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Malcolm Jolley: Loire Valley wines to watch for this spring

Commentary

It’s springtime for the winemakers of the Loire Valley.“The Loire Valley wine route is the longest in France. Wine tourism destination par excellence, it takes place over 800 km through the vineyards of the Loire Valley.” https://www.vinsvaldeloire.fr/fr/un-vaste-territoire The vines are well on their way and the risk of frost is receding as cool foggy mornings burn off into warm sunny days. The land is alive and the promise of another vintage of wine sits among the rows in the vineyards that surround the basin of France’s longest river.

It’s also springtime for the winemakers of the Loire Valley in the sense that a twenty-odd year push to modernize their wines and classify their particular sub-regions is very much coming to fruition. It’s a heady time in France’s “third wine region”,“Generally speaking, the French wine region’s map can be divided into northern vineyards that are reputed for white wines, and southern vineyards (with the exception of the Jura and Savoy) that are more renowned for their reds. The main wine areas of the French wine region map are Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc, Champagne, the Loire Valley, Alsace, Rhône, Provence and Corsica.” https://www.winepaths.com/articles/editorial/france/explore-wine-in-france-from-champagne-to-languedoc#:~:text=The%20main%20wine%20areas%20of,%2C%20Rh%C3%B4ne%2C%20Provence%20and%20Corsica.&text=Bordeaux%20on%20the%20Atlantic%20coast%20is%20among%20the%20most%20famous%20of%20wines. and I was lucky enough to see and taste some of that during the last week in April when I was a guest of Interloire, the Loire Valley’s inter-professional association which markets the wines.

The areas of focus for Interloire are the wine regions that surround the western end of the river, including running east near its mouth at the Atlantic in Brittany, Nantes, Angers, Saumur and Tours. The best-known wines of the Loire are, likely, Sauvignon Blancs, especially the famous appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, which lie several hundred kilometres to the east of this main area. While I tasted some Sauvignon Blanc from Anjou and Touraine, I was focused on the grapes that uniquely express the terroir of the Western Loire: Melon de Bourgogne, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc.

Despite the moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the effects of global warming, the western Loire regions are cool climate wine regions. At about 47 degrees of latitude, they are among France’s most northern viticulture sites. The wines, accordingly, tend to be fresh, often with a racy acidity. They are generally, in other words, food wines made to be drunk at the table. Indeed, outside of their natural habitat, the wines of the Loire might be most likely found in the bistros of Paris.

Here are some broad takeaways from my recent trip, organized by grape variety.

Melon de Bourgogne

Melon de Bourgogne is a white grape used to make Muscadet, the crisp and clean dry white wine. Unfortunately, Muscadet sounds a lot like “Muscat” the large aromatic grape that is most commonly used to make sweet wines and I have often wondered how many consumers are confused between the two very different styles. In any event, Muscadet from the Loire, including the Coteaux de la Loire designation, and the more commonly known Muscadet Serve et Maine, remains a discoverable bargain, far underpriced for its consistent value.

Textural depth and flavour complexity in Muscadet are arrived at by leaving it “on the lees”: look for the words “sur lie” on the label. The lees are the remains of the yeast that fermented the wine, and the vignerons of the Loire are masters of this technique, which retains freshness.“As the yeast cells start to break down during the process of autolysis, they release tiny amounts of sugars (called polysaccharides) and amino acids. The presence of these compounds is sensed on our tongues and palates as a textural weightiness or increased body in the wine. White and sparkling wines aged on the lees are often described as creamier, richer, fuller-bodied, or with greater depth and complexity of flavor.” https://winefolly.com/deep-dive/what-are-wine-lees-sur-lie-explained/ If there is a better wine to go with oysters, I have not had it. Anne Athimon, whose Muscadet from the Domaine des Génaudieres is left on the lees for two years, bears the name Champtoceaux on its label in reference to a nearby medieval village perched above the river. Champtoceaux is just one of a number of “villages” or “communes” Muscadets, part of an overall trend in the region to attach wines to the particular place they are from.

Chenin Blanc

The Loire is the spiritual homeland of the white Chenin Blanc grape, which has the dual talent of being able to express very clearly terroir or technique, or both. It is not unlike Chardonnay in this regard. It can be made into unctuous sweet wines, like Grand Cru Quarz de Chaumes, the best of which retain fresh and mouth-watering acidity. Or made bone dry, like sought after Savennières with its explosion of stone fruit.

Chenin from Savennières, made by only 30 producers, has the most famous labels, such as Nicolas Joly’s Coulee de Serrant, or his neighbour Tessa Laroche at the Domaine aux Moines, whose 2019 Roche aux Moines tastes like the Platonic ideal of a glass of white wine. Of course, it’s mostly priced accordingly, but the good news is that the success of Savennières has inspired Chenin growers across the western Loire who are pivoting from sweeter wines and are pushing the quality envelope for dry Chenin in the region.

A group of a few dozen producers have formed an unofficial appellation they call Anjou Blanc, drawing mostly from the area south of Angers, going down from the left bank of the Loire and east of one of its tributaries, the Layon. They’ve set up rules about making the wines: dry, aged for a minimum of a year, and so on. My press group met them at the thousand-year-old Château de Passavant, which is also a winery.

The new generation of Anjou Chenin seems intent on giving Savennières a run for its money, making rich and fancy whites, seasoned deftly (for the most part) with oak. Like the Muscadet producers, they are organizing themselves further into sub-regions, named for corresponding villages, including Ronceray and Montchanin. While retaining the characteristics of each village’s wine is daunting, the knowledge that the winemakers are making the effort to point out where their wine comes from and their ambition to reflect that taste of place is, in the best cases, a kind of quality assurance in itself.

Cabernet Franc

Red wine in the Loire almost always means Cabernet Franc, the red grape whose characteristic of ripening relatively early makes it ideal for cool climate viticulture. (Canadian winemakers have increasingly found success with it for this reason.) As average temperatures have grown in the last twenty years Loire Valley Cabernet Franc has consistently come to full ripeness, losing “green notes” in favour of red to black fruit ones: from cherries to raspberries or blackberries. There has never been a better time to drink Loire Cabernet Franc if you like a fresh, food-friendly, fruit-forward style.

The main Cabernet Franc growing regions in the Loire are Chinon, Bourgueil, St. Nicolas de Bourgueil and Saumur. Within Saumur is the specialized region of Saumur-Champigny, which is distinguished by its limestone soils. Around Angers, the geology of the Loire changes from the black schist rock of the Armoricaine Massif to the light, almost white, limestone soils of the Paris Basin. Saumur-Champigny is famous for its tuffeau stone, which was quarried from the middle ages on to build the churches and châteaux of the region.

The dug out caves of Saumur-Champigny are famous, like those of Champagne, and in fact are part of the same geologic formation. But it’s the effect of the soils on the Cabernet Franc grape that gives the region its distinction. While Cabernet Franc won on flinty schist soils that can have a slight pencil shaving finish, the Saumur-Champigny wines are clear in fruit and fresh in acidity. The eponymously named wines of Arnaud Lambert show this character, and so do those of Amélie Neau at Domaine de Nerleux, where they exhibit a certain purity.

Find out more about the wines of the Loire Valley at vinsdeloire.fr.

Steve Lafleur: Buck-a-ride gimmick is a bad deal for Ontario commuters

Commentary

The Ontario Liberal Party (OLP) has pledged to reduce public transit fares to a dollar per one-way fare, or $40 for a monthly pass until January of 2024.“The fare reduction would apply to every transit system in Ontario, including municipal transit, all GO Transit services, and Ontario Northland service – with the provincial government fully replacing transit systems’ lost revenue, ensuring no municipal government is impacted by this decision.” https://ontarioliberal.ca/ontario-liberals-will-slash-all-transit-fares-across-the-province-to-1/ The $1.8 billion pledge is paired with a pledge of $375 million in annual transit operating funding.“The current rate for an Adult TTC monthly pass is $156, while a one-way PRESTO ticket costs $3.25. Dubbed ‘Buck-a-Ride’, the plan is estimated to remove 400,000 cars from the road on a daily basis, and is expected to cost $710M in 2022-2023, and $1B in 2023-2024.” https://storeys.com/provincial-liberals-promise-buck-a-ride-for-all-transit/ While this might sound like a reasonable proposal in the abstract, it could conceivably make public transportation in the province worse rather than better. 

Broadly speaking, there are three separate flaws with this approach. First, Queen’s Park getting directly involved in funding the day-to-day operations of local public transit agencies could have unintended long-term consequences. Second, in the short term, the policy could make public transportation worse. Finally, the program will result in some pretty grotesque subsidies—not by error, but by design. 

Public transportation in Ontario is largely run by municipal governments, with the exception of GO Transit and Ontario Northlands. Typically municipal transit agencies operating costs are funded by a combination of user fees and municipal operating subsidies. In 2019, the average farebox recovery ratio for Canadian public transportation agencies was 51 percent, while it was 66 percent in Toronto. So, roughly speaking, half of public transportation operating costs during normal (non-pandemic) times are borne by riders, and most of the rest is borne by local taxpayers. While there is a case to be made that riders should pay a greater proportion of the cost of transportation—both for transit users and for drivers—at the very least, locals tend to pay the operating cost of their own public transit agencies (though capital projects are heavily funded by upper levels of government). 

The OLP proposal would fundamentally change the nature of local public transportation funding. Consider Toronto, where a one-way TTC fare costs $3.25. That doesn’t cover the full cost of the average ride (otherwise the farebox recovery ratio would be 100), but it covered 2/3rds of the cost pre-pandemic. This does mask some cross-subsidies in the system. For instance, someone taking a streetcar for three stops might cost the system less than someone travelling across the city. But in general, riders pay a good chunk of the cost. Now, if fares were capped at $1, the other $2.25 would be covered by the provincial government. That is a major uploading of public transportation costs. 

While it’s understandable that people facing increasing costs of living might like the idea of paying less to get around, making local public transportation more reliant on provincial funding would be a mistake. The more Queen’s Park pays, the more say Queen’s Park will have over local public transportation decision-making. Proponents of this approach should be careful what they wish for. If this temporary freeze became permanent and a future government decided that transfers to public transit agencies aren’t a top priority, times might get lean for public transportation—whether local voters like it or not. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Toronto City Council determines they need to increase fares to maintain service levels but the province says no. That’s exactly what happened when the City wanted to implement road tolls to tame traffic congestion.Wynne rejects Toronto’s request for road tolls, and almost everyone comes out ahead There’s no reason why local governments shouldn’t be able to make these decisions for themselves. 

Another worry is that if the program has the intended effect of increasing ridership, it might make public transportation worse for existing riders. After all, more riders on the same number of buses would lead to more crowding. Ridership levels are well below pre-pandemic levels, and it’s possible that the additional operating support might offset that. But it really depends on where marginal riders come from, and how quickly transit agencies can adjust. 

For instance, many transit routes in Toronto are still running under capacity given how many white-collar workers are working from home. So if the policy leads more people to use the subway to get around (particularly outside of peak hours), it might not be a big deal. But if it leads to an expansion of transit demand in suburban areas that currently have fewer routes and less frequency, that could cause some short-term bottlenecks. Given that the TTC is aiming to return to 100 percent of pre-pandemic capacity soon, it doesn’t seem likely there will be all that much spare capacity in the GTA. It’s not like we’ve got a Depression-era surplus of workers hanging around looking for work or an excess supply of vehicles floating around. Quite the opposite. We’ve got a tight labour market and supply chain constraints to deal with. This could lead to congestion on some routes, worsening the experience for existing riders. 

Of course, it’s possible that the subsidy will simply fall short of its objectives. That was the case with the federal Public Transportation Tax Credit, which the Trudeau government decided to eliminate after a study estimated that it only increased transit use by between 0.25 and 1 percent.Nixing of transit tax credit in federal budget draws ire So it was effectively subsidizing existing riders, rather than increasing ridership. While this proposal would result in much larger subsidies, it isn’t clear that simply reducing the sticker price of public transportation is going to get people out of their cars if they don’t see service improvements. 

Perhaps the most glaring flaw in the proposal is right in the press release: “Under our plan, someone hopping on the GO train from Oakville to head in for a Blue Jays game will save nearly $20 on their round trip. And a commuter taking the GO from Whitby to Toronto would save more than $300 dollars a month.”

In other words, the further you commute, the more you get subsidized. There are certainly people of modest means in the suburbs who could use a hand up. But someone who owns a home in Whitby and uses GO transit to commute into Toronto for a well-paid bank job or someone in Oakville who can afford to regularly go to the Jays game might not be the first people who should be in line for subsidies. Better to have a subsidy explicitly targeted at low-income people who need a hand up, rather than people looking to save eighteen bucks getting to a Leafs’ game.  

This is a perfect example of why political parties shouldn’t try to govern by slogan. Buck-a-ride isn’t going to work out any better than buck-a-beer. Ontario doesn’t need any more buck-based policies. If a policy fits on a bumper sticker, it probably doesn’t work. This one is no different.