As the Wine Director of New York’s Waverly Inn, Jeff Harding has his pick of the cellar, yet this expert often reaches for Loire Valley wines – and not just because he spent six months living near the Loire’s famed châteaux. We sat down with Jeff to discover his secrets to sharing Loire Valley wines – including how to appeal to wine nerds, novices, and those still afraid to pair red wine with seafood.
Loire Valley Wines (LVW): Early in your wine career, what drew you toward Loire Valley wines?
Jeff Harding (JF): I lived very close to the Loire Valley for about six months, and so the area will always be special to me for that reason. But as a buyer, one thing that makes these wines great is that it’s enough to know the word “Loire.” It’s not hard to say, and many of the wines from the Loire are easy to pronounce – this makes people comfortable with experiencing the wines. You can also find great values AND extra special wines from the region, so it’s really easy to please lots of drinkers with Loire wines. Before I lived there, I was working in restaurants and interested in wine and although I wasn’t an official buyer yet I loved these wines. I just always saw them as a good value and knew if you found a Loire Valley wine at a wine shop, you could be fairly certain it’d be of a reasonable quality.
LVW: Can you expand on that connection you discovered between Loire Valley wines and quality?
JF: Well, there is so much quality wine coming from the region that if you’re in a wine shop or a restaurant that you trust, you know, those buyers have tasted dozens of wines to pick the one that they’ve got. So I just think with something like that, the buyer chose it for a reason. And so I think that kind of covers drinkers in a way.
LVW: What do you think that sommeliers and professionals sort of forget about the Loire Valley?
JF: I am an East Coaster and have lived in Miami and New York, and I think it’s interesting that those of us located here are really aware of the jet stream and how it makes our ocean waters mild as far north as Maine. The jet stream actually continues across the Atlantic and into the Loire Valley. That’s a huge part of why there are temperate climates in this part of France, and what allows the wines to be a little less austere than those found in other northern French regions. Those warm moderating currents let winemakers get just a little more ripeness and a little more juiciness from the grapes. And it’s also partly the reason why the Loire is called the “breadbasket of France.”
LVW: If the jet stream is your go-to fact to share with other beverage pros, what do you like to share with novices or curious consumers about Loire Valley wines?
JF: The easy thing to share with people is that you can get sweet, dry, pink, red, sparkling, or whatever style of wine you’re looking for – the Loire has that diversity. But the thing I’m more interested in sharing is that there’s some fantastic producers that have enough cachet with their names and their locations that they can start making single plot wines. These specific producers are starting to use a Burgundian approach which I think is a great sales point for wine pros and also to share with wine nerds.
LVW: If there was a myth you could permanently dispel about the Loire Valley, what would that be?
JF: So often Sauvignon Blanc is just drunk as a juicy, fresh summer wine, but the grape can really make fine wines too. In the Loire Valley, there are extremely good wines made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes. I guess that’s not really a myth, but I think many people believe Sauv Blanc is always an under-$20 bottle. But there are some really fine wines from that region including single-vineyard and aged wines.
LVW: Do you have a favorite food pairing or anything on menus you’re currently working with?
JF: I love a Cabernet Franc from the Loire in the summer. It’s always a nice summer wine because you can chill it, and it goes so well with seafood dishes like crab cakes, scallops, and octopus. We used to do an octopus dish at the Waverly Inn that always called out for a lighter red wine – it was perfect because it had a red pepper sauce and it was a bit charred on the grill. I think that you want something a little more substantial than a white wine with a lot of seafood dishes, and Cab Franc goes really well in those cases.