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PREMIUM

Tours and Touraine: A wine lover’s guide

Opulent châteaux, manicured gardens, relaxation on or by the river, and a fantastically diverse wine scene on tap – yet this enchanting Loire valley region still flies comparatively low on holidaymakers’ radar.

Rolling hills in Burgundy; the sun-baked slopes of Provence; the grand estates of Bordeaux – they all evoke a clear holiday picture. In comparison, lesser-known Touraine is trickier to pin down in the mind’s eye. It takes a real-life visit to this underrated appellation in the Middle Loire to realize the abundance of its appeal. But in truth, the ‘Garden of France’ has everything you could want in a Gallic getaway.

There’s the endless series of opulent châteaux, filled with treasures and flanked with formal gardens clipped by box hedges. A handsome regional capital, Tours, with half-timbered architecture and Joan of Arc history. Sleepy little villages with cafes turning out salads topped with sharp local goat’s cheese; lush, trail-lined Loches forest. And, of course, rippling through all of it, the mighty Loire river, the region’s lifeline. Once a key trading route, for you it equals leisurely evening cruises, afternoon kayak sessions or scenic waterside cycling routes.

Place Plumereau in Tours old town. Credit: F Godard / Andia Universal Group via Getty Images

And, of course, there is the wine. Despite a surface area of ​​just 5,500ha – stretching roughly 100km from around Blois in the east to Bourgueil in the west – the Touraine appellation claims vast stylistic diversity. There are lively sparklings and luscious sweet whites; juicy rosés and generous reds. Celebrated names such as Chinon and Vouvray sit alongside little-known ones such as Montlouis-sur-Loire (Vouvray’s reflection just across on the south side of the Loire river).

Most producers are small, often working across multiple styles and sub-regions. Humble tasting rooms ooze familial warmth, with many set atop cellars – resulting from tuffeau limestone being harvested to build the region’s magnificent châteaux. Flinty clay (perruches), sand and gravel soils realize Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc – the Loire poster grapes, white and red – in the full spectrum of their diversity. Rarer Romorantin, Arbois and Pineau d’Aunis join the mix, too, alongside the likes of Sauvignon Blanc , Grolleau Noir and Côt ( Malbec ). Whichever cellar door you end up at, one thing Touraine tastings are not boring.

Each day holds a new adventure, always backlit by resplendent architecture. Begin in gateway city Tours, in the heart of the region, about a 90-minute direct train ride from Paris, Gare Montparnasse. Here, a magnificent cathedral is testament to the city’s medieval grandeur, while creating buildings once hosted the likes of Joan of Arc. Visit the photogenic old centre, then pop into little wine bars pouring bargain tipples (sometimes £3 a glass) to get a vinous overview of the region. Pork rillettes or piquant local goat’s cheeses such as ashy Ste-Maure de Touraine provide the perfect stomach lining.


My perfect weekend in Tours & Touraine

Au Chapeau Rouge, Chinon

Friday

Kick off with a history lesson in gateway city Tours, taking in the cathedral on Rue Lavoisier and the half-timbered architecture on Place Plumereau. Then strike out to pretty riverside Amboise – 30 minutes east – home to a must-see château and cute restaurants. Get an overview of Touraine wines on Place Michel Debré with tastings at La Cave on Place Michel Debré and riverside cellars Caves Ambacia on Rue du Rocher des Violettes. The latter sells Vouvray demi-sec vintages back to 1874 and 1990s Bourgueil in magnum, with lunches of house-aged goat’s cheese and charcuterie. Afterwards, take a boat ride on the Loire or sample the Loire à Vélo* cycling route to nearby Chaumont-sur-Loire. See the art-filled château and gardens then stay over in Le Bois des Chambres*.

Saturday

Today it’s all about Cabernet Franc: Chinon and Bourgueil. Start in the former, hitting esteemed Bernard Baudry , then Domaine Pierre et Bertrand Couly for a Segway tour through the vines. Have lunch in pretty Chinon by the square at Au Chapeau Rouge*, then burn it off walking around the Royal Fortress of Chinon ruins. Make the half-hour drive to Bourgueil to visit the stunning cellars of biodynamic Domaine de la Chevalerie , run by young siblings, then stop off at the epic gardens of Château de Villandry * on your way back towards Tours for the night. Check into Ferdinand Hotel* and hit a local wine bar for dinner.

Sunday

Make your way southeast to Château de Nitray for a lively range of Touraine wines made from Côt, Grolleau and Sauvignon. If they’re serving up steaks for lunch in their on-site restaurant (call ahead to check), have lunch here, then head onto Château de Valmer , where more sublime landscaped gardens and an underground chapel come with award-winning Vouvray. Finally, check into Loire Valley Lodges  mid-afternoon to make the most of its lovely pool, vegetable gardens and cute hens. Have dinner in the restaurant before bedding down in one of the photogenic luxury treehouses, decorated by international artists.

For details of entries marked with an asterisk (*), see below


An abundance to savour

Château de Villandry. Credit: ImageNavi / Getty Images

Then strike out. Barely outside the city walls to the east, sub-region Vouvray produces one of Touraine’s best-loved wines from Chenin Blanc on a plateau hugging the Loire river. At acclaimed Domaine Huet , a local standard-bearer since 1928, you can see all Chenin is capable of, from sparkling to still, sec to moelleux (gently sweet). Just a minute down the road, the 20ha Le Clos de L’Epinay is family-owned and friendly. Meanwhile, 10 minutes northeast of Le Clos, at Château de Valmer the formal gardens are as appealing as the award-winning brut sparkling and sec. Winemaker-owner Jean de Saint Venant also makes a solid AP Touraine rosé sparkling from 100% Grolleau, and it costs just £8 a bottle.

On the other end of the spectrum, about 50km southwest of Tours, lies Chinon – heartland of Cabernet Franc. The UNESCO-listed central village on Loire tributary the Vienne is picturesque; crowned by a crumbling medieval royal fortress and cluttered with bistros for epic weekend lunches. The fabled red wines from the surrounding vineyards are equally impressive. Tick ​​off Bernard Baudry , which produces organic wines from old vines rooted in a wide range of soil types; try concentrated Les Grézeaux from a 50-year-old plot. Respected domaine Charles Joguet ,one of the region’s pioneers in single-vineyard bottlings, is another must. It produces nearly a dozen different cuvées, from fruity Les Petites Roches to powerful Clos de la Dioterie. Afterwards, nip to nearby AP Bourgueil. The region’s Cabernet Francs don’t yet have the same following as Chinon’s, but there are real treasures to be found. Domaine de la Chevalerie ages biodynamically grown wine in its cellars, including the lively, leathery Bretêche wrought from calcareous clay soils.


How to get there

Credit: Maggie Nelson

A fast train into Tours takes about 90 minutes from Paris, accessible from the UK via Eurostar . To explore you need a car; it takes about 45 minutes to drive from central Tours to the region’s furthest reaches east or west.


So many options

Caves Ambacia, Amboise. Credit: ADT Touraine / JC Coutand

Vouvray and Chinon may be the headliners, but in between there’s much more in Touraine to keep your taste buds entertained. In Touraine Amboise, try everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Arbois. Touraine Mesland, meanwhile, serves up Côt and lighter-bodied Gamay . The more time you take to explore, the more delicious discoveries you will make.

In between tastings, you won’t be short of things to do – arguably much more than in most wine regions. Cycle a stretch of the 900km Loire à Vélo cycling route (see box below), zipping through forest, vineyards or along riverbanks (electric bikes are available to hire in many towns). Hop on a traditional wooden merchant boat for a slow slink down the river at sunset. Or tour the many châteaux, from UNESCO-listed Amboise  – final resting place of Leonardo da Vinci – to contemporary art-stuffed Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire , which also has exceptional gardens.

And at the end of a long day exploring, you can check into a lovely hotel; there are increasing numbers of stylish options both in Touraine itself and just outside its borders. The past couple of years alone have seen the launch of a sister hotel to Bordeaux’s Les Sources de Caudalie, Les Sources de Cheverny , and Fleur de Loire  in Blois, both of which have attracted a cool new high-end clientele. And that means one thing: just like Burgundy, Provence and Bordeaux, it’s only a matter of time until this underrated pocket of the Loire valley is truly discovered.


Your Tours & Touraine address book

Ardent, Esvres

accommodation

Château de Pray , Charge

If it has to be a château stay, this Renaissance pile, near Amboise on the south bank of the Loire river, comes with 5ha of wooded parkland, a one-star Michelin restaurant, heated pool and dripping rooms in Toile de Jouy.

Ferdinand Hotel, Tours

This 14-room stay in the heart of the shopping district is one of Tours’ more chic places to stay. Cozy rooms come dressed in loud wallpapers and minimalist furniture.

Le Bois des Chambres , Chaumont-sur-Loire

In the east of the region, this recent launch on the grounds of historic Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire shows that wine region accommodation isn’t all stuffy old beamed ceilings. Barns have been converted into sleek, pastel-hued eco-friendly rooms with views out to a central courtyard garden.

Food & drinks

Ardent , Esvres 

Chef Gaëtan Evrard’s restaurant at chic hotel Loire Valley Lodges shows off the contemporary side to Touraine cookery, with a menu built around produce from the hotel’s veg garden. Dinner has the wow-factor but lunch offers what may be your best-ever croque monsieur: thick farmhouse bread with mushrooms, ham and Mornay sauce with aged Comté.

Au Chapeau Rouge , Chinon

It doesn’t get more Gallic than this red awning-fronted bistro on Chinon’s main square, in the shadow of the UNESCO town’s historic fortress. Lazy, wine-soaked lunches – think gilt-head bream with white butter and Touraine saffron – spill out onto the cobbled street.

Tutu , Tours

You’ll get a wine tour around Touraine at this forward-thinking, funky wine bar in Tours. Glasses start at €3.50 (£3.00) and pours range from a 1996 Montlouis sur Loire by Clos Habert to a 2017 orange wine from Laurent Lebled. After oysters and charcuterie, order local favorite tarte vigneronne (apple tart with wine jam).

Things to do

Château de Villandry , Villandry

If the Loire valley is famous for châteaux and gardens, this pile – once home to Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother – shows off the best of both. Visit the elaborate rooms, then explore the vast formal gardens with more than 50km of box plant hedging and 1,000 lime trees.

Loire à Velo

This 900km cycling route follows the mighty Loire river, cutting through vineyards, forest and farmland. Several local operators rent electric bikes; do a multi-day stretch from Amboise to Chinon via Tours, or just a lazy afternoon, stopping off at wineries as you go.

Saint-Gatien Cathedral, Tours

Ornate archways, intricate stained glass, flamboyant flying buttresses – Tours’ top architectural masterpiece is the Loire’s answer to Notre-Dame. It looks even better at night, when golden lighting makes the stone facade details really pop. Rue Lavoisier/Rue Fleury

Château de Nitray. Credit: Eckhard Supp / Alamy Stock Photo


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