Thursday, November 17, 2005

wines from Muscadet, Sancerre, Savennières, and an oyster feast

With its shorter days and longer nights, Fall may not be your favorite season. But for me, not only it is the time of my birthday, it is also the beginning of the oyster season.

For my birthday dinner, I bought three kinds of oysters that we served raw on the half-shell for most of them, and a few cooked on the barbecue. For the wines, I chose a Loire Valley theme that we carried throughout the dinner.

The oysters offered a wide range of interesting flavors. The Miyagi oysters — also known as Pacific oysters — are the world's most widely cultivated oysters. During the years 1920 to 1980, seed oysters from Miyagi Prefecture in Japan were exported in large quantities to the Pacific Coast of North America and to France. These are medium to large size oysters with a mildly briny and sweet taste. The Kumamoto oysters — named for the Japanese prefecture where they were first cultivated — are small and plump with a fresh salty taste. The Belon oysters — the European flat oysters, named for their native river Belon in Brittany — have a round, flat shell, a clam-like firm texture and a stronger, brinier flavor. We cooked the biggest Miyagis, which made them more chewy, with a milder and sweeter taste.

With the oysters, I had a Muscadet, a Sancerre, and a Savennières: three different white varietals and three different regions of the Loire Valley.

The Muscadet region is located at the western end of the Loire Valley, close to the Atlantic Ocean. Melon de Bourgogne is widely planted in this cool section of the Loire. It produces a light and crisp white wine that unfortunately, is often acidic, thin, and fruitless. On the contrary, the 2004 Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine sur Lie Domaine de la Pepière Clos des Briords Cuvée Vieilles Vignes is much more powerful that most Muscadets. It comes from the Clos des Briords, a 3.7-acre single vineyard, planted with 75-year old vines whose roots deeply penetrate the granitic subsoil. The wine was hand harvested, made with natural yeasts and left on its lees - a winemaking technique of leaving the juice on the grape remains - until the time of bottling. The wine had a pale straw color and a mineral nose. It was well structured and concentrated on the palate, with a lively acidity and final notes of honey on the finish. I enjoyed the wine with the small Kumamoto that were still full of fresh sea-water juice.

Far away from the Atlantic coast, Sancerre is in the Eastern Loire Valley. Until the late 1800s, Sancerre was known principally for its red wines produced from Pinot Noir. But after the phylloxera ravaged the vineyards, they were replanted predominantly with Sauvignon Blanc, which had a better affinity with the American rootstock. The 2003 Sancerre Les Charmes Domaine André Vatan had a pale yellow color and a floral nose. It had a very aromatic palate with flavors of tree fruit and citrus, and a long crisp finish. This wine was everybody's favorite and it worked perfectly with all the oysters.

From Sancerre, you have to go back west to reach Savennières, a tiny appellation near the town of Angers, where Chenin Blanc is the only permitted grape. Over the centuries, the region has gained a reputation for distinctive wines of great aging potential. The 2000 Savennières Pierre Bise Clos de Coulaine was hand-harvested, hand-pressed, vinified in stainless steel, and bottled unfiltered. The wine had a deep golden color, and a spicy nose. On the palate, it had a rich mouthfeel with white peach and minerals flavors followed by a finish of great finesse. I thought that the wine worked remarkably well with the belons and the cooked oysters.

What a feast! And there will be more on Loire Valley wines in a later post...

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