In many ways the Loire Valley wine is the essence of France. The river is 1,000km long and drains two-fifths of the country; the French Court lived in various châteaux along its banks during the Hundred Years War and the Renaissance; modern French cuisine may well have been born here when Catherine de Medici married Henry II and brought her Italian chefs with her; and it is often said that the purest French is spoken in Touraine.
It is appropriate that UNESCO has designated the Valley between Sully-sur-Loire (a little to the east of Orléans) and Chalonnes (west of Angers) as a world heritage site. This is the region the French call the Val de Loire. It covers virtually all the famous parts of the Valley – the most renowned châteaux, all the major towns with the exception of Nantes and many of the best known vineyards, even though Muscadet, Pouilly and Sancerre are hors designation.The Val de Loire has a gentle beauty and climate. There is often a sense of space and sky, especially up on the plateaus between the river valleys, but there are no spectacular hills or cliffs. After its initial youthful exuberance in the Auvergne, the main river descends very gently towards the sea, shadowed by many of its tributaries, and this makes the area ideal terrain for those wanting to explore it by bike.
The Loire is a region for wandering and taking your time. Of course, the famous châteaux are worth seeing, but there are also many enchanting corners off the main tourist paths, including pretty valleys and attractive, less well known châteaux and manor houses. This is not to say that the river is always benign; it can exhibit treacherous currents, be difficult to navigate and, over the years, many have drowned in it. The Loire and tributaries like the Cher, Indre and Vienne flood quite frequently and vines in the lower lying Chinon vineyards often have their roots in water in wet winters.
Tuffeau or tufa is the traditional building material in the Val de Loire. This white-to-honey-coloured limestone was used not only in the construction of châteaux such as Azay-le-Rideau and Chenonceaux, but also is still used in many of the houses throughout Touraine and Saumur. As the limestone was quarried from the hillsides, the by-product, in turn, has been ideal cellars for making and storing wine, as well as growing mushrooms and even accommodating troglodyte homes.
The source of the Loire is nearly 600km upstream of Sully. The river rises at the Gerber de Jonc in the Auvergne, close to the Ardèche, in a rugged landscape only 100 miles or so from the Mediterranean. For the first few kilometres the nascent Loire plunges southwards as though reluctant to start the long journey north and west to the Atlantic. The first vineyards are some 150km downstream in the Côtes de Forez, around Boën, to the north of Saint-Etienne. It is a fitting coincidence that Pouilly-Fumé, the first internationally known appellation, is the river’s halfway point. There is a sign on the bridge at the small town of Pouilly that reads ‘496km to the source, 496km to the sea’.
The Loire is a climatic boundary and the dividing line between northern and southern France. Often, if you’re travelling across the flat cornlands of the Beauce, the weather will be cold and wet only for the skies to clear on reaching the Loire – the first intimations of the sunnier, hotter weather of the southern half of France.
More on Loire Wines
Some complain that Loire wines are difficult to understand because there are so many appellations and permutations of grape varieties, but it is important to stand back and see the larger picture before worrying about the detail. There is certainly a diversity of wines – from bone dry to concentrated sweetness, from light, easy quaffing reds to deep coloured wines that need to be cellared, as well as various rosés and sparkling wines. However, they all have one signature – their backbone of acidity or nervosité. Loire wines have an unmistakable vibrancy that means many of them age remarkably well. This is not only true for the moelleux wines of Vouvray, which are known for their virtual indestructibility, but also for Muscadet which can remain fresh for at least 20 years. Even top Chinons, such as Clos d’Echo from the fine 1964 vintage, are still holding up well.
As the main wine-producing areas extend over some 400km inland from the coast, it is not surprising that there are some significant differences in climate between the Pays Nantais and Pouilly-Sancerre. Admittedly these are not as marked as the ones between Beaune and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but nevertheless, climate variations do explain why the choice of grape variety changes as you move downstream.
It is natural that Gamay is the choice in the Côtes de Forez and the Côte Roannaise, as they are close to the Beaujolais. Pinot Noir and Sauvignon are the dominant varieties in the central vineyards that include Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon and Saint-Pourçain. The ‘semi-continental’ climate determines that the varieties planted here have to be early ripening. Eastern Touraine is a transition zone, and Sauvignon and Pinot Noir continue along with significant plantings of Gamay, but you start to find Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and even some Cabernet Sauvignon. West of Tours Pinot Noir and Sauvignon virtually disappear, giving way to Cabernet Franc and Chenin. These two varieties dominate until the eastern end of the Pays Nantais, where the Atlantic imposes the need for early ripening varieties – Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet) and Gros Plant. Fortunately the Loire vineyard remains a region of family producers. There are very few multinational companies here and buying direct from the producer is the best way to get to know these wines, as well as the people who make them.