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Pure, Pretty Pinot Noir from Sancerre's Little-Known Neighbor

 The Loire Valley is sort of a wine universe of its own, with so many subregions, traditions and grape varieties to explore. As a result, many very fine Loire wines fly under the radar – even some of the best.

Here’s a niche that really rewards the curious wine drinker: Pinot Noir from the Central Vineyards. The Central Loire’s most notable AOCs, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, are by no means obscure regions. But their fame rests almost entirely on white wines, not reds. This wasn’t always so; before phylloxera devasted the region, Pinot Noir was very common. But after the war, the locals replanted mostly Sauvignon Blanc and built a top international reputation for these high-toned but lip-smacking wines. 

Given the international appetite for Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc, most of the best sites were planted to the white grape than to Pinot. Pinot planted to marginal spots can have trouble ripening in this cool region and show green notes. 

And yet, with climate change pushing the mercury up year after year, Pinot Noir seems to be finding great success here. It’s not exactly surprising; after all, the Central Vineyards are rife with slopes of limestone and marl – much like Burgundy.

To find one of the best examples of this “red renaissance” look just west of Sancerre, to the lesser-known region of Menetou-Salon. Here, Domaine Philippe Gilbert biodynamically farms both Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, on predominantly kimmeridgian soils, highly prized for the intensity and finesse they lend to wines. Gilbert doesn’t consign his Pinot to forgettable plots, but gives them pride of place and great terroir.

He makes many cuvées, in both red and white, including several single-vineyard labels. But you don’t need to look any further than the straight “domaine” bottlings to find greatness. Best of all these “basic” wines are really affordable for what they are. 

Even in lean years, Gilbert makes really good reds. But in warmer years – like 2018 – they are downright stunning. The 2018 Menetou-Salon Rouge comes from several plots on the aforementioned kimmeridgian limestone. Because it’s aged in big, neutral foudres and then cement, the terroir shines through, with chalkiness that shows up on the finish, just behind all that bright red fruit. This is a complex wine, showing leather and iron, as well as some subtle herbal notes of evergreen. Like all great Pinot Noirs, it’s both structured and ethereal.

This is in the running for ‘best Pinot Noir under $30' that we carry!

Philippe Gilbert, Menetou-Salon Rouge, 2018

Combines the generosity of the vintage with good freshness and terroir expression. On the palate it shows Beaune-like notes of ripe red strawberries, but this is too sanguine, linear and stony to not be Central vineyards. Notes of pine needles, leather, and mint pop up here and there to add a touch of complexity, as does the confident, chalk-infused finale.