Loire Valley Magic
By W. Peter Hoyne
Loire Valley, known as the Val de Loire, is a picturesque destination and UNESCO World Heritage site located within central France. It is recognized as the third largest wine region in this country. Architecturally, it may be best known for its medieval, century old castles and historic towns that layer the countryside along with enchanting gardens and parks interspersed throughout the region. The Loire is the largest river in France stretching 634 miles and flows east to west. Its winding path begins in the upper, mountainous Massif Central sector of France sweeping its way through the towns of Nevers and Orleans, past Tours before reaching Nantes and emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Along its banks are fortresses that date back to the 15-17th century with woodlands and vineyards overshadowing its banks and pushing inward.
As memorable as the scenery, so too are the vibrant white wines of the Loire Valley; Muscadet, Vouvray (sparkling and still), Savennières, Anjou, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. Don’t forget the well-priced sparklers of Crémant de Loire. The Loire Valley is also well known for the deeply structured reds of Cabernet Franc along with finely tapered Pinot Noir and Gamay. Tasting wines in the vineyards, you get a sense of the historic significance of this region.
While the early history of the Loire Valley can be traced back to the Gauls between 1500-500 BC, it was the conquest by Julius Caesar in 52 BC that transformed the region. The Romans established modern farm and building techniques along with cultivation of vineyards. The “Golden Age” of winemaking in the Roman Empire began in the second century BC.
Through the centuries Benedictine and Augustine monks were a major factor influencing the development of different vineyards.. The Loire Valley also provided a haven for French Kings and the Royalty of Paris during the French Renaissance.
By 1936 vineyards within the Loire Valley were recognized with an official AOC Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designation. Since 2021, 65% of the vineyards have become sustainable or are organically farmed. Given the sheer number of 51 appellations in the Loire, this winegrowing province is more easily understood by dividing it into the smaller sub-regions of Nantes, Anjou-Saumur (middle Loire), Touraine and the Upper Loire Valley.
Nantes rests on the cool western fringes of the Loire Valley in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. It benefits from a cool, maritime influence and is recognized for the wines of Muscadet and Muscadet Sèvre et Maine. These are both produced from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. These wines are crisp with an underpinning of salinity from the cool ocean breezes along with some flint and mineral characteristics. The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wines are typically left to age for a few weeks on the leftover yeast cells “sur lie” for aging. The resulting effect is a wine with more weight, creaminess and texture.
In the middle Loire Valley is the sub-region of Anjou-Saumur. Just south of the city of Angers, are the appellations of Savennières and Quarts de Chaume grand cru. The Chenin Blanc grape reigns supreme in these appellations where it is used to craft typically dry and age-worthy Savennières and the exotically rich, sweet whites of Quarts de Chaume. Savennières are grown in schist soils and can be complex and full bodied although they are at their best with some bottle age. The late harvest, sweet wines from the tiny appellation of Quarts de Chaume can offer an array of honeyed tropical undertones with apricot, orange zest and a hint of fresh acidity.
Also, within the Anjou district are the raspberry-laced Rosé d’Anjou and the sturdier off-dry Cabernet d’Anjou made from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition there is a dry white Anjou Blanc.
Most notable from the district of Saumur are the Cabernet Franc based wines from Saumur-Champigny and Saumur Puy –Notre-Dame. Within Saumur-Champagny there are 120 winemakers spread across nine villages. The sub-soil is Tuffeau limestone rock, which creates supple garnet wines with spicy red fruits. In contrast, the reds from Saumur Puy–Notre-Dame display a full bodied and powerful personality with a velvety approach.
The versatile sparkling wines of Crémant de Loire are also produced in this sub-region and are composed of a blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc aged sur lie for 12 months.
Within the Touraine region is Chinon, a destination that once served as the royal residence of French kings. Today, it is recognized for the deeply colored, sturdy reds produced from Cabernet Franc. Styles of Chinon can vary from delicately structured examples to tannic, complex wines accented with dense black and blue fruits.
The town of Vouvray, located a few miles from Touraine, is a name recognized by many consumers. This wine can have many different temperaments ranging from intensely dry, to delicately sweet, decadently sweet and sparkling. Produced from the Chenin Blanc grape, this white is sourced from eight villages and is grown in porous, limestone and silex (flint} soils. The natural acidity of this grape yields a layer of freshness to overtones of quince, honeysuckle, beeswax and fresh orchard apples. The Loire River is a natural temperature regulator for these wines.
The Upper Loire Valley is situated in the east with a climate that is warm and continental. From here originate the unforgettable Sauvignon Blanc-based wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. The soils are composed of bedrock and limestone creating Pouilly Fume’s bracing backbone of acidity while Sancerre has a softer and rounder touch than its younger brother. Unlike Sauvignon Blanc from North America or the herbaceous renditions from New Zealand, these whites are crisply textured and refreshing with notes of chamomile and white citrus. These wines will easily take the edge off of a warm summer day.
In many ways the diverse wines of the Loire Valley are unappreciated. They seem to get lost in the vast countryside of France, yet they certainly over-deliver from a quality and value perspective. The dry whites can provide the ideal companion for most seafood and rich butter-based sauces. The reds are often complex and just fun to explore with any fare on a summer day or during any occasion. The sparkling wines from the Loire Valley are not overindulgent as compared to other wines, offering a value-based alternative to Champagne. It may be time to expand your horizons and delve into the enchanting whites of the Loire.