The Loire Valley is home to enormous variations in climate, landscape and soils. It produces some of the world’s finest white and red wines, and because many of its white wines have garnered long-standing prestige on a global scale, it’s worth spending a little time to get to know them better.
The valley boasts an incredible combination of natural environment and historical significance in France. Indeed, the area between Angers and Orleans is known as the Garden of France (Le Jardin de la France). A name that was coined in the 16th century.
Place and time
To begin enjoying the enormous variation in landscape and vineyard expression it helps to think about the French descriptions for “terroir”. A word that embodies place, geography, history and the intrinsic qualities of the vine where it flourishes. It combines the specificity of the grape and the esoteric qualities of terroir.
Moving from west to east, this expansive valley is home to the Loire River and a large number of tributaries and estuaries that weave across the landscape, offering warmth in the cooler spring and fall days, microclimates all across the valley, and much needed water for the vines. The climate gradually shifts from maritime in the West where the Loire and the Atlantic Ocean collide, to Continental as the river moves east. From the signature tuffeau limestone formed from ancient sea beds to the volcanic sediments in the central and southern regions, the geography is as diverse as the grapes that thrive there.
The Loire Valley is divided into zones that define the geography, geology and climate, and the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOCs) of the wines – the standard set for wine in specific areas within France. The AOCs of the Lower, Middle, Centre-Loire are the principal homes to melon blanc, chenin blanc, and sauvignon blanc grapes, respectively. The grapes grow under different conditions – which is reflected in their flavour profiles. Food pairings that enhance both food and wine flavours are different, and as we travel along the valley we’ll look at the expression of the grapes in their different wine styles – dry, sweet and sparkling, and what to eat alongside these expressive wines.
As a region, the Loire Valley is France’s largest white wine producer, and its second-largest sparkling wine producer. These days there is a growth in organic and biodynamic wine production. Winemaking rules are not even-handed for all winemakers. The biodynamic producers have a large number of regulations to follow yet the same is not so for natural wine production. This leads to some divergence of opinion amongst trends that are increasing in popularity. Rancor amongst grape growers and wine producers in the Loire is nothing new. Since the mid-12th century, politics has divided the Loire on language, culture and religion. In the 21st century, the wines of the Loire Valley offer an array of flavours and styles that pay homage to the past and reflect the changes in current tastes.
Diversity across Geography
The Lower Loire, the Pays Nantais, is home to 75 percent of the melon de Bourgogne grape planted in the Loire Valley. Used to craft a dry, white wine almost all the Muscadet region AOCs here are 100 percent melon de Bourgogne. The wine can be labeled Muscadet or Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine which is high in acid and typically shows a minerality that is balanced against green apple and pear flavours. It’s great paired with all types of seafood such as oysters, scallops and shrimp, salmon, chicken and a wide variety of vegetables.
The Middle Loire is often referred to by the regions that dominate the vineyard production. In Anjou and Samur the wine styles range from dry to semi-sweet to sweet, and are still, sparkling and rosé. In Anjou’s AOCs the whites focus primarily on chenin blanc which is an incredibly versatile grape used to make sparkling, semi-sweet and sweet wines, and some dry wines in several of the appellations.
Lying between the Anjou AOCs are Anjou-Coteaux de la Loire AOC and Coteaux de l’Aubance AOC. They are famous for their sweet chenin wines. The bottle label must indicate if the sweetness comes from Botrytis cinerea known as “Noble Rot” on the grape skins rather than simply late harvested grapes. Savennières AOC, also on the right bank of the Loire, produces semi-sweet and sweet wines.
Chenin blanc’s medium body and fresh fruit flavours allow the off-dry version to be easily paired with spicy foods and served chilled. The dry and sparkling styles pair nicely with roast meats and seafood. Fresh cheeses like brie and camembert are also a good match for chenin blanc. Good pairings for the fresh acidity in these wines are foods that are salty or tend to be higher in fat such as soft cheeses, fried chicken, ham, pork tenderloin, and sausage.
Moving further east along the Loire River in Middle Loire is Touraine. Here, sauvignon blanc is about 80 percent of grape growing along with some chenin blanc and chardonnay. The AOCs in this region can be dry, semi-sweet, sweet and sparkling. Of all the AOCs in this region, the most famous is Vouvray. Vouvray AOC is Middle Loire’s largest producer with a chenin blanc focus and there are, at last count, 160 wine producers making over 15 million bottles of wine in Vouvray alone. Nearly 60 percent of its production is sparkling and this AOC also has a large focus on organic viticultural practices. Montlouis-Sur-Loire AOC to the south of Vouvray, on the opposite bank of the Loire River, has its own style of sparkling wine called petillant original – a sparkling wine method that was not approved until 2017.
Whether your tastes run to dry, sweet, still or sparkling wines, the Loire Valley has a style to suit almost every palate.
Sparkling white and rosé wines from the Crémant de Loire AOC have gained enormous popularity in recent years. Hand-harvesting of the grapes is required here which is needed for selection of the grapes for sweet wines. The region’s whites tend to be crisp and fresh with a tropical fruit note. Sparkling wines are said to have Fines Bulles (fine bubbles), famous in the region with a dry, fresh character that can have both strawberry and herbal characters. They are best enjoyed within the first two to three years of release. Some of the best food pairings are seafood with dry whites, and desserts or salty cheeses with sparkling wines.
The most well recognized and celebrated regions of the Centre Loire are the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé AOCs (close to Chablis in Burgundy). Sauvignon blanc is king here with almost 80 percent of all AOC wine production from these two areas. Due to the rise in popularity of Sancerre it has also led to changes in the overall quality of many bottlings as winemakers rush their product to market. Sancerre sauvignon blanc wines at their best are ready to drink soon after bottling and don’t age well past two to three years, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine (Fourth Edition, 2015).
The silex, flinty soils of Pouilly-Fumé impart the so-called smoky flavour to the wines crafted from sauvignon blanc. Oysters, fresh, salty, soft cheeses, crisp salads with creamy or oil-based dressing pair exceptionally well with Sancerre which has notes of lime, grapefruit, and gooseberry. The smokiness of Pouilly-Fume pairs well with chicken dishes, pasta dishes like lasagne, tomato-based foods and sea foods.
Whether your tastes run to dry, sweet, still or sparkling wines, the Loire Valley has a style to suit almost every palate. Access to the wines has become much easier than ever with price points to suit just about every pocket.
Gillian Marks, MPH, Ph.D. is a Certified Sherry Wine Specialist (CSWS®) from the Wine Scholar Guild and has a Wine and Spirits Education Trust – Level 2 Certification in Wine. Her career in Nutrition, Toxicology and Risk Assessment has brought her from England to Southern California and she has lived and worked across the US, South Korea and Canada. Gillian is presently the Senior Director of Environment, Health & Safety and Risk Programs at San Diego State University, and when she is not fully engaged in keeping SDSU safe, she exercises her passion for Sherry and French wines seeking out opportunities to educate, write and learn as often as possible.