The Loire is undoubtedly the most diverse and extensive of France’s classic wine regions. As we might expect, there is a vast difference in styles from Nantes on the Atlantic coast where the Loire River starts its journey to Sancerre, which marks the end of the region. This is a stunning wine region with elegant Châteaux dotted around the banks of the Loire; you are unlikely to find any corporate winemaking here. Generations of families continue to make light, elegant reds and whites, perfect for summer drinking. Much of the region is steeped in tradition, but, at the same time, plenty of new quality-conscious producers are emerging in all the appellations. Many of them are committed to organic farming; something easier said than done in this particularly wet climate!
Our journey down the Loire begins with the Pays Nantais, southwest of the city of Nantes (well worth a visit in its own right). Muscadet is the primary wine produced here, an extremely dry and steely wine perfect for shellfish. The most important appellation is arguably Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine, with the best wines bottled using the “sur lie” technique. This means the wine spends a period of time on the yeasty sediment left over after fermentation for added richness. Further east and stretching towards the south of Anjou and Saumur is the heart of the Vins de Pays du Jardin de la France; increasingly good value white is appearing here.
The Anjou appellation includes red, rose, and white wines. It covers a vast area north and south of the River Loire, from the west of Angers east to beyond Saumur. The quality is generally high, with some stylish, oak fermented whites from the region’s major white variety, Chenin Blanc. Reds tend to be light, ripe, and juicy, with more full-bodied examples from Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. The best red has its own AC, Anjou-Villages, and some excellent wines are being made from Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon. The most excellent wines here are the intense dry whites of Savennières and the dessert wines of Coteaux du Layon. These sweet wines are relatively restrained and age-worthy, with a beautiful honeyed richness. A small amount of fine sweet Chenin Blanc is also made at Saumur and labeled Coteaux de Saumur.
The vineyards of Saumur are also a haven for sparkling wine production. As well as sparkling Saumur, there is also the catch-all appellation of Crémant de Loire; there are a few offshoots of the big Champagne houses in the region. Quality can be outstanding, and the wines are not expensive. The wines are more green apple in character than rich and biscuity in the style of Champagne. Saumur’s best wines are the barrel-fermented still white Chenin Blancs of the Saumur AC and the rich, ripe reds of Saumur-Champigny. Wines from the appellation Chinon are produced exclusively from Cabernet Franc, light, elegant, and soft wines.
Moving east along the river, we arrive at Touraine. Like Anjou, there is a catch-all Touraine AC. Sauvignon Blanc is a principal grape here; think crisp, refreshing gooseberry-flavored whites. In the far west of the region are the red wine appellations of Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil north of the river Loire and Chinon just to the south. The best of these wines are excellent value, delicious soft reds. Finally, just to the east of the city of Tours are the vineyards of Vouvray and Mountlois. Vouvray is on the north of the river, Montouis, just to the south. Some fantastic dry and sweet wines are made here; the latter can be some of the world’s greatest and longest-lived sweet wines. Green and minerally in their youth, they become increasingly rich and honeyed with age. Sheer elegance in a glass.
Several less famous Touraine appellations are, nonetheless, worth a look. To the west of Tours can be found Touraine Azay-Le-Rideau and to the east of Vouvray and Montlouis Touraine-Amboise and Touraine-Mesland. Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon feature for the reds and Chenin Blanc for the whites. To the south of Blois are the regions of Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny. To the North of Tours, we come across the Coteaux du Loir region and its sub-region of Jasnières. The climate here is extremely marginal, a winemaker’s nightmare. Only a protected mesoclimate offers any hope of fully ripe wines in bad years, yet another example of winegrowers’ many challenges.
Further east, we arrive at the heartland of Sauvignon Blanc in The Loire, Quincy, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon, Sancerre, and last but by no means least, Pouilly-Fumé. That pungent, crisp, refreshing style of Sauvignon was coined here long before those New Zealanders started exporting what has become the white wine drink of choice for many wine lovers. Good Pinot Noir is also made at Sancerre and to a lesser extent at Mentou-Salon. Different in style from Burgundy, the wines are usually extremely light and refreshing to drink and can be enjoyed even unaccompanied by food.
Loire is well worth a visit
The wines of the Loire are, in essence, perfect for those long summer nights and warm evenings. Beautiful, refreshing whites and elegant light reds invoke BBQ fish, shellfish, and picnics in the shade. Traveling along the river banks and visiting its many stately Châteaux is an experience that few will forget, and all will relish. Nantes and Tours dazzle visitors with their impressive architecture and abundant good restaurants, shops, and bars. Sit in the square and sip a glass of Sancerre – heaven.