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Published:  23 July, 2008

Never has a classic wine style been dumped on by so many with such regrettable thoroughness. At the outset of my research for this feature it was hard to find a friend for these charming wines, as the following responses show: I don't personally think they have anything unique to offer' (supermarket buyer); you can always find a sparkling Vouvray with a good amount of bottle age on a restaurant wine list because the turnover is so slow' (agent); or, most damning of all, Loire crmants are like Skoda cars. You wouldn't be seen dead drinking them, though inside the bottle they are quite decent' (wine merchant).

Are these hardened wine folk missing something? Does sparkling wine from the Loire still have a part to play on the British market? The Loire region may be the second-largest producer of sparkling wines after Champagne, but perhaps Loire producers should be packing away their gyropalettes, at least as far as exports to the UK are concerned? After all, they could turn their grapes into perfectly good table wine.

Grape quality seems to be a key to the issue. Traditionally, the manufacture of sparkling wines from the Loire has been producer-led rather than consumer-led. In a poor year, the great benefit of mthode champenoise was that it positively demanded acidic wine. Putting it through a second fermentation and boosting it with a dosage was a neat solution. For the retailer and consumer, though, this meant there was inconsistency and confusion. 'Loire sparklings have a long-term problem of using ordinary grapes. That's why I would much rather drink Prosecco,' says one disenchanted supermarket buyer. Liam Steevenson MW, of Charles Steevenson in Tavistock, adds: 'If I have a concern about sparkling Loires, it is that vintage/batch variation is more of an issue than elsewhere. I am not sure if this is due to vintage difference or how Chenin responds to bottle age, however I do find that I am often surprised when I open a bottle as to how different it is to the last time I tried it.'

This unevenness of quality has increased the prejudice against Loire sparkling wines. Even Nigel Wilkinson, proprietor of RSJ, the London restaurant that specialises in Loire wines, is not totally enthusiastic about the style, though he of all people should surely be passionate. The only sparkling wine he offers by the glass is one from Saumur (Regis Neau, 4.95/125ml). He, too, ruefully acknowledges the Skoda issue: 'The problem for Loire sparklers is that if you buy them you look a cheapskate. I don't labour the point selling them to customers: I can tell when their eyes are glazing over.'

However Wilkinson does bang the drum for the Chenin grape: 'Chenin has far more character, and it's obviously more interesting than Chardonnay.' At Yapp Brothers, the Loire specialist, they agree that Chenin is 'a wonderful noble grape'. So too does Dee Blackstock MW at Waitrose. 'As soon as the weather gets warm, that higher acidity is just the ticket,' she says. 'My gut feeling is that a lot of our customers for the wine love the Loire and go there for their holidays.' Waitrose used to have an own-label, but now stocks Ackerman 1811 from the same supplier. She says it is unlikely that the range will grow for the moment, as the pressure is on to take on sparkling wines from other parts of the world, for example South Africa.

It's encouraging for producers, though, that there still are some fans of Loire sparkling wines in the UK. At Yapp Brothers, of course, they are in no doubt: 'We sell a lot, especially to private customers for summer weddings.' Steevenson agrees, adding, 'Most of our business is based around the summer trade (with a lot of weddings), therefore we need our sparkling wines to be light and fresh rather than too weighty.'

Not surprisingly, Charles Sydney, the British courtier for Loire wines, has plenty of good things to say about Loire sparkling wines. He dates the decline of Loire sparklers to the early 1990s, when Champagne prices plunged to equal those of sparkling Saumur and Vouvray. 'These days better producers our favourite is Bouvet Ladubay in Saumur, and on a more specialist level Chteau Gaudrelle in Vouvray and Jacky Blot's Domaine de la Taille aux Loups in Montlouis go for ever riper grapes and purer wines.' But, he adds, 'the trouble is getting quality wines at a price to attract the world'.

A spokesman for the region's generic repeats the phrase that I have heard from others: these wines fall 'between the two Cs' Champagne and, perish the thought, Cava. A number of retailers I spoke to agreed that they would rather have a good Loire crmant than a poor Champagne. Yet the Loire needs to note that it can no longer be snooty about Cava. 'For the past three years, crmant de Loire has been our best-selling sub-10 sparkling wine, and this has now been replaced by the Cava from Castel d'Olerdola,' says Steevenson. 'Having said that, both wines are completely overshadowed by our Champagne sales, which have gone through the roof over the past two years. Our house Champagne, Beaumont des Crayres, sells at three to four times the rate of the Bouvet or Cava.'

Loire sparkling wine cannot compete with Champagne's centuries of brand building. Even Wilkinson recognises this. At his Loire-focused restaurant, he knows that when customers celebrate they want Champagne. Capital Group consultant sommelier Matt Wilkin, recently named Ruinart UK Sommelier of the Year, does not offer any Loire sparklers at all. 'Customers want the Dolce e Gabbana tag when it comes to sparkling wine,' he explains. 'And if it is not Champagne, they want Pelorus, Schramsberg or Croser.' Even in somewhere more relaxed like the People's Palace? 'Yes, especially the People's Palace, because they do a lot of graduation ceremonies in the Festival Hall and everyone wants Champagne,' he says. While he recognises his commitment to Champagne, he notes that no one has ever actively tried to sell him Loire sparklers.

Steevenson, for his part, is in the business of active selling to his customers. 'We see very few (if any) who actually come in looking for sparkling wine from the Loire, to the point that I would say our sales would be minimal if the wines were not pushed,' he says. 'I think this comes down to two interconnected reasons. First, there are no big sparkling wine brands from the Loire comparable in size, say, to Freixenet to drive growth in the multiples and increase consumer recognition. Second, due to the diverse nature of the region as a whole, it is a parade for wine lovers but extremely difficult to untangle for the average consumer.'

One group of consumers who don't seem to have any problems untangling the region are the members of The Wine Society. Of the Society's list of 12 sparkling wines, six come from the Loire, and five of these from Gratien & Meyer. Pierre Mansour, a buyer for the Society, underlines the importance of that relationship: 'Gratien & Meyer have a very long history with us, and are well known to members. They are probably the Society's longest-standing supplier of own-label wines, starting from about 1906.'

As for the high street, there are positive signs for the Loire amid the British gloom. At the France Under One Roof tasting this year, WaverleyTBS launched four Ackermann sparkling wines a Chardonnay, a Chenin, a Cabernet Franc ros and a Cabernet Franc red, at a 5.99 price-point. Says account director Simon Bradbury, 'Crmant does not mean a lot on the British market, but varietals have strong appeal.' HwCg is also enthusiastic, and has a sparkling white and a ros in its recently launched Valle Loire range at around 7.99. Helen Munday, marketing and PR director for the company, says, 'We hope to use the same strategy that we did with Blason de Bourgogne. The market for Burgundy crmant was not great, and when we launched it there was not a huge amount of immediate interest. However, by building the Blason brand we were able to create a market for the crmant [8.99 at Tesco]: consumers understood the brand and then felt confident purchasing the sparkling wine too.'

Munday has reservations about Chenin, though. 'When sparkling wine is created from 100% Chenin the character of the Chenin is accentuated and the style is quite unusual and less consumer-friendly,' she says. 'Chardonnay is more commercial and is likely to create a style that it easier to sell and do well.' As a result HwCg's crmant is a Chenin/Chardonnay blend.'

With the marketing energy of HwCg and WaverleyTBS focused on this sector, it could just be that in 2005 Loire sparklings escape their Skoda image in the UK. This could be the year that they finally get the va-va-voom of the Renault Clio.