Learn all about France’s Loire Valley and the many varietals produced in this region.
When I think of France and where I like to go when I am there, I immediately think of what is dubbed “The Garden of France”, the Loire Valley. Imagine a region 800 kilometers long starting off at the mouth of the Atlantic and ending in the center of France. The Loire boasts a river that is 280 kilometers in length. Still used for trade and agriculture, it is also beautiful – touring the Loire by riverboat is still one of the best ways to visit wine country.
Not only is the Loire diverse in landscape, it is also home to many beautiful chateaux thanks to the nobility in the 10th century and onwards. The royal family built summer homes here, and the nobility followed this posh idea to create summer escape pads away from their daily lives. The lush beauty of the lands attracted the eyes of some of the greatest landscape architects of their generation, and it is those people we can thank for the gardens we can visit today. Since 2000, the center of the Loire has been a UNESCO heritage site.
If wine is your thing, then a visit to this area is a must. A diverse landscape also comes with diverse wines. There are 87 AOCs (appellation d’origine contrôlée) in the Loire Valley today and wine made here can range from dry to very sweet, as well as bubbly, dessert-style, white, red and rosé.
This region has a long history of wine making as well. Romans planted vines here when France was still known as Gaul, and what could be considered actual, documented wine production began in the 1st century AD. With over 185,000 hectares of vines, it is twice the size of Bordeaux and also has the highest number of vine density per hectare.
The region is divided up into four different sub-regions: Nantes, Anjou-Saumur, Touraine and the Central Vineyards.
The Central Vineyards
The Central Vineyards comprise vineyards that are dominated by sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, and encompass the AOCs of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. Two very specific areas known for producing two very distinctive styles of sauvignon blanc, thanks mostly in part to their soil structures. Pouilly Fumé is known for its smoky edged wines, and typical examples of Sancerre are flinty with strong mineral notes. Pouilly Fumé was always famous, but even more so when Robert Mondavi decided to strengthen sales of his sauvignon blanc by “borrowing” the name Fumé and calling his sauvignon blanc, “Fumé Blanc” (which, by the way, you can’t do anymore. It is a protected name). The particular silex and limestone soils that dominate these areas give us wines of extraordinary finesse and elegance. Pinot follows suit, with edgy mineral notes, full berry fruit, and silky structure.
Anjou-Saumur and Touraine
Anjou-Saumur and Touraine encompass what is chenin blanc, cabernet franc, and sauvignon territory. Chenin is the white grape star, made in a variety of styles from dry to very sweet (appearing on a label as dry, demi-sec, sec, and molleux), each example luscious and elegant with crisp, mouth-watering acid, bright tropical fruit that leans towards baked stone fruit pies, and earthiness once aged. Cabernet franc, one of the parents of cabernet sauvignon, is similar to cabernet sauvignon in character. It tends to be leaner in acid with ripe black and blue fruits, and a slight herbal edge.
Anjou-Saumur is largely responsible for all the crémant or sparkling wine production. People tend to think that bubbles were first discovered in Champagne, but the very first bubbles recorded were made in the Loire. Bottles are still made in the difficult méthode ancestrale (made with no dosage or disgorging). Chenin is largely responsible for crémant production; often these wines exude notes of fresh tropical fruits, honey and lemon. It can respectively boast the impressive statistic that it is the third largest sparkling wine production hub after Champagne and Alsace.
This area is also famous for “Rosé d’Anjou” or “Cabernet d’Anjou”- both local names for the dry, heady cabernet-based rosés from the Loire. The Touraine region embraces Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire, areas that are 100% chenin blanc in all their stylish glory (producing both dry-very sweet examples and boytrized wines as well). The neighbouring regions of Touraine and Chinon are primarily known for cabernet production, pinots (all the pinot family grows here) and malbec, which is locally known as cot. Yes the same grape that has taken Argentina by storm – but so different! Leaner in style, with brighter acid and fresh black fruit with a distinct mineral edge. The norm is not to lay heavy oak into them like we do in the new world, but rather preserve the inherent freshness of fruit of the wines. Loire malbec is also easier on the palate when it comes to pairing wines for food.
The myriad of pinots created in the Loire are similar to those from Burgundy. They have the same delicacy and distinctive earthy edge, but do not retain the same elegance as Burgundian pinot noir. Loire pinots have slightly more weight, more flesh on the texture. Some examples have notes of green, slightly raw, herbaceous character to them and always distinctive mineral notes that are present both on the palate and nose.
The Nantes is primarily the home of one grape – melon de Bourgogne, in the form of muscadet. Historically, The Nantes was motivated to plant this varietal in order to supply the Dutch merchants with brandy in the early 17th century. And what do you know? The grape stuck around and it is the utmost for pairing with shellfish and oysters.
The wines are traditionally crisp and clean with mineral notes and zesty acidity that is sometimes paired down by a winemaking method called “sur lie” which translates to rested/resting on the lees. Lees are the spent yeast cells that help create a creamy texture in a wine when the wine is left on them in a barrel and stirred multiple times a day. This method creates a smooth balance to the wines. This area’s four appellations all produce white wine from this grape: Muscadet – Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet – Côtes de Grand Lieu, Muscadet – Coteaux de la Loire and Muscadet. The appellations Muscadet – Sèvre et Maine and Muscadet – Côtes de Grand Lieu are often bottled sur lie and unfiltered or unfined, and can sometimes require decanting before serving as they can be cloudy.
There are plenty of great wines from the Loire available at most good stores, but liquorconnect.com is a great resource for finding wines at your local shops.
Loire Wine Picks
2008 Domaine Huet Le Haut-Lieu Demi-Sec, $48
2011 Chateau Coulaine Chinon, $27
Antech Blanquette Di Limoux Reserve Brut, $23
2012 Denis Jamain “Les Fossiles” Reuilly, $27
2012 Catherine et Pierre Breton Bourgueil “Trinch”, $28
2012 Henri Bourgeois “Les Baronnes” Sancerre, $28
2011 Chateau De Varennes Savennières, $30