The stunning Loire Valley is in the northwest of France, stemming from the Atlantic Ocean and straddling the Loire River. A wine region regaled for producing Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, and Cabernet Franc- some of the most loved varieties worldwide. The region is a bevy of discovery morsels, and this post will showcase some of the must-know and-see wonders of the Loire Valley wine region.
The Loire Valley Then
The Loire Valley is known as the 'Garden of France' due to the large number of vineyards that border the river, each producing wines that reflect the region's unique terroir and centuries-old heritage. But the Loire is more than a picturesque tapestry of vineyards and valleys. Its history is a marked and coloured one, filled with intrigue.
The formation of the region as we know it today began after its conquest by Julius Caesar in 52 B.C. With just as much credence due, however, is Emperor Augustus who is said to be the one to unify and stabilize the Loire.
The Loire Valley has always played a crucial part in history and has been seen as a pivotal region, given its access to the Atlantic. Its geographical positioning turned the Loire into a key port for trade and commerce. Like any other area of significance, great battles ensued over ownership of the Loire. The Loire Valley went from French ownership to British and, for a short time, German.
Perhaps the least discussed but vital to the region's riches is its involvement with the slave trade. Nantes, the most western side of the Loire and the area where the stylistic Muscadet comes from, was particularly notorious for its participation in the slave trade. The city's port became one of the leading slave trade ports in France during the 18th century. Ships departed from Nantes to Africa, carrying goods for trade, and returned with enslaved individuals to be sold in the Americas. The profits from this trade contributed to the economic prosperity of the region, not unlike other coastal wine regions along France's western border, namely Bordeaux.
Historically, the beauty and riches of the Loire have been sung by much of the aristocracy, building an allure that led many notable characters its way. One such character was Leonardo Da Vinci, who spent the last three years of his life in the Loire at the Château de Clos Lucé.
With the Romans' initial vine planting in the Loire in 1 B.C., to the famed Sancerre in texts of the 11th century, to its UNESCO status and title in the 2,000s, the wines of the Loire, and the valley itself have had an unparalleled ability to capture the hearts of many.
Loire Valley Terroir
The Loire Valley spans 280 kilometres and traces the Loire River. The region consists of various climates and soil makeup, adding to the list of reasons to explore the Loire. This geological diversity, varying exposures, and aspect ratios drive the grapes grown, the viticultural practices, bottling strategies, and even market positioning. For example, it is not uncommon to see producers demark their land as soils, and or the aspect changes. In some cases you will see two parcels of land that are side by side, vinified and bottled separately as the same grape shows so wildly different, plot to plot. Exploring a producer's range of Cabernet Franc in Chinon, for example, can be a truly eye-opening experience and a compound lesson on terroir.
Aspect, soil, and the differing influence of the Loire River, as it is travelled, produces moderating effects that result in a fascinating range of microclimates amongst the vineyards.
The Atlantic Ocean heavily influences Pay Nantais vineyards, producing moderate seasonal variations. Fall and winter are mild, and summers are hot and humid.
Anjou vineyards see a similar climatic state to that of the Pay Nantais but do not have to deal with the depth of humidity as its neighbour, and they benefit from more significant sunshine hours.
In the Saumur vineyards, the hills provide a barrier to winds blowing from the west, and the climate becomes continental with hot and long summers and very cool winters.
The vineyards planted on the slopes of the Central Loire benefit from a diurnal shift, and forests and the Loire River help to moderate the continental temperatures.
Some of the Upper Loire holds its distinction from the volcanic soils and is protected and moderated by mountainous geological factors.
Loire Valley Appellations
There are 51 Appellations d'Origine Protégée (AOP) across the Loire Valley, but I think a great way to look at the area is by following the natural regional divide. The Loire Valley is broadly split into four areas: Lower Loire, Middle Loire, Central Loire, and Upper Loire.
Lower Loire, also known as Pays Nantes, is the area's most western section of the region and borders the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the climate is maritime in nature, very humid and wet. Fitting to the amount of rainfall and humidity of the area, the soils found here are gravel, schist, and slate, none of which are water-retaining soils and precisely what is needed in a climate such as the Lower Loire's.
The region's primary grape is Melon de Bourgogne, which is used to make the white wine, Muscadet. Naturally, the famed appellations in this area are the Muscadet and Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine.
The climate in this area is both maritime and continental. The Anjou area on the western side of the Middle Loire is maritime, and as you travel east to Touraine, the climate becomes more continental in nature. Primary soil type found here is tuffeau, which is a soft limestone.
The primary grapes in the Middle Loire western region are Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay and some Cot (Malbec). Further east in the Middle Loire, the primary grapes are Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. This is where you find the famed appellations of Anjou, Samur, Savannières, Vouvray, Chinon and Bourgueil.
Here, the climate is more continental and relatively landlocked. Soils consist of flint, limestone and kimmeridgian clay.
The primary grapes grown here are Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and this is where you find famed appellations Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
This area comprises appellations that are regionally detached from the rest of the Loire but fall under the same administration. These areas are 'upriver' to the east and then south of the Loire, taking you near to the regions of Burgundy and Beaujolais. The climate is continental, with long and hot summers and cool winters. Here, you will find volcanic soils and parcels of limestone. Primary grapes found in the Upper Loire are Pinot Noir and Gamay. An appellation of note here is the Côte d'Auvergne in the foothills of the Massif Central.
Loire Valley Gastronomy
Finally, wine is only one part of the gastronomic symphony in the Loire Valley. The region's culinary scene perfectly accompanies its wines, with local delicacies like goat cheese from Chavignol or Curé Nantais from Pay Nantais. While at it, source out rillettes from Tours and the renowned "tarte Tatin," offering a harmonious pairing with the diverse range of wines produced in the region.
The Loire Valley's expanse alone makes it a wine enthusiast's dream, especially if digging into the concept of terroir. Travel west to east in your glass by starting with Muscadet and ending with Gamay, or stick in Chinon, taste Cabernet Franc from varying soils, and note the differences: either way, the Loire Valley is beyond worthy of exploration.