Also known as the “cradle of the French Language,” the Loire Valley gets the above nickname from the vast vineyards and orchards interspersed among over three hundred historical chateaux. The vineyards extend from the Muscadet region near Nantes on the Atlantic coast (known as the Lower Loire), through the Middle Loire (Anjou, Saumur, Bourgeuil, Chinon, Cheverny and Vouvray), to the Upper Loire (Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé), near the city of Orléans.
The vast majority of white wines are made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne, and almost all the reds from Cabernet Franc with a small amount of Pinot Noir and Gamay. Although mostly still wines are made, Crémant de Loire, a sparkling wine made primarily from Chenin Blanc is second only to Champagne in total bottles produced in France.
The Romans first planted vines along the Loire in the first century, and by the High Middle ages the region produced the most esteemed wines in France and England, more so than even Bordeaux. The Loire River has a significant effect on the immediate climate, adding the few degrees in temperature to make viticulture possible so far north. Frost in the spring can be a problem, as can under ripening. Chapitalization (addition of sugar to prevent stoppage of fermentation from high acid and under ripe grapes) is legal and occasionally used during poor vintages. Chenin Blanc vines can overproduce, and high density planting, pruning, and canopy management have all successful lowered yields, producing better grapes.
Because of the cooler climate, difference in vintage years affect the wines more greatly here than almost anywhere in France, with white wines being much more lush and full flavored in warmer vintages and much more acidic and mineral driven in cooler vintages. The Cabernet Franc tends to be lighter and more herbaceous in cool vintages and more round and fruity in warm vintages.
Muscadet is home to the Melon de Bourgogne grape and a very dry, light bodied wine that is citrusy, fresh, and crisp with a good acidity.
Anjou, near the town of Angers, is known mostly for its rosés made from Cabernet Franc. Some whites made from Chenin Blanc are similar to Vouvrays and usually less expensive.
Saumur is the third highest producing sparkling wine appellation in France, with twelve million bottles of Mousseau made from Chenin Blanc every year. Cabernet Franc is made here, and the wines tend to be medium bodied and fruity. Domaine Filliatreau Chateau Fouquet Samur 2011 is a great little gem. Biodynamically farmed, this wine has serious depth, with beautiful fruit and mineral character. It’s one of my favorite Cab Francs at $16.99.
Chinon and neighboring Bourgeuil are sources for most of the Loire’s Cabernet Franc. Those from the former tend to be round and lush, while the latter tend to be more reserved and tannic. Cabernet Franc is known as Breton in this area. Flavors of raspberry and aromas of green pepper and graphite are typical, and the wines are often served a bit cooler than most reds. Bernard Baudry Les Granges 2011 is a particularly good example of Chinon, with deep cherry, blackberry, and currant flavors with an earthy finish for $19.99.
Moving eastward along the river we next come to Vouvray, home of the world’s most famous Chenin Blanc. The wines produced are full flavored with a high acidity making them very age worthy. They are made in many styles from dry (sec) to off dry (demi-sec) to sweet (moelleux). Aromas and flavors of nuts, apples, honey, ginger, and flowers can be found with an underlying minerality and acidity that make these complex wines stand up to many full flavored dishes. One of my favorites is the 2011 Clos Le Vigneau. From a fifteen acre single vineyard, this wine has the aromas of fresh flowers and melony fruit. On the palate there is fresh fruit in a clean, crisp, dry presentation with plenty of acidity and minerality. Super flexible, it is a great food wine at $19.99.
As we continue eastward, approaching Orléans, we come to the Upper Loire regions of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé. Both of these regions are known mostly for their white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, although there is a bit of Pinot Noir grown in Sancerre. The styles differ from the two regions, with the wines from Sancerre having typical flavors of grapefruit and gooseberry with a crisp acidity, and those of Pouilly Fume being more full bodied and richer. Both are delicious. Truly a gorgeous wine, the 2010 Chais St Laurent Les Varennes du Clos is a classic Sancerre. Mineral driven, flinty, citrusy, and very deep and long, this wine is wonderful with all sorts of food. A great value at $20.99.
The Loire is a beautiful place to visit, with its vineyards, gardens, and orchards, as well as its amazing architecture. The wines are some of the world’s finest examples of their respective varietals. Despite the rather difficult growing climate, they are also reasonably priced. If you are planning that special dinner, check out the Loire for a great wine to accompany it.