In 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. ♥|
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-Maine, Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire, Muscadet-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.
North of Anjou city are three main wine growing areas: Anjou, Anjou-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’Aubance, Coteaux du Layon, Coteaux du Layon-villages, Bonnezeaux 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.
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.
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.
Chinon, Bourgueil 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, Sancerre, Morogues 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:
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.
Popular throughout France as a key component in white wines, the sauvignon grape features in Loire Valley wines produced in Le Centre.
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.
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.
Step by step guide to French wine:
- Part 1: French wines – an overview
- Part 2: Bordeaux wines
- Part 3: Burgundy wines
- Part 4: Champagne
- Part 6: Côtes du Rhone wines
- Part 7: Alsace wines
- Part 8 : Languedoc wines
- Part 9: Lesser known wines of France
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