This region of outstanding wine production is also famous for its multitude of castles - and makes the perfect holiday destination. It’s westerly location, ease of access to the Channel and the Atlantic had the Loire Valley perfectly poised for export market success. It was not to be, with first the French Revolution, followed by development elsewhere and successive wars all taking their toll. Today many of the wines here are extremely undervalued, and represent one of the few remaining bargains of all the classic wine regions of France.
There are 4 main areas we need to know about, working from west to east they are: the Nantais, Anjou-Saumur, Touraine and the Central Vineyards…
This is the westerly outpost of the Loire, where the river enters the Atlantic ocean, which has a massive influence on the climate (temperate, damp and humid) and thus the style of wine produced.
The key wine produced here is Muscadet, made from Melon de Bourgogne, which is hardy, frost resistant and early ripening - all crucial aspects considering the northerly latitude. Sur Lie is an important term here, and generally indicative of higher quality production, where the wine remains in contact with its fine lees for at least the winter prior to bottling. This process gives the wine more freshness and often a light co2 bubble which can help prevent oxidation.
As the seaside location suggests, the wines of the Nantais are best consumed with local fare including oysters, prawns and mussels.
This is the beating heart of the Loire Valley, and the area with the highest production of red, white, rosé and sweet wines. It’s a large area, stretching from Angers in the west, still influenced by the Atlantic ocean, around 50km further east to Saumur.
Chenin Blanc is the great white grape here, with its high natural acidity and sugar making it perfect for sparkling production, powerful dry whites as well as complex sweet wines. It is particularly well suited to cooler climates, explaining why it does so well here. Chenin Blanc wines are characterised by apple, peach, apricot, and especially floral aromas when young. Young wines can have flavours that vary from fresh apple to exotic fruit, depending on the ripeness of the grapes. There can also be smoky mineral notes and the influence of botrytis.
Key appellations for Chenin Blanc are: Savennières (probably the greatest dry Chenin Blanc appellation in the world), Saumur Blanc (dry whites of increasingly good quality, particularly from Brézé), Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume (Grand Cru) and Bonnezeaux - for sweet wines influenced by Botrytis rot.
Cabernet Franc is also prominent, particularly in the east around Saumur-Champigny. The outstanding wines of Clos Rougeard are as responsible as any for the elevation of this sub-region. They are extremely rare and should be drunk on sight.
Centred around the town of Tours, this is the production region some of the Loire’s greatest red wines as well as most complex Chenin Blanc. The key sub-regions are Chinon and Bourgueil (red) as well as Vouvray and Montoius-sur-Loire (white, both dry and sweet).
Chinon and Bourgueil have subtle soil differences, which alongside their differing vicinity to the river account for their stylistic divergence. Chinon broadly produces two styles, lighter wines from the river banks and fuller bodied wines from the platueax and terraces (fuller bodied being a general term as these wines are medium at best), whereas Bourgueil produces a fuller bodied style of Cabernet Franc from its warmer mesoclimate.
Vouvray (north) and Montlouis (south) occupy opposing riverbanks of the Loire with aspect playing an important role in the overall wine styles. Vouvray, facing the south and benefiting from higher ripeness produces a swathe of styles ranging from dry to lusciously sweet. Sec meaning truly dry, is only produced in the best vintages from the top sites (look out for these). Sec-Tendre meaning off-dry is more popular, with a touch of residual sugar balancing the searing natural acidity. Demi-Sec has a little more sugar, which may not be easily perceptible due to the high acid, much like good German Riesling. Generally speaking, the wines of Montlouis are a touch lighter, however there are some outstanding producers here, such as Francois Chidaine, whose wines you should certainly look out for.
The most inland and Continental of the Loire regions, responsible for the greatest Sauvignon Blanc wines of the world as well as some top quality Pinot Noir.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are the two famous names here, generally producing wines that are dry with crisp acidity and marked Sauvignon aromas and flavours of gooseberries, citrus fruits or fresh blackcurrants. The major difference is soil, with Sancerre having high proportions of chalk and marine fossil rich (not dissimilar to Chablis) soils and Pouilly-Fumé more flint and limestone (said to give a light smoky aroma).
The best wines are produced from the village of Chavignol and in particular the Les Monts Damnés vineyard - look out for produces such as Cotat and Dageneau for some of the greatest examples of Sauvignon Blanc, more than capable of extended cellar ageing.
Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Reuilly are all great sources of excellent value Sauvignon, particuarly in better vintages.
Rosé is a big deal in the Loire Valley, although not all of it is good. Sancerre rosé made from Pinot Noir and Chinon rosé made from Cabernet Franc are the best examples, particularly when made by one of the top producers. They are refreshing and more fruit forward than their Provence rivals, and equally as delicious.