Among the best wines to pair with white fish are those from the Loire valley, where the soils seem to have kept trace memories of prehistoric ocean depths. By Terry Kirby
The names of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, two renowned appellation contrôlée areas on opposite banks of the mighty river Loire in almost the very centre of France, are synonymous with great white wines made from the sauvignon blanc grape: deriving intensely mineral, clean flavours from fossil rich, flinty and chalky soils, deposited from vast oceans that disappeared aeons ago. Now about as far away from the sea as you can get in France, these wines are the classic matches for prime white fish like Dover sole and turbot and shellfish, particularly oysters, the fossilised shells of which can often be found in the ground.
But close to these big names are several other, far less well known and smaller wine growing districts in the central Loire area, which benefit from the same remarkable terroir to produce equally attractive whites as well as some stunning, food-friendly and medium-bodied reds of comparable quality to nearby Burgundy – and all at far more accessible prices. They are not available on every high street, but are well worth seeking out, as a recent visit to the area demonstrated.
It is a region of small producers, usually family concerns, carefully crafting wines of elegance and style. In Coteaux Du Giennois, just to the north of these two areas, the Thibault family produce whites, reds and rosés to close to organic standards, including the Domaine de Villargeau Blanc (2015 £8.95 thewinesociety.com; 2016 £11.99 majestic.co.uk) which delivers classically crisp sauvignon blanc flavours of gooseberries and limes, with all the restraint typical of fine French whites. To the west of Sancerre lies Menetou-Salon, where the Tellier family have another fine Sauvignon Blanc, the Domaine Jean Teiller Blanc 2016 and a succulent Pinot Noir, Domaine Jean Teiller Rouge 2015 (both £15.75 yapp.co.uk) which, like most of the reds from this region, is at its best when drunk lightly chilled.
Further west in the tiny appellation of Reuilly, Denis Jamain must be one of the few winemakers anywhere able to able to age their wines in barrels made from oak trees taken from a forest they own. Using biodynamic techniques he produces a small range, including typical sauvignon blanc whites like the bracingly mineral Les Fossiles 2016 (£14.99 virginwines.co.uk) and the Les Pierres Plates Blanc (£15.50 ewwines.co.uk) as well as its companion pinot noir, the richly satisfying Les Pierres Plates Rouge (£11.50 thewinesociety.com; £14.95 bbr.com).
Sadly, none of the gorgeous, juicy gamays made by winemaker Pierre Picot for individual growers in Chateaumaillant, the southernmost appellation of the region, are available in the UK – or even most of France – just yet. However, if you shop around you can find wines on sale here by another central Loire producer, Jacques Rouze, including the lovely, light bodied, slightly spicy pinot and gamay blend Chateaumeillant Grappes 2014 (£16 boroughwines.co.uk) excellent with lighter meats and, chilled, particularly with tuna or salmon steaks.