Loire Valley winesIn part 4 of the French Waterways guide to French wine we delve into Loire Valley wines. The 43,000 hectares along the famous Loire river between Nantes on the Atlantic coast and Blois further east form part of the world’s most diverse wine-producing area and the country’s third largest wine region.

In this section of our French wine guide, we take a look at the areas that contain no less than 50 appellations in the Loire Valley. We sample their bouquet and then, since we are in the Garden of France, suggest ways of pairing these diverse and delicious wines. À votre santé et bon appetit!  

A brief history of Loire Valley wines

Like most wine growing regions in France, the Loire Valley owes its vineyards to the Romans. Back in the first century AD the Romans planted the first vines to make the most of the ideal climate and soil plus handy waterway via the Loire river.

By the Middle Ages, the vineyards were mostly in the hands of monks whose skill made Loire Valley wines the most highly-prized at the French and English courts. The area’s popularity in the 15th and 17th centuries for summer holidays among the French aristocracy (who built the impressive chateaux that line the river banks) added to the wines’ reputation.

The arrival of the railways in the 19th century, however, changed everything. Loire Valley wines lost out to cheaper tipples from the south and the most prestigious and finer Bordeaux and Burgundy. The deadly phylloxera delivered the final blow and vineyards in the Loire Valley were among the last in France to recover from the disease.

But since the introduction of the Appellation d’Origin Contrôlée (AOC) in 1935, the Loire Valley had regained its clout on the world wine scene. Its wine now enjoys a reputation for high quality and excellent value.

Did you know? The Loire Valley produces four sorts of wine: white wine dominates with 41% of production, followed by rosé (27%), red (19%) and sparkling wines (13%).

♥ Cruise the Upper Loire river aboard hotel barge Meanderer. Combine a fascinating itinerary with gourmet food and wine matching. Find out more. ♥

Loire Valley and the wine growing region along the Loire river are denoted on this map

Three grand regions

The Loire Valley consists of three wine-producing regions, each with its own sub-regions and home to several terroirs.

Lower Loire – le Pays Nantais

This part of the Loire Valley includes the Loire as it runs through the city of Nantes on its way to the Atlantic where it’s joined by the Sevre and Maine rivers. The sea takes centre stage in Loire Valley wines produced here – it provides mild and damp weather conditions, and gives the white wines from this area their distinctive fresh almost salty taste.

The dry white wines are produced in four appellations: Muscadet Sèvre-et-MaineMuscadet-Coteaux de la LoireMuscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu and Muscadet (the largest on the Loire). All four are named after the melon du Bourgogne grape grown here and known locally as Muscadet.

Middle Loire – Anjou, Saumur and Touraine

Centred around the historic cities of Anjou and Tours, the middle Loire showcases some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. France really doesn’t get more quintessential than along the riverbanks in the Middle Loire.

Anjou

North of Anjou city are three main wine growing areas: AnjouAnjou-Villages and Anjou-Villages Brissac. They’re most famous for their light rosés (over half the production) and dry whites. But Anjou also produces reds that are best drunk young.

To the south of the city (and the Loire) is the Savennières region, home to five main wine growing areas: Coteaux de l’AubanceCoteaux du LayonCoteaux du Layon-villagesBonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume. White wines produced here include those made from the Chenin blanc grape, the best for aging and sparkling wines that pack in the fruity flavours.

Saumurois

Moving further east along the river we reach Saumur, whose sparkling wines are famous the world over and at their best, rank on a par with champagne. Saumur Mousseux and Crémant de Loire produce the most sparkling wine. But the Saumurois isn’t just about bubbles. Saumur-Champigny makes bold reds while Coteaux de Saumur produce some of the world’s best mellow whites. The Brézé terroir holds Premier Cru status.

Touraine

Next east is the Touraine centred around the city of Tours and home to the rich limestone soil that gives wine from this part of the Loire Valley a distinctive zesty taste. Vineyards here are planted with a wide variety of grapes and as a result, produce many different wines. Legend has it that Cardinal Richelieu planted the first Cabernet Franc.

ChinonBourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil are planted mostly with Cabernet Franc grapes and produce subtle and fruity reds. Montlouis and Vouvray areas house white grape vines and their whites range from fresh and fruity to ripe and mellow.

Upper Loire – le Centre

This part of the Loire Valley is the smallest in terms of wine production and vineyards are more scattered as the terrain becomes mountainous on its way to the river’s source. The climate here differs enormously from the Lower Loire. Here, the more continental conditions including hot summers and frosty winters lend themselves to two of the most famous Loire Valley wines: Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.

Between them, SancerreMorogues and Pouilly-sur-Loire produce some of the finest sauvignon blanc wines in France that have the additional advantage of aging well. Sancerre also makes some excellent fruity reds.

Did you know? The area between Chalonnes-sur-Loire and Sully-sur-Loire has UNESCO World Heritage status and is one of only 10 European winegrowing regions with this distinction.

Main types of grapes

Wines from the Loire Valley are unique in that they come from 24 varieties of grapes, all originally from just 5 main types:

Chenin Blanc

This is the Loire Valley grape par excellence. The chenin grape originates from Anjou, which explains its ability to adapt to the terrain and climate. It’s the third most-grown grape in the area and produces myriad different flavours.  

Melon de Bourgogne

King of the Lower Loire Valley, this white grape gives its local name, Muscadet, to the main grape growing areas in the Pays Nantais.

Sauvignon Blanc

Popular throughout France as a key component in white wines, the sauvignon grape features in Loire Valley wines produced in Le Centre.

Cabernet Franc

Also known as ‘le breton’ (although it doesn’t grow in Brittany), this grape is the most common component of reds in the Loire Valley.

Gamay

This black grape is grown mostly in the Touraine where the granite terrain gives it a unique taste.

Did you know? The Loire Valley has the longest wine route in France – a meandering 800km take you through the main wine-growing terroirs and their vineyards. Plan yours 

Best Loire Valley vintages

Like all wine regions in France, the Loire Valley suffers almost annually from some sort of setback due to the weather. This might come in the form of rain flooding out vineyards in le Pays Nantais or late frosts freezing grapes in le Centre.  But good years do happen and here are the best since 2000.

Best for Loire Valley red wines – 2005, 2010 and 2015.

Best for Loire Valley dry white wines – 2002, 2008, 2010 and 2014.

Best for Loire Valley sweet white wines – 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2015.

Did you know? The best temperatures to serve Loire Valley wines are: whites, dry rosés and sparkling at 6-8°C;  sweet whites at 8-12°C; and reds at 14-16°C.

♥ Aboard C’est La Vie, which charters cruises along the Loire at certain times of year, the wine cellar is an impressive collection of years and crus from the finest French vineyards. Find out more

Perfect pairing for Loire Valley wines

As well as delicious wines, the Loire Valley also produces fine food making it perfect for pairing. Pick your wine and match it with the following:

Fish and seafood – the saline mineral tastes of these wines are a match made in heaven for seafood. For a platter of local oysters choose a young Muscadet. If you’re eating river fish – pike and perch from the Loire are particularly tasty – fill your glass with a Sancerre white.

Red meats – to bring out the flavours of the Loire Valley red without masking the meat go for a red from the Anjou Villages. The stronger the meat, the younger the wine.

Cheese – the Loire Valley is famous for its goat’s cheese and some of the best local varieties pair perfectly with dry whites from Touraine.

Desserts – sweet whites come into their own with most desserts. Try one from Vouvray made with the classic chenin blanc grape.

Cheers! – the sparkling Crémant de Loire packs a punch for an aperitif or an after-dinner toast.

Did you know? Loire Valley wines have two of their very own bottle types: the Ligérienne, the most traditional and similar to the Burgundy bottle but with finer lines and the Muscadet bottle with its slim and elegant lines.

Taste Loire Valley wines for yourself

Explore the most diverse wine producing region in France from the banks of the Loire itself. Our luxury hotel barges take you deep into this fascinating region and give you the chance to discover the Garden of France, over 1,000 chateaux and truly fine wining and dining.

Book your Loire Valley cruise here

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A guide to Loire Valley wines, France's third largest wine-producing region producing some of the most diverse varieties from its varied landscape, delicious from west to east

Champagne and the region of Champagne - part 3 of our guide to French wineIn part 3 of the French Waterways guide to French wine we move our focus to a wine region synonymous with celebration: Champagne. The queen of celebratory drinks, champagne is famous the world over as the bubbly to crack open whenever there’s something to celebrate. Whether you’re toasting a marriage, welcoming the New Year or christening a new cruise liner, the region of Champagne provides the champagne for the occasion.

In this article, we take a look at the history of this sparkling region, reveal just what makes champagne unique, showcase the different regions behind its production, sample its bouquet and provide tips on how to open a bottle and store those bubbles.

A bit of champagne history

As they did in most of the rest of the France, the Romans bought vineyards to Champagne, in the northeast of France, some 150km to the east of Paris. The first wines to come out of Champagne were pale rosés, made from Pinot Noir grapes – they weren’t sparkling.

The bubbles came about because of the area’s climate. Wine stored in cellars during the cold winters stopped fermentation, a process that started again with the arrival of warmer temperatures in the spring. The stop-start fermentation caused carbon dioxide to be released in the bottles. While the early champagne wine producers did their best to stop the bubbles, the sparkling wine quickly caught on among the 18th century nobility in Europe. By the 19th century, the largest champagne houses had perfected their méthode champenoise and the region became the world’s preferred bubbly.

Did you know? During World War I, Champagne found itself in the middle of hostilities. Trench warfare and bombardments practically wiped out the region’s vineyards.

Champagne terroirs

Perhaps the most important thing about champagne is that despite what anyone says, only the real mccoy comes from Champagne. It’s the only sparkling wine in France allowed to call itself champagne – bubbly produced in any other region generally goes under the name of crémant.

Champagne is produced in four areas or terroirs. The region has several unique characteristics, all of which are reflected in the wine.

Climate – Champagne has a mixture of a continental and oceanic climate. This gives the region harsh winters and often late springs – early frosts can and do wipe out a significant part of the harvest – as well as moderate rainfall.

Soil type – limestone makes up most of the Champagne soil and explains the strong mineral taste to most types of Champagne.

Position – all vineyards are planted on relatively steep terrain with a south-facing aspect to guarantee maximum sunshine and at altitudes ranging from 90m to 300m.

Montagne de Reims

This is the northern-most region of Champagne and home to the area’s largest town, Reims. Pinot Noir is the predominant grape grown in this terroir. Nine champagne houses have their headquarters in Reims.

Vallé de la Marne

South of Reims and to the west of the region generally, this champagne-growing area produces mostly Meunier grapes.

Côte des Blancs

In the south of the region, this area centres around Épernay, the capital of Champagne. The elegant town is home to the biggest names in bubbly including perhaps the most famous of all, Moet & Chandon, founded in 1743. Wine cellars in Épernay reputedly house over 200 million bottles of champagne. Côte des Blancs vineyards produce mainly Chardonnay grapes.

Côte des Bar

Situated in the south-east of the region, this area is home to one of the most famous wines in Champagne: Rosé des Riceys. Centred around the village of Riceys, it’s the largest terroir in the region and home to three AOC wines. Pinot Noir is the predominant grape grown in Côte des Bar.

Did you know? The official Champagne Route takes in 80 independent producers of the wine along 8 trails that cover 700km. Find out more

Main champagne producing grapes

One of the more unusual characteristics of champagne is that it’s a white wine made predominantly from black grapes. The black Pinot Noir and Meunier grapes make up two-thirds of the wine. The remaining third comes from Chardonnay grapes.

Pinot Noir grapes, grown in the south and north of the region, add body to the wine. Meunier grapes, cultivated in the Vallé de la Marne district, give the wine its roundness and fruitiness. And lastly, Chardonnay grapes, grown around the town of Épernay, are responsible for champagne’s liveliness and the distinctive mineral component.

Did you know? In its 30,000 hectares with 5,000 independent producers, Champagne is home to a total of 320 crus in total including 17 Grand Cru and 42 Premier Cru wines.  

How Champagne is made

For a bottle to gain the champagne label, not only must the grapes be grown within one of the four terroirs, the wine must also be produced following the strict méthode champenoise. The method begins at harvest time from mid-September to October when the grapes are all picked by hand. This ensures that the bunches of grapes remain intact since the first pressing must be of the whole clusters rather than single grapes.

The first pressing, known as the cuvée, produces subtle aromas. The champagne that ages best is made from grapes being pressed only once. Grapes that undergo a second pressing, known as taille, produce wines with strong bouquets that don’t age quite as well.

Once the grapes are pressed, they undergo two fermentations. Wines are then blended to the house ‘recipe’. All champagne wines contain grapes of the three main varieties plus a portion of grape juice reserved from previous harvests. No house follows the same proportion of ingredients and as a result, every single champagne is unique.

Once blended, the wine is placed in bottles to mature. The prise de mousse that takes place in the bottle is the process that produces the sparkle. Expert bottle turners turn the wine throughout the maturing process, which takes a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage champagnes. Vintage wines must spend at least three years maturing.

Did you know? Expert bottle turners, known as remueurs, can turn up to 40,000 bottles a day.

Types of champagne

Depending on its sugar content, champagne is classed in six different ways. The sweetest is known as Doux. In reducing sugar content the other five are: Demi Sec, Dry, Extra Dry, Brut, Extra Brut and Brut Nature.

Champagne generally comes in 75ml bottles, but you can also buy much larger bottles. The other large six sizes range from the modest Magnum, containing 1.5 litres (the equivalent of two bottles), to the enormous Nebuchadnezzar with a whopping 15 litres (20 bottles). In between there is a Jereboam (4 bottles), Rehoboam (6 bottles), Methuselah (8 bottles), Salmanazar (12 bottles), Balthazar (16 bottles).

Did you know? Many wine cellars in Reims are known as crayères and were once chalk quarries used by the Gauls and Romans.

How to open and store champagne

While the resounding pop of a champagne bottle being opened adds a touch of pizzazz to a party, the cork is not meant to go anywhere. The correct way to open a bottle is to remove the wire and foil top while keeping the cork in place. You should then hold the cork and turn the bottle gently until the cork is released. Serve in tall, narrow champagne flutes to ensure maximum bubbles.

Champagne should be kept in a cool, dark place and served at between 8 and 10 degrees. A degree or two cooler is recommended when sabraging (the art of opening champagne with a sabre). Perhaps best of all, it doesn’t age particularly well so needs drinking as soon as possible.

Did you know? Champagne pairs well with almost any food and can be served with starters, mains and/or dessert.

Try champagne for yourself

Discover the world of authentic bubbly for yourself. Our luxury barge tours cover the Champagne region, stopping at the vineyards and wine cellars en route giving you the chance to learn about and sample the sparkle from the experts themselves. Our barges also serve champagne on board.

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Take a tour with us through Champagne and its most famous product: champagne. Our guide to champagne