“When I drink, I think; and when I think, I drink.” -Francois Rabelais, Loire Valley writer, born 1483
When you think of Loire Valley wines, what comes to mind? Does your mind go immediately to Chenin Blanc, or Sauvignon Blanc or Gamay or Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier? Are you as surprised as I was to learn that Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are not just blended in Champagne? They’re blended in the Noble Joué region of Touraine along with Pinot Gris to produce gray wine. Does Loire conjure images of rosés or lush sweet wines or sparkling wines or bone dry whites or rich reds? Loire Valley produces all of these wines and more. The one word that can describe the wines of Loire Valley is ‘diverse.’ Along this 300 mile stretch of river, the Loire Valley has over 60 appellations and produces many styles of wine.
Loire can be divided into four distinct sections, each with different climates and soils, and each producing different wines from different grapes. Along the Atlantic Ocean is the Pays Nantais region. Producing wines since Roman times, the main grape of this region is Melon de Bourgogne. No longer aptly named, this ‘Melon of Burgundy’ grape was brought to Pays Nantais in the early part of the 18th century where it flourished in the maritime climate. Melon de Bourgogne has so whole-heartedly been adopted by its new home, it is often called ‘Muscadet,’ the major wine region of Pays Nantais. Light, fruity and crisp, Muscadet wine goes beautifully with light white fish and shellfish.
Central Loire is where the diversity begins. The two major regions, Anjou and Touraine, both have continental climates. Closer to the ocean, Anjou benefits from the fog, allowing for some beautiful botrytised dessert wines, made from the most notable grape of Loire, Chenin Blanc. The region of Savennieres in Anjou makes a stunning dry white from Chenin Blanc. And Saumur is known for its sparkling wines. Anjou, also produces rosé wines from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Touraine is, also known for Chenin Blanc. Vouvray is the largest white wine producing appellation in the Central Loire. Chinon is famous for its Cabernet Franc. Like Anjou, Touraine, also produces sparkling wines and rosés.
The soils of Central Loire, like the wines, are quite diverse. They range from schist, granite, sand, alluvial, limestone, clay, chalk, and gravel. The Chenin Blanc wines have aromas of apricot, white flowers, mineral and lanolin with a very crisp acidity. They pair well with grilled seafood. The Cabernet Franc wines of Central Loire have aromas of red fruit and violets with soft tannins. They pair well with beef and stuffed mushrooms.
In Upper Loire, the diversity continues. Here is grown Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gamay all in varying soils from chalk to sand to flint and even Kimmeridgian as is found in Chablis. Upper Loire has been growing grapes for 2000 years and is home to Quincy, the second oldest appellation in France, second only to Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Upper Loire is, also believed to be the original home of Sauvignon Blanc, which is at its most elegant in the region of Sancerre. The Sauvignon Blanc wines of Upper Loire have aromas of citrus fruit, grass and minerals. They pair well with shellfish and goat cheese. The Pinot Noir wines of Upper Loire have soft tannins and aromas of red and bramble fruits. They pair well with Salmon and mushrooms. Upper Loire produces not just dry reds and whites, but, also rosés. Made from Pinot Noir and Gamay, the rosés of Upper Loire have aromas of strawberries and herbs with a bright acidity. They pair well with grilled seafood.
With so much diversity in grapes and wine styles, it is impossible to define the Loire Valley through a single wine or even a single type of wine. But it may be possible to understand this diverse valley a little better through some of its most famous wines. A balanced exploration of Loire Valley wines would have to include Muscadet from Pays Nantais, made from the Melon de Bourgogne. Traveling to Anjou, the most important wines to try would be a botrytised Chenin Blanc, a sparkling Chenin Blanc a dry Chenin Blanc from Savennieres and a rosé made from either Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon or perhaps both. While in Touraine one must try a Vouvray either sec or tendre made from Chenin Blanc, and a Chinon made from Cabernet Franc. The Upper Loire can be studied through a glass of Sancerre, the dry, elegant Sauvignon Blanc and a glass of Pinot Noir from Reuilly.
There are so many beautiful and diverse wines to try from this beautiful and diverse region of France. The variety of wines that the Loire Valley produces is what makes this such an interesting area to explore.