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The greatest wine pleasures of the Loire Valley are lost on most Americans. Go much beyond the obvious names — Muscadet, Pouilly-Fume, and Sancerre — and you’re sure to get blank looks. Let’s take a look at what you’ve been missing out on. The wines range from the raspberryish reds of Chinon and Bourgueil to nectarlike Quarts de Chaume and bone-dry Savennieres. Because virtually all these wines possess high acidity in good vintages, bottles can and should be cellared. Great old Vouvrays and Quarts de Chaume will last a half-century or more; Savennieres can take a decade to settle down and smooth out; and Chinons, red and white alike, could always do with four to five years to show their best. Even Muscadet, when made by a producer like Luneau-Papin from old vine grapes, benefits from extra time in bottle. Our case of the month for May features a variety of Loire Valley wines, half whites, half reds — most of them dry, and most of them from the splendid 1996 vintage. Only the Vouvray from Huet and the Quarts de Chaume are sweet. Diverse as the wines are, they can pair with a wide variety of foods. The dry whites from the Loire are famous for their affinity with shellfish. Oysters on the half-shell (still bathed in their own liquor) are the perfect match for Muscadet. Sweet Vouvrays, on the other hand, go brilliantly with foie gras, whether pan-seared or cold. Red Chinons and Bourgueils are often marked by a certain earthiness. The ’96s we’ve chosen this month could do with a bit of aeration, say an hour in advance of pouring. And just to show you how well these reds age, we’ve put a ’78 Chinon “Les Picasses” on the list. It’s a killer of a wine. The younger reds would go nicely with wild salmon or roasted chicken. Olga Raffault’s rich and raspberryish ’78 can be drunk alone or with cheese. DRY REDS 1997 Anjou-Villages “Clos du Coulaine” (Dom. Luneau-Papin), $10 1996 Chinon “Les Picasses” (Dom. Olga Raffault), $14 1996 Chinon “Clos de l’Echo” (Dom. Couly-Dutheil), $17 1998 Vin de Pays du Loire et Cher “Racine” (Claude Courtois), $25 1996 Bourgueil “Grands Monts” (Dom. Druet), $22 1978 Chinon “Les Picasses” (Dom. Olga Raffault), $30 DRY WHITE WINES 1999 Muscadet de Sevre-et-Maine “Clos des Allees” (Dom. Luneau-Papin), $9 1998 Vouvray sec (Thierry Nerisson), $15 1997 Chinon “Champ Chenin” (Dom. Olga Raffault), $16 1996 Savennieres-Roche-aux-Moines “Clos de la Bergerie” (Dom. N. Joly), $30 SWEET WHITE WINES 1997 Quarts de Chaume (Dom. des Baumard), $70 1989 Vouvray “Clos du Bourg” (Dom. Huet), $95

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