Visit the Centre-Loire in spring and you will likely meet winemakers whose heart is beating at one with the vines, their restless sleep alert to the possibility of nightmarish frosts. As threatening as this might sound, their anxiety is only the darker side of the region’s fundamental beauty – the lives of men and women shaped by the rhythms of nature and by the growing cycles of their vineyards.
While being part of the larger Loire region – certainly one of the wine world’s most diverse, distinct and innovative – the Centre-Loire has a character very much of its own within the larger context of its parent boundaries. Different geology, portfolio of varieties and wine styles shape this singularity, as does the grit, resilience and passion of its producers.
Each vintage is a landmark of symbiotic achievement of vine and men; each wine stamped by the place, time, and winemaker that crafted it; each life event experienced through the lenses of the growing season. “The year my first child was born was a frost vintage…” is a parallel you will likely hear when sharing a glass of wine and a Crottin de Chavignol with one of the local producers.
At the very centre
Drive 200 km southbound from Paris, or roughly 500 km eastwards from the point where the Loire meets the Atlantic, to find the eight AOCs that form the Centre-Loire. This location, at France’s exact geographical centre and roughly halfway between the river’s source and mouth, could not be more symbolic; a region at the core of its country’s winemaking history and heritage, defined by its unique landscape and people.
With 5,964 hectares of vineyards, 80% of which planted to the flagship variety Sauvignon Blanc, a mosaic of different soils brings diversity and expressiveness to the wines. Limestone and clay dominate the three main geologic profiles which can often be seen on labels: Terres Blanches, based on calcareous marine sediments and rich in fossils, known to produce the most structured and age-worthy wines; Caillotes, shallow limestone soils (also known as Griottes when the stone units are smaller), yield the most delicate, aromatic and approachable wines; Silex, the distinct flinty soils whose heat retention ability leads to early ripening and whose mineral content produce wines of trademark smokiness.
The eight AOCs, and vineyard area, are almost evenly distributed between the right and left banks of the Loire. Sancerre stretches from the river’s left bank to Menetou-Salon, which touches it to the southwest. Further in the same direction, across the river Cher, are Quincy, Reuilly and, a short drive south, Châteaumeillant. On the Loire’s right bank, facing Sancerre, are Pouilly-Fumé (the Sauvignon Blanc- only AOC shares its perimeter with Pouilly-Sur-Loire, for single-varietal Chasselas) and Coteaux du Giennois.
Reinterpretation of classics – Diversity and character
The Centre-Loire has shaped, rather than inherited, the classical, renowned styles it has become famous for, and against which producers from all countries and walks of life measure their own wines against. This is a region that has innovation, as much as tradition, as a fundamental value, having actively redefined itself – namely through the choice of its flagship variety – following the tragedies of phylloxera and two world wars. Before that, Pinot Noir was the most planted grape, but insightful producers recognised the potential for unique quality in the region’s Sauvignon Blancs, which soon became the local queen grape.
Unlike the fussy Pinot, Sauvignon Blanc showed more adaptability to the challenging growing seasons and, most importantly, an outstanding capacity to capture the purity and singularity of the region’s soils. Attuned to the character of their vineyards and seeking a transparent expression of terroir, winemakers refined a style based on the unmasked expression of Sauvignon Blanc and the nuances of soils and vintage. If the wines of Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé are ubiquitous on restaurant lists and shelves it is because there is wide recognition, among buyers, sommeliers and consumers alike, of the style, quality and precision attached to those names.
This being said, there’s a renewed interest in the viticultural history that preceded the dominance of Sauvignon Blanc. A new generation of winemakers is championing a deeper, more complex understanding of the history that informs their work in the present and is therefore rediscovering (and in some cases replanting) other varieties and their historical affinity with plots in the multiple appellations of Centre-Loire. Chasselas, Pinot Gris, Gamay and Pinot
Noir (which accounts for 15% of total plantings) are reclaiming their own space in the viticultural and stylistic landscape of Centre-Loire, catalysing a reevaluation of tradition and heritage, and opening new opportunities.
Centre-Loire AOCs and their wine styles:
Sancerre – White wines from Sauvignon Blanc only; red and rosé from Pinot Noir only. 3,007 ha under vine.
Menetou-Salon – White wines from Sauvignon Blanc only; red and rosé from Pinot Noir only. 627 ha under vine.
Quincy – White wines from Sauvignon Blanc only. 332 ha under vine.
Reuilly – White wines from Sauvignon Blanc only; rosé from Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris; red from Pinot Noir only. 288 ha under vine.
Châteaumeillant – Red and rosé (vin gris) from Pinot Noir and Gamay. 61 ha under vine.
Pouilly-Fumé – White wines from Sauvignon Blanc only. 1,379 ha under vine.
Pouilly-sur-Loire – White wines from Chasselas only. 25 ha under vine.
Coteaux du Giennois – White wines from Sauvignon Blanc only; red and rosé from Pinot Noir and Gamay. 179 ha under vine.
Generations working together
There is, likewise, a collective effort to understand how to work in a more sustainable way, both to optimise the use of natural and social resources, and to face the challenges of climate change. As weather events – not least frosts – become ever more unpredictable and severe, producers are aware of the need to promote the resistance and adaptability of the vines. This collective effort has been well supported by the SICAVAC, a multidisciplinary research institute, funded by and supporting all the region’s producers. The institute has done important research on clonal resistance, massal selection, rootstocks and soil profiling, and provides ongoing training on sustainable practices and biodynamics. Not by chance, the Centre-Loire has an impressive 47% of producers with sustainability certifications: 31% organic certified or under conversion; 10% with the Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE) stamp; 6% certified Terra Vitis.
The uniqueness of SICAVAC’s structure, founded and funded by the producers themselves and based exclusively on the reality of their work in the vineyards and cellars, is a perfect example of the pioneering spirit and dynamism that runs through the region’s veins. Seen in winemaking expertise, continuous research and relentless commitment to quality, this attitude is a continuous thread throughout the generations of winemakers that safeguard tradition with an open-mind and worldly view. As one producer put it: ‘We look at our future on the world stage by understanding and being faithful to the forces within.”
Beyond Sauvignon Blanc
You would be forgiven for only thinking of single-varietal Sauvignon Blanc upon mention of the Centre-Loire. As stated above there are, however, other grapes and styles to discover, equally, if not more, linked to the region’s viticultural history. Producers themselves are finding that the exploration of a more comprehensive range is essential to truly understand their terroirs and face an unpredictable future. If the Sauvignon Blancs from
Sancerre, Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Pouilly-Fumé are known for their idiosyncratic mineral backbone and the intricate specificities imparted by each micro-terroir, the same could be said of the red wines produced by many of Centre-Loire’s appellations. A lot can be expected from the style that is perhaps Centre-Loire’s best kept secret, produced in both early-drinking and age-worthy styles. Pinot Noirs, Gamays and blends of the two are starting to be recognised for what they are: wines of approachable elegance and with unpretentious poise.
To say that the Pinot Noirs from Centre- Loire are Burgundian in character and structure would be easy and perhaps somewhat accurate. But it would also be misleading as they have an identity of their own; a particular mineral nerve, a fleshiness of fruit and a mid-palate grip to the tannins providing an unmistakable Centre-Loire fingerprint. The rosés from the variety are imbued with this same cool climate vibrancy, the best examples favouring the subtlety of fine-grained tannins and a delicious herbal edge. The Pinot Gris from Reuilly, on the other hand, are particularly intriguing expressions of the pink-skinned grape, with fresh nuts and orchard fruit giving at once elegance and complexity.
And there are, of course, also lesser known whites to discover. The Chasselas of Pouilly-Sur-Loire or the vin gris from Châteaumeillant are as rare as they are interesting – yet another reason to visit the Centre-Loire and dare beyond the expected or known.
And should you need an argument more, the region’s wines have evolved with the local cuisine, equally intriguing, authentic and altogether delicious. A visit to the Centre-Loire will always be a journey to the heart of the best wine, food and people.
Eight Centre-Loire wines to try:
Domaine Vacheron, Les Romains, Sancerre 2020
£57.50-£59.80 Frazier’s Wine Merchants, Hedonism Wines
Robust minerality gives both structure and drive to this characterful Sancerre. The fruit hails from the Les Romains, lieu-dit with silex soils planted in the 1950s, and is fermented in old barrels where it then spends one year on the lees. The quality of the grapes is apparent in the fleshy citrus and white orchard fruit, supported by the textural appeal imparted by both terroir and winemaking. Biodynamic certified. A wine to be savoured at length alongside grilled tiger prawns or roast chicken.
Drink 2022-2033 Alcohol 14.5%
Domaine Chavet, Clos de Coquin, Menetou-Salon 2020
Intriguing Menetou-Salon from the robust 2020 vintage, showing generosity of fruit perfectly balanced by affirmative acidity. Juicy mango, grilled pineapple and peach are enlivened by flat-leaf parsley, chopped coriander and white pepper. A wine with great energy and intriguing complexity. Pair with savoury cheese soufflé or grilled sea bream.
Drink 2022-2025 Alc 14%
Francis Blanchet, Silice, Pouilly-Fumé 2020
£17.25 Stone Vine & Sun, The Fine Wine Co., Christophe Keiller – Fine Wine Wervices
A wine full on all four quadrants; broad yet also so linear. Ripe fleshy citrus, peach and Golden apples, all seasoned by a pinch of salt. There’s an added layer of nutty richness that is very appealing and adds intrigue, while acting as a counterpoint to the driving acid. Good potential
to develop in bottle. Have with a generous cheese platter.
Drink 2022-2032 Alc 14%
Jean-Pierre Bailly, Les Griottes, Pouilly-Fumé 2021
£18.99 Majestic Wine
Gooseberry, green apple peel and blackcurrant on the nose. The palate surprises for the suppleness of riper fruit (pear, lemon curd, quince) balanced by the mineral backbone and gentle grip. Great lift and persistence to the zesty finish. Drink alongside a seafood platter or a selection of medium- cured cheeses.
Drink 2022-2023 Alc 12.5%
Adèle Rouzé, Cuvée Domaine, Quincy 2021
£18 Roberson Wines
Such an alluring yet unpretentious wine. Preserved lemon, crunchy pear and fleshy quince are topped by a subtle touch of smoke and nuts. The weight of the clay-rich soils comes through on the broad mid-palate and the medium, gently almondy, finish. An appealing wine, perfect for everyday drinking.
Drink 2022-2022 Alc 13%
Domaine Bernard Petit et Fille, Pouilly-Sur-Loire 2020
A drinking proof that it’s well worth discovering Pouilly-Sur-Loire, the Chasselas- only appellation that overlaps Pouilly-Fumé. This 2020 shows the variety at its best: white grapefruit, lemon zest, bitter almonds and hay earthiness. Flinty touch to the medium finish. Enjoy with summer salads or poached cod.
Drink 2022-2023 Alc 11.5%
Domaine Gérard Cordier, Pinot Gris, Reuilly 2021
£15.50 Yapp Brothers
A lovely, characterful expression of Pinot Gris, with fleshy fruit, floral nuances and vibrant zestiness. Juicy peach, pink grapefruit, pear and yellow apple mingle with crushed rose petals and fresh almonds. Mineral lift to the finish. A wine made to be enjoyed with food – serve alongside salmon tartare, grilled prawns or goat’s cheese salad for a perfect match.
Drink 2022-2023 Alc 13.5%
Domaine Denizot, Biorga, Sancerre 2020
£32.60 Hedonism Wines
The top red from this exciting small family estate, run by 6th generation Thibauld and wife Jennifer, produced with fruit from 60-year- old vines planted on Caillotes. Supple, ripe red fruit – peaches plums, wild strawberries, raspberry jam – is given vibrancy and texture by a sprinkle of white and red pepper. The tannins are firm yet so fine, driving the palate all the way to the long, spicy finish. Elegant and delicious. Enjoy with entrecôte, smoked sausages or steak with mustard sauce.
Drink 2022-2032 Alc 14.5%
Discover more about Vins du Centre-Loire here