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Saumur Champigny, not always appreciated

Nov 2, 2018 5:50 AM

CERTAIN types of wine seem incapable of winning popular acceptance. Riesling is one, particularly in its moderately sweet form. No matter how its devotees rhapsodise about its virtues, depth, versatility and complexity, most people seem to be immune to its charms.

The same might be said for the cabernet francs of the Loire Valley, like the Saumur Champignys we have been drinking during the last month. Regardless of how tightly acolytes embrace the wines and the best producers, cabernet franc has not achieved widespread popularity beyond a small club of the committed.

At Wine School, we find it fascinating and illuminating to ponder the nature of wine's appeal. What makes some styles wildly popular and others difficult to sell?

It's tempting to think about status and image, and how these concerns of marketing influence consumer behaviour. The rise in popularity of pinot noir at the expense of merlot may be partly because of the merits and potential of the wines, but not entirely so.

Yet, just as was the case with spätlese rieslings from Germany we tasted in Wine School last year, the somewhat indifferent reaction from readers to the three reds from Saumur Champigny seems due more to apathy than to conditioned responses.

Let me quickly say, this is good. The purpose of Wine School is for participants to discover which wines they like, which they do not and why. People must always be as true to their opinions as possible, regardless of how I feel about the wines. I am happy to say that my own love for Saumur Champigny and spätlese rieslings has apparently had little influence.

So what was it about the three wines I chose? They were: Château Yvonne Saumur Champigny L'Île Quatre Sous 2016, Thierry Germain Domaine des Roches Neuves Saumur Champigny Terres Chaudes 2016 and Antoine Sanzay Saumur Champigny 2016.

Each of these wines is the entry-level bottle from one of a small group of producers who have energised this appellation with their devotion to meticulous farming and conscientious winemaking. As an introduction to the best of a region, it does not get any better than this group.

The aroma of the Yvonne was minty-fresh and full of herbs. On the palate, the wine was lightly tannic yet finely textured, a mouthful of red fruit and herbs at first. The flavours evolved to include flowers and minerals, laced through with herbal notes.

This herbal quality is very much a part of the cabernet franc identity. If the grapes are not sufficiently ripe, the impression is more of bell peppers than of herbs. Either way, producers of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc around the world, and particularly in California, dread any herbal hints - which they demean as "green" - in their wines.

I feel that a touch of herbaceousness is natural in both cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon. Herbal suggestions should be embraced rather than loathed. Trying to banish them entirely can result in monolithically fruity flavours that ultimately bore.

Herbal flavours were also apparent in the Thierry Germain wine, though not as pronounced as in the Yvonne. This wine was perhaps a bit more polished, lighter in texture, with flavours of red fruit, graphite and pepper - the spice, not the bell variety. Like the Yvonne, it was lively and lip-smacking, with great energy.

The Sanzay was slightly different from the others, richer and fruitier yet delightfully fresh, brisk and lively. It had aromas of ripe red fruits and flowers, with just an edge of those herbal flavours.

I thought each of these wines was terrific, pure and alive. They were from similar sorts of plots, the grapes grown on clay and sand over limestone bedrock. The Yvonne and Sanzay were both fermented and aged in cement vats, while the Germain was fermented in cement and aged in big, old oak barrels.

The subtle differences, I felt, were due more to the nuances of their individual production methods than in essential differences in terroir, but I could be wrong about that.

To those who found these wines lacking, I say: don't let that view translate into avoidance ever after. Let some time pass, and try them again, maybe with different food or in a different season. Not because I would force these wines on you or anybody, but because a significant number of people remain so convinced of their beauty that it may be worth another try in an effort to decipher the appeal.

Your opinion may remain the same. But then it will be based on additional evidence.

All this is perhaps easier said than done. I also tend to avoid certain wines that maybe I ought to try again. What do you say, do we have a deal? NYTIMES