The city of Tours lies right smack in the middle of Loire Valley wine country, where the Loire and the Cher rivers meet. In the wedge of land between them lies a closely guarded secret, a natural wine haven, the most underrated aspect of the already undervalued Loire Valley system—the eastern flank of Touraine.
Think about all those Renaissance castles you see when you close your eyes and imagine the rolling planes of the French countryside. That's Touraine. And while Touraine is home to a few marginally famous wine regions, indeed some of my personal favorites—Chinon, Vouvray, Bourgueil—it is also home to a significant group of vignerons who operate on the fringes of France's AOC system.
Loosely, the wines of this outer area (Loire et Cher) are labeled under the generic names "Touraine" or "Vin de France." One nice feature of Touraine law, unlike so many French regions, is the allowance for grape varietals to be printed on the front label. So, for instance, Gamay can be called Gamay as well as Red Touraine Wine.
Without bogging down into the historic reasons for this region going overlooked, suffice it to say Touraine Gamay is widely dismissed as light, fruity, or superficial. At best, one might hear them referred to as charming. In a general sense, compared to cru Beaujolais, there is truth to the reputation. But in particular? There are wines of serious swagger being made here—wines well worth my attention and yours.
Broadly, Touraine Gamay is assertive, with a distinctive tartness, which the best winemakes know how to harness and keep balanced. The most well-known come from the property Clos Roche Blanche. Famed winemakers Didier Barrouillet and Catherine Roussel tended the CRB vines from 1975 until 2014, when they retired. During that tenure they trained and influenced countless young minds, and rented portions of their vines to young winemakers like Noëlla Morantin.
Morantin made her first fully independent vintage in 2009, against difficult conditions and low yields. But her wines garnered attention right away for their depth, clarity and richness. Her remarkable Mon Cher bottling comes from those same CRB Gamay vines, intermingled with the Roussels' own, and rival many of the sumptuous wines I've had from Chiroubles and Regnié. The 2014 vintage of Mon Cher is the last produced from the Clos Roche Blanche vines, as Morantin has found new sources after the sale of CRB.
Another storied property is Clos du Tue Boeuf, or House of the Killed Beef, where Thierry Puzelat maintains a reputation for making bright, off-beat wines. His La Butte Touraine Gamay offers a bracing counterpoint to the forward standards of Beaujolais, where wines of this caliber are climbing steadily toward Burgundy prices. In previous vintages La Butte has tended toward overt tangerine-like acidity, but the 2014 came in settled, balanced by a delicious meat-and-herb harmony. Epic with lamb sausage and goat cheese.
And finally there is Jean-François Merieau, one of the so-called new stars of the Loire. Merieau works much in the same way as the two aforementioned winemakers, parcel by parcel with an approach that highlights a variety of terroirs. His Le Bois Jacou Touraine Gamay is deceptively accessible, made from 40-60-year-old vines, finely balanced between the fleshy fruit expects of, say, Côtes de Brouilly and the piquant acidity characteristic of Touraine.
Each of these wines has something unique to offer. Each of them is made with minimal intervention on the part of the winemaker. Each of them has heart and soul. While they may not reach the soaring heights of the best of Beaujolais, neither are they mere step-children of the crus. They are firm, lively, with their own colloquial expressions that are, yes, charming. But more than that, these wines have style.
Noëlla Morantin Mon Cher
Vin de France
Clos du Tue Boeuf La Butte
$18 (SOLD OUT)
Jean-Francois Merieau La Bois Jacou