The Loire Valley has much to tempt wine lovers, boasting arguably the most extraordinarily diverse range of wines of any single world wine region. France’s longest river, the Loire rises in the Massif Central and empties into the Atlantic at Nantes, its meanderings creating a huge variety of terroirs, microclimates, grapes, and stylistic traditions too. The Loire vineyards cover four main areas: the ‘ Central Vineyards’ comprising A-list wine villages Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé; Touraine; Anjou-Saumur and finally the Pays Nantais. From crisp, saline Muscadet to peachy Vouvray and zesty Touraine Sauvignon; from the honeyed Chenin of Bonnezeaux to lush raspberry Cabernet Franc; beguiling smoky Pouilly-Fumé and elegant, grassy Sancerre... the Loire just has it all.
Loire Valley wines – geography, key styles, and wines
The Loire Valley is located in central and north-west France. Originating in the Massif Central, it twists and turns westward via the towns of Orléans, Tours and Angers to Nantes on the Atlantic coast, 1,000km downstream. Spanning such a distance, the Loire region enjoys a huge range of climates, topographies and soils, so it will come as no surprise, that so many different styles of wine are produced, from everyday, fruity vin de paysto appellation contrôléewines of worldwide renown such as Sancerre. Wine lovers have much to tempt them here, from super-dry Muscadets, flinty Pouilly-Fumés and zesty Touraine Sauvignon, to Chenin Blanc – peachy in Vouvray, aristocratic in Savennières, and lusciously sweet in Coteaux du Layon. Pink wine is also available in the once cult-ish Rosé d’Anjou (from Gamay grapes) as well as juicy vin de pays and stylish Sancerre rosé from Pinot Noir, also responsible for red Sancerre. Further west Cabernet Franc rules in deep-coloured, raspberry-scented wines of varying depth and complexity. The Loire also delivers decent sparkling wines, the best labelled as Crémant de Loire, white from Chenin Blanc and rosé from Pinot Noir and Gamay.
The Loire Valley – white wines
For everyday drinking, white wines from Vin de Pays de la Loire, often made from Sauvignon Blanc, are typically zesty, fruity numbers, best drunk at their most vibrant in the year after vintage.
At the higher quality, appellation contrôlée level, the Loire’s white wine styles could not be more diverse. In the east, the Central Vineyards comprise the famous appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé , made from Sauvignon Blanc. High on style and quality, the wines share a purity of flavour and mineral texture believed to result from the soils here, rich in kimmeridgian clay, limestone and flint. Sancerre typically exhibits characters such as white flowers, nettles and grapefruit, allied to a fine texture and subtle mineral undertow. Keywords for Pouilly-Fumé are smoke, gunflint, floral, and seashell – the best have an almost intangible, satisfying depth of mineral flavour. The nearby Menetou-Salon appellation may lack the fame of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, but select, chalky vineyards on south-west facing slopes can yield minerally pear-flavoured wines to rival their more famous neighbours. Decent Sauvignon Blancs are also made in the Quincy and Reuilly appellations.
Past Orléans the Loire countryside segues into gently rolling hills with sandier soils. You will find light, refreshing white wines here, made predominantly from Sauvignon Blanc and labelled AOC Touraine. Around Tours the land changes again to chalky cliffs and ‘ tuffeau ’ soils, from which the famous châteaux of the Loire were often built. This is the home of Vouvray, producing floral, peachy wine styles from the Chenin Blanc grape. Touraine is also the centre for production of Crémant de Loire, made in the traditional (Champagne) method using Chenin Blanc grapes.
Angers marks a change from limestone-based soils to weathered rock and schist, key to the deeply-flavoured dry and off-dry Chenin Blancs of Savennières . Also in the Anjou region lie the great sweet wine appellations of Coteaux du Layon, Chaume and Bonnezeaux, whose complex, honeyed flavours result from ‘noble rot’, like Sauternes.
The style of wines changes dramatically as the Loire winds toward the Atlantic, where the Melon de Bourgogne grape reigns supreme in crisp, bone-dry Muscadets that are perfectly suited to the local oysters. While Muscadet’s image has suffered in recent years partly due to poor quality, high-yielded examples from lesser producers, the best wines are a tongue-tingling, tangy treat. These superieur Muscadets come from granite vineyards in the Sèvre-et-Maine area and are made sur lie (where the wines spend time in contact with their yeast ‘lees’ to give greater depth and complexity). Try the Domaine du Grand Mouton Muscadet, fresh yet complex with an addictive saline hit.
The Loire Valley – red wines
The Loire Valley also makes delicious red wines. Fresh, easy-drinking Vin de Pays de la Loire made from Pinot Noir and/or Gamay can be delicious, yet the Loire also offers many higher quality appellation contrôlée wines. Pinot Noir is the grape of red Sancerre , where better producers and warmer vintages can yield fresh, medium-bodied, cherry-fruited wines with a subtle, earthy quality. Cabernet Franc, one of the traditional Bordeaux red grapes, comes into its own further downstream, particularly in the hands of sensitive growers capable of teasing the grapes to full maturity. In Saumur-Champigny, chalky/sandy vineyards give light, fresh, ‘crunchy’ styles with blackcurrant fruit, while the Touraine ’s complex soils – varying from tuffeau limestone, rich clays, and sandy gravels – are responsible for the diversity and high quality of the wines of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. Wines here can be full, complex and capable of ageing. Try the super-smooth, loganberry-rich examples from Mabileau.
The Loire Valley and its wines – in a nutshell
The Loire is France’s longest river, stretching 1,000km.
The Loire has one of the most exciting and diverse wine ranges of any single world wine region.
Key white grapes of the Loire are Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne, while red varieties include Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the Loire’s famous white wines, are made from just one grape variety – Sauvignon Blanc.
Crémant de Loire is the Loire’s answer to Champagne and is made in the same way.
Little known fact…Muscadet sur Lie is not a town on the river Lie, but actually a superior style of Muscadet made by resting the wine on its yeast lees during production, adding richness and complexity.