year.
Nearest the Atlantic coast are the Muscadet makers, who struggle to overcome a reputation for producing mediocre bulk wines from Melon de Bourgogne grapes planted in gravelly, sandy, soils that are rich in gneiss and granite. Some winemakers have even removed the word Muscadet from their labels.
Pierre Luneau-Papin's Marie Chartier explained as she poured several white wines that were crisp, fresh, and filled with peach and citrus flavors.
"If you go to a wine shop." she said, "and tell the man you want a good wine, but you do not want Muscadet and he says 'No problem Madame and hands you this bottle,' (which reads 'EXCELSIOR'). You take it. You taste it and you come back the next day and say 'Oh, it was very good. Muscadets are not as good as this wine.'
"But, in fact, it is a Muscadet," she laughed. "It is Melon de Bourgogne. It is just more easy for us to sell it this way."
East of Nantes and Anger is the hamlet of Savennieres where Evelyn de Pontbriand, owner and vigneronne of Domaine du Closel-Chateau des Vaults, practices organic methods to make still whites and reds and sparkling wines from different plots on her 15-hectare estate.
"My objective is to express this magnificent terroir. The soil is schist. The grape is Chenin Blanc (a white wine varietal without a distinct aroma profile, but is) a blank canvas on which the design of the terroir shines through," said de Pontbriand.
"Making white wine isn't difficult," she insisted. "We don't do anything. We press it. We put it in barrels or tanks. We just taste. It practically makes itself.
"What is difficult is to farm properly. That's extremely subtle. You really have to walk every day through vineyards and look everywhere and see how it's going," she said.
Her Clos du Papillon, which comes from a butterfly-shaped, four-hectare plot, "is special because the spot is special. It's a geological spot...There is an area, which must have had little volcanic eruptions when it was below the sea. The soil is much darker, very complex...When you walk, it is warmer there and the vines are (35-to-70 years) old. The spot yields a bone-dry wine that offers a mix of roasted nuts, apricot and a long finish filled with minerals.
Near the eastern end of the Valley, not far from Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, lies the village of Menetou-Salon, where vineyards have existed since at least the 11th century. It is here that Philippe Gilbert and his winemaker Jean-Philippe Louis take the same varietal used in Burgundy, Pinot Noir, and "try to stay out of the way and work with Mother Nature," said Gilbert
The pair have embraced biodynamic methods for their 67 acres of vineyards that lay above Kimmeridgian limestone alternating with softer marl. The method of organic farming emphasizes the use of manure and composting while excluding artificial chemicals and pesticides.
"When you use chemicals say against mildew, you know how it works. It says 'Put it on' and it's good for 10 days and you're covered. You can stay home for 10 days and not think," Gilbert said.
"When you're in biodynamics, It doesn't work like this anymore. If you don't like to go into the vineyard, then don't do biodynamics. Because you have to go, you have to think, you have to study, you have to share. It is more work, but it is also more peaceful and better for the earth."
Unlike most other Loire winemakers, Domaine Philippe Gilbert makes just four wines - two whites, a rose and a red. The red Les Renardieres 2007 made from 25-year-old vines shows plenty of dark berries, a bit of spice and smoke with soft tannins.
Editing by Paul Casciato