The Loire Valley is also dubbed ‘The Garden of France’. This is due to the sheer number of vineyards, cherry orchards, forested areas and farmland which line the banks of the Loire river. The Loire Valley could really be the wine destination for you, if you’re keen to get back to the basics in life. Breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit. Be more one with nature, than the grapes in your glass!
The Loire Valley is one of the largest wine regions in France, spanning 124,000 acres. Although, this is less than half the size of the gargantuan Bordeaux region. The Loire Valley refers to three broader regions in the centre of France. The Western, Middle and Eastern Loire. These regions have a richly diverse terroir, so much so that you may not realise the wines are all from the same overarching region by taste alone. A Loire Valley Chenin Blanc can take many forms.
There are two key things which draw these distinct regions together. One is the languorously lolling Loire river. The other is the unique and crisp fresh acidity that the wines display. Harvests often begin 6 weeks earlier than the hotter French regions, which allows these grapes to retain this freshness. The term for this refreshing quality that Loire Valley wines possess is ‘nervosité’ (MacNeil 262).
So, whether you’re already sweet on Crémant de Loire, Layon Cab Franc or a Sancerre, or have never heard of the Loire Valley, you can drift down the Loire river in this article and learn a bit about the Loire Valley wine region.
The Grapes of the Loire Valley
Before we dive into appellations and sub-appellations, it’s best to look at what grapes are grown across the Loire Valley. The Loire Valley certainly skews towards white wine, with the leading grapes being Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. Sauvignon Blanc is obviously a grape that has found success in regions across the world. Chenin Blanc however is more rooted in its ancestral home. A one club player kind of grape.
While more Chenin Blanc is produced in South Africa, (often in blends of Semillon and Viognier), most would agree that the some of the best Chenin Blanc is found in the Loire Valley. Much like South Africa, the appeal of Chenin Blanc comes from its sheer versatility. The high acid content means that it can be used in everything from tart, effervescent sparkling wines, (of which the Loire has a lot), all the way through to lusciously sweet dessert wines, (again, the Loire Valley does this spectacularly well).
The Loire Valley is more than just still white wine though. They produce a great deal of excellent red, rosé, sparkling and sweet wine. For red wine, Cabernet Franc is the primary grape. You can find this throughout the Central and Eastern portions of the Loire Valley. Both in the production of rosé wine and light, fresh and slightly spicy still red wine. Yet, you can also find reasonable quantities of good Pinot Noir and Gamay. While Grolleau, (a local grape), is also produced, then utilised in Rosé d’Anjou, (MacNeil 261-263).
The Sub-Regions Of The Loire Valley
As we’ve noted, the Loire Valley is an expansive region. Indeed, it begins way up in the Massif Central highlands, before slithering up through central France, until it eventually reaches the Atlantic. 300 miles North, then 300 miles West, (MacNeil 261). This is why you’ll often see it split into sub-appellations, which denote smaller, more cohesive portions of the Loire Valley region. We’ll start on the coast, in the Western Loire region, then work our way inland.
The Western Loire Valley
The Western Loire is the coastal portion of the Loire Valley. Therefore, it has to put up with the cold and harsh Atlantic winds. The stunning coastline is also home to verdant green countryside and a number of salt marshes. This unique terroir perfectly plays into the key grape of this region.
Muscadet is the primary region of the Western Loire, where they produce, (you guessed it), Muscadet. This wine is not to be confused with the sweeter Muscat. Muscadet is bone-dry, deeply acidic and possesses a saline quality. The proximity to the ocean and salt marshes undoubtedly impose this quality on the grape. Much like Albariño in Rías Baixas, or Picpoul in Languedoc-Roussillon, ‘marine vineyards’ often instil a slightly saline quality on the grapes, and therefore the wines, due to the salty splash of ocean waves.
Muscadet wine is actually made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. This is due to the altruism of some Bourgogne monks way back in the early 18th century. The Muscadet region was decimated by frost in 1709. This leds to the Bourgogne Monks bringing the Bourgogne grapes down to help replant the vines, which are now thriving today, (MacNeil 274).
The Middle Loire Valley
The Middle, or Central, Loire region is central to the Loire Valley in more than just geographical terms. It is home to a mélange of wine styles, grape varieties and sub-regions. White, Rosé, Red, Sweet and Sparkling wines have all found home in the Middle Loire.
It’s best to categorise the Middle Loire, by two further sub-appellations. These are Anjou-Saumur and Touraine. The former is found on the Western end of the Middle Loire, near the city of Angers. While it is most well known for the famous Savenniéres region, which produces stunning Chenin Blanc. In fact, there are a variety of styles throughout this region, which include the sweet wines of Côteaux-Layon and Quarts de Chaume. Then, the red grapes Cabernet Franc and the wonderful Rosé d’Anjou, made from the local Grolleau grape.
Touraine is the other key part of this region and can be found around the French city of Tours. Here, both red and white wine are produced. There is also a shift in climate to the previous regions we’ve mentioned, which are relatively cool. Touraine is famous for both red and white wines. Like much of the Loire Valley the Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc grapes rule the roost here. The famous red wine appellations of Chinon and Bourgeuil, then one of the world’s greatest white wine regions Vouvray, are all found within Touraine.
The Eastern Loire Valley
The Eastern Loire, around 150 miles South of Paris, produces some of the leading wine, not just in France, but the world. If you’re not a fan of Sauvignon Blanc, it might be worth giving these another look. The regions of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are world famous. Refined and elegant with an unmistakable minerality, instilled through the limestone, flint and silex soil they sit on. This highly desirable soil is one of the most sought after in the region and a key contributor to this region’s unique taste.
These names, while exquisite, do tend to have price-tags which can break the bank. Don’t fret though, there is still affordable high-quality Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Two names to look out for in the Eastern Loire are Quincy and Reuilly.
Indeed, the Eastern Loire is not limited to white wine. 12% of Sancerre production, for example, is red wine. Gamay and Pinot Noir from the Eastern Loire are certainly wines to look out for if you’re partial to red wine.
In Search of Nervosite
The Loire Valley region is a wonderful area to explore. With all major regions having local airports, (Nantes, Angers and Tours). It is even accessible from Paris, through a few hours in the car, or a train.
While you may not be able to fit it all into one trip, each portion presents a new and exciting world. Distinct from one another in many respects, but each one will possess a beautiful landscape, with delicious wine. Whether you’re nearer the start of the Loire in the esteemed Touraine, or watching the river spill out into the Atlantic with some fresh seafood and an ice cold Muscadet, you’ll be sure to taste the nervosité.
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
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