The Loire Valley is referred to as “the garden of France”. It is as famous for its castles as it is for its wines. This picturesque place is the home of Sauvignon Blanc, and it’s from here that the grape has spread around the world.
In addition to Sauvignon Blanc there are refreshing rosés, reds that favour fruit over force, and sumptuous sweet and sparkling wines that even rival the neighbouring region of Champagne. There are a high proportion of small-scale winemakers devoted to farming organically and an expanding list of excellent winemakers.
The Loire Valley begins not too far west of Paris, and extends all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. It is a cool-climate region, which means that the reds tend to be on the lighter side and lower in alcohol. While regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Alsace have long been renowned for their Grand Cru sites, the Loire Valley has been considered to be much more humble. However, in the 1990’s younger producers began stepping up quality, converting their vineyards to organic and devoting themselves to discovering the potential of their land. The result is super-tasty wine that’s far more affordable than France’s more famed regions.
There is a wonderful food food-friendly nature to the wines, as well as a modest price tag on most bottles.
Here is a quick rundown on some of the appellations.
SANCERRE / POUILLY-FUMÉ / MENETOU-SALON / QUINCY
Main grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir
One of the more famous of the Loire appellations is Sancerre, which is known for its elegant and expensive Sauvignon Blanc wines. The neighbouring appellations of Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon also provide wonderful Sauvignons but often at a much more affordable price.
There is a small amount of Pinot Noir grown in these appellations, and it has a wonderful, light quality with notes of crushed strawberries and soft tannins.
CHEVERNY / COUR-CHEVERNY
Main grapes: Romorantin, Gamay, Sauvignon Blanc
Odds are that none of us will ever come across a bottle of wine from these two small appellations without travelling to the region. But if you do ever have the opportunity to taste a Cour-Cheverny wine, I have heard that it is a wonderful experience.
The wine consists of the incredible rare, ancestral variety Romorantin grape. Only about 60 hectares are left in France. Romorantin carries aromas of white peaches and honeysuckle, yet delivers a refreshing tartness.
There are also great red and white blends and rosés from Cheverny that are affordable and pair well with food.
Main grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay, Pineau d’Aunis, Côt, Menu Pineau
Along with Romorantin, the ancestral Pineau d’Aunis grape is one to look for from the Loire Valley. There are about 400 hectares left in France and it produces light, peppery reds and delicious berry-hued rosés.
Overall, Touraine offers great value. Its Gamay wines are very good, with just a hint of tannins.
Main grape: Chenin Blanc
Vouvray is where Chenin Blanc is grown. Vouvray is perhaps as well-known as Sancerre, although its wines haven’t yet become as expensive. In Vouvray, only Chenin Blanc is produced, and it delivers a special minerality. There are also some delicious sparkling crémant wines made of Chenin Blanc in Vouvray.
Main grapes: Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grolleau, Pineau d’Aunis
In Anjou, a much larger neighbouring appellation, the Chenin Blanc tend to be smoky and mineral but also somewhat full-bodied. The whites are usually 100 percent Chenin, but some have a small portion of Sauvignon blended in.
Red wines from Anjou are nicely balanced, with just enough roundness to complement the minerality. If you are a fan of sweet wines, the Coteaux du Layon appellation, located within Anjou produces a late-harvest wine made from Chenin.
Main grape: Chenin Blanc
This tiny appellation produces only Chenin Blanc grapes. It’s a highly regarded area whose wines tend to age very well.
CHINON / BOURGEUIL / SAUMUR / SAUMUR CHAMPIGNY
Main grapes: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc
Cabernet Franc is a beautiful, elegant, and sometimes powerful red grape that defines these neighboring appellations. The style here is to not let oak overpower the wine. There are light and fresh Cabernet Franc that’s perfect to toss in the fridge and then sip on the patio or pair with pizza, as well as serious, aged Cabernet Franc that deserves a decanter and contemplation.
Main grape: Melon de Bourgogne
The unique white variety known as Melon de Bourgogne is mainly found in this coastal region. “Muscadet” is a nickname that developed to refer specifically to this white wine from this region. It is always dry, floral, easy to drink, and well-priced. It pairs well with oysters, seafood, or linguini with clams.
Personally, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was investigating opportunities to take a river cruise through the Loire Valley and experience the region firsthand. Hopefully, once life returns to “normal” I will get to visit one day.