In Loire in central France wine is produced from vineyards along the Loire river and its many tributaries, with majestic castles dotted in between. Loire has made its’ name from its white Sauvignon Blanc wines from the Upper Loire including Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, its Chenin Blanc from the Middle Loire including Anjou-Saumur, as well as its Cabernet Franc’s from Bourgueil and Chinon among others.
It was in Chinon that the French national hero, Joan of Arc at just age 17 in 1429 took it upon herself to liberate France from the English empire. This history of France is ever present when touring towns and vineyards along their longest river, running 1000 km from Massif Central to the Atlantic coast passing Orléans (150 km south of Paris) on the way.
The first vine plantings came to Loire with the Romans. In the 9th to the 12th centuries, monastic life accelerated vineyard development and the French royals’ love for wine accelerated further winemaking in the Loire during the European Renaissance, particularly between the 14th and 17th centuries.
Winemaking in Loire
Loire is known for its rich geological diversity with a wide range of different soil types and micro climates which influences both the grape varieties grown and winemaking practices used.
So here we think it's best to defer from talk of the wines and instead focus on the main sub-regions along the 1000 km long Loire River.
In the lower Loire around Nantes to the west, the region is in proximity to the Atlantic seasonal variations. The dominating grape here is Melon de Bourgogne, a distant relative of Chardonnay.
Soils in this part of Loire are with schist, granite, bedrock, sand and other stones. This provides for great drainage, a critical element for producing wines of quality in this wet part of France. Wines from the Lower Loire tend to be high in minerality as well as light and delicate with bold aromas.
Other important grapes here are Folle Blanche and Pinot Gris.
As we head inland, we begin to arrive in the towns and appellations around Touraine, Chinon, Saumur and Vouvray. Here the winters are mild but the summers get warmer as we are approaching a continental climate. In this part of France, you find a high number of historic places and famed Loire appellations and wines. It is also here two of the areas' all-star grapes Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc have reached the most recognition (with the third, Sauvignon Blanc, being most famed when further upstream in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, see further down).
Great winemaking in Middle Loire comes not just from the climate – the warmest in Loire – but also from the diversity in soil types and quickly changing conditions in the weather. Anjou for example, has dark schist in the western part which allows for the making of more powerful, structured wines with all cellars above ground because one cannot penetrate the hard rock – while in the eastern part just a few kilometres away soils are rich in limestone, perfect for production of sparkling whites and easy digging for underground cellars. The variations are really quite amazing.
Heading further inland – just before you enter the most northern sub-region of Burgundy, we arrive in probably the most widely recognised region of the Loire, the homes of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Weather here is continental, with pleasantly warm summers and snowy cold winters.
Soils are chalky limestone and if you take a vineyard walk don’t be surprised if you discover oyster shells and other shells between the vines!
Sauvignon Blanc production reigns supreme here – though you will also find some great Pinot Noirs, another testament to the region’s proximity to Burgundy.
Drink young – then wait – then drink again
Most wines from the Loire, both red and white, are high in acidity and are highly enjoyable with fresh and crisp flavours when drunk young. From there comes a phase of a few years – 3, 4 and 5 years in the bottle – where it is often a good idea to drink other vintages or wines while waiting for the next big kick to set in. During the “in-between” phase many great Loire wines can lose some freshness and are still too young to have had time to develop a second layer of flavours. After this period in production, good quality Loire wines come fighting and displaying a full palate of flavours, which can continue to improve for another 15-20 years if stored correctly. This goes with many white as well, for example with those from Vouvray being renowned for their longevity.
With the Sauvignon Blanc it is a bit different: They tend stay more low-key until their third year, when they mature and display their full palate of flavours – and are best enjoyed within the next 5 years after that.
A great diversity of quality – yet affordable – wines and styles reflecting a similarly diverse terroir.What are the most popular grape varieties in Loire?
Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin, Melon de Bourgogne, Muscadet, Cabernet Franc.What types of food works well with wines from Loire?
Cabernet Franc for lighter style foods. Darker, fuller wines for savoury foods. Chenin Blanc for scallops, sushi and spice. Sauvignon Blanc for goat cheese and salads