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FRENCH TOAST
LOIRE VALLEY WINE IS PERFECT MATCH FOR REGION'S CHEESE

The perfect pairing of wine and food is an art. When done well, both the wine and the accompanying dish taste better, a classic example of the whole being more than the sum of its parts. While there are many excellent pairings, the match of Sancerre wine and Crottin de Chavignol cheese is one that comes close to perfection.

The wines of Sancerre and its neighbor, Pouilly-Fume, are the ultimate expression of the sauvignon blanc grape. Although this variety is grown in California, New Zealand and Bordeaux, nowhere does it achieve more raciness, complexity and breed than in France's Loire Valley. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, which are produced on opposite banks of the Loire River, are considered the region's best sauvignon blancs. Sancerre is a bit racier and brighter, and Pouilly-Fume tends to be deeper and denser, but only a brave soul would try to distinguish them in a blind tasting. In quality, they are indistinguishable.

Crottin de Chavignol cheese springs from the same region of the Loire as these two wines, and is an official "label of origin" goat's milk cheese. Although it originated in the village of Chavignol, which also produces Sancerre, it is now also made in five nearby towns: La Charite-sur-Loire, Pouilly, Donziais, Cosne and Cher. Many consider it France's most distinctive goat cheese.

Pairings of a region's cuisine and wines such as this are often felicitous. For example, Piedmontese wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco go famously with the musky wild truffles of the area; the minty, cedar notes of Pauillac wine are a splendid match with the locally raised lamb. The terroir, or combination of soil, climate and culture of certain regions, seems to imbue the food and wine with a special affinity.

But compared with even the best wine and food pairings, the harmony between the tangy goat cheese and the spirited wine of the Loire is quite remarkable. They share a mineral, lemon-thyme note that is both distinctive and delicious. One explanation is that the Alpine goats of the area forage on grasses and brush that have picked up the chalky notes of the limestone soil, which is similar to the soil in the better vineyards. Wild thyme is also prevalent here, and goats everywhere are known to feast on such herbal brush. Matching Chavignol with Loire sauvignon blanc is fascinating.

Crottin de Chavignol is meant to be enjoyed at different stages of maturity -- which is common for wine, but relatively rare for cheese. Fresh from the cheese vat, it has a creamy texture and a mild, nutty taste. At this point, somewhat paradoxically, the best match is an older Pouilly-Fume or Sancerre, both of which also develop mellow, nutty notes four to five years after the vintage.

About four months later, when the cheese reaches full maturity, it develops a dense, often crumbly interior and a delectably robust, slatelike flavor. This strength makes it a perfect foil for young Pouilly-Fume and Sancerre, vibrant wines that burst with assertive character.

At intermediate stages, the wine and cheese can be enjoyed in any combination. This is also a good time to serve the cheese warm and grilled with toast, or in chevre salad.

The 2002 and 2003 are excellent vintages for Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume and predominate in wine shops now. Young Crottin de Chavignol, which along with other good goat cheeses has become quite popular, is flown in weekly to better cheese and grocery markets along the East Coast.

One wine to try is Domaine Girard Sancerre 2003 La Garenne ($18; Louis/Dressner Selections/Wine Partners). This delectable wine is from a family estate in the village of Chaudoux. This cuvee is from the estate's best vineyard, La Garenne, a 5.5-acre plot with chalky, limestone soil that lends a distinctively flinty, mineral note to the wine. In 2003, La Garenne's slopes allowed the grapes to achieve exceptional ripeness, yielding a wine with aromas of spring flowers, mandarin orange and herbs, followed on the palate by intense flavors and a brisk finish that cries out for goat cheese.

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