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Into the Loire Valley

Still and sparkling; white, red, and rosé; dry and sweet.

Think of French wine regions, and the Loire Valley is not one that is top of mind. Champagne is a household name (though more as a wine than a region), Bordeaux and Bourgogne are familiar to most wine-consuming people, with the Rhone valley, while trailing in recognition, is known to many. But the Loire Valley? As a region, it’s little known, even though some of its wines are often highly prized by wine enthusiasts.

Perhaps that’s the reason for the low profile of the Loire Valley: while some of its component appellations are well enough known, they’re not identified as belonging to the broader Loire region, in the same way that Pomerol is known to be in Bordeaux and Meursault in Bourgogne. Indeed, a map of the Loire Valley region shows appellations—there are almost 80 in all, many very small and known only to serious wine geeks—strung out along the banks of the Loire. The river is France’s longest, rising in the south of the country and running north before turning west and finally draining into the Atlantic. It’s a tour de force, covering a distance of one thousand kilometres.

The Loire Valley wine region includes about half of that, the west-flowing section where the river is broad and lazy, and the wide valley provides the warmth that makes this northern region suitable for growing grapes. Location places its stamp on the wines here. The Loire marks the northern limit for commercial wine production in France, and grapes don’t ripen as readily as they do only short distances farther south. But the warm days and cool nights of the growing season along the Loire give the wines—reds, rosés, and whites—lively natural acidity and low levels of alcohol, both characteristics that make them not only suitable for the Loire’s regional cuisines, but versatile with many others, as well.

This is clear with Muscadet, the white wine produced at the Atlantic end of the valley, where many dishes are based on the catch from the ocean and the river. Made from the melon de Bourgogne grape variety, Muscadet is France’s go-to wine for fish and seafood; you’d be hard-pressed, anywhere in France, to find a bistro serving fruits de mer that doesn’t have a Muscadet or two on its list. Muscadet is often made in a fairly neutral style that sometimes comes across as bland, but generally delivers the right intensity of flavour and the vibrant acidity to pair with seafood and its customary squeeze of lemon. A variation is sur lie Muscadet, where the wine rests on its lees (yeast cells) for a year or more and takes on some more complexity in flavour and texture while retaining its essential vibrancy.+

The diversity of Loire wines extends beyond grape varieties to wine styles. What unites them is simple drinkability—the hallmark of Loire Valley wines.

In the last decade, some producers have moved from these bright and crisp styles—made in stainless steel tanks or, more traditionally, in glass or ceramic—and have started to age their Muscadets in oak barrels. The result is even more depth and complexity, and some aged Muscadets—six or seven years old—carry themselves very well. But aging relatively neutral wine in oak calls for a deft hand. Gilbert Chon, owner of Château de la Jousselinière, says he used to age all his Muscadet in oak, but it proved “too strong for the wine.” He dialed it back so that only part of it ages in older barrels, and he is happier with the result, where the influence of the oak is “discreet, a little line” in the flavours.

Going inland from the Muscadet appellations (following the Loire against its current), dozens of small appellations grow a rich portfolio of grape varieties. They include whites like chenin blanc, chardonnay, and sauvignon blanc, and reds like cabernet franc, gamay, and pinot noir. And the diversity of Loire wines extends beyond grape varieties to wine styles: there are not only whites, reds, and rosés, but lively sparkling wines and luscious sweet wines, with the sugar reined in by clean acidity. What unites them in their diversity is simple drinkability, the hallmark of Loire Valley wines.

Chenin blanc is the key white grape in many of these appellations, and it’s used for dry, off-dry, and sweeter whites, as well as for a sparkling wine, crémant de Loire, where it is sometimes blended with a little chardonnay or cabernet franc. All these styles are made in the Vouvray appellation, where Marc Brédif is one of the best-known producers. Marc Brédif’s Brut Extrême, a sparkling wine made solely from chenin blanc, has no added dosage and is a flavour-rich, tight wine, with real finesse; the Réserve Privée chenin blanc is a substantial white that shows focused flavours and a texture that’s linear and taut but that’s surprisingly easy to drink. (Decanting it is recommended.)

Outside the Muscadet region, chenin blanc shines. Not only in Vouvray, but in the tiny Savennières appellation, chenin blanc is transformed into long-aging, dry whites that are often too taut and serious when young, but grow into themselves over years and decades of aging. One of the key producers, Domaine des Baumard, makes many austere chenins, such as their Clos du Papillon, but also others, like Clos de Saint-Yves, that are more approachable when they are younger.

A map of the Loire Valley region shows appellations—there are almost 80 in all, many very small and known only to serious wine geeks—strung out along the banks of the Loire.

Then there are the red wines of the Loire. Cabernet franc is the key red, and it stands out in appellations such as Chinon, Bourgueil, and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. Chinon’s Charles Joguet has planted almost all his vineyards in cabernet franc and makes it in a number of styles. Charles Joguet Clos du Chêne Vert 2009 comes from old vines and is notable for its velvety texture, supple tannins, and juiciness, while his Cuvée de la Cure is bigger in texture and flavour, though still finely balanced.

Beyond cabernet franc, there are many excellent reds made from other varieties. The broad Touraine region grows gamay, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, malbec (known as cot here), and pinot noir. Malbec is a surprising find, if you think of dark, full-bodied, higher-alcohol wines from Cahors and Argentina. But in the Loire Valley there are lighter styles, like Domaine de la Renaudie’s Cuvée Albert Denis, a well-integrated and balanced malbec from the Touraine region. It boasts a mere 12 per cent alcohol. Then, of course, there are red blends. Also from Touraine, Domaine des Corbillières makes a bright and juicy red from more-or-less equal parts of malbec, cabernet franc, and pinot noir.

At the easternmost end of the Loire Valley vineyards lie the regions that are home to sauvignon blanc. Sancerre stands out—literally, as the town is perched on the top of a hill, surrounded by its vineyards—and others make fine sauvignon blancs that carry the names of their less-known appellations. The sauvignon blanc variety is now more associated with New Zealand because of its success in the Marlborough region there, but there’s no confusing the rich and pungent Marlborough style with the often understated flavours of the highly structured Loire versions. One major Sancerre producer, Henri Bourgeois, has opened a winery in Marlborough, and so straddles the two worlds of sauvignon blanc.

The wines of the Loire Valley are so diverse in variety and style that the region is a microcosm of the cool-climate wine world.

Across the river from Sancerre, Pouilly-sur-Loire produces one of France’s great wines, Pouilly-Fumé. Fumé refers to the smoke-coloured bloom that covers the sauvignon grapes, and the wines tend to be a little aromatic, with fairly taut structure and that bright acidity. These are wines that are very versatile, but it’s probably no coincidence that they go well with goat cheese, as several localities in the region—notably Chavignol in Sancerre—are famous for their crottins, small rounds of pungent chèvre cheese.

The wines of the Loire Valley are so diverse in variety and style that the region is a microcosm of the cool-climate wine world. A sparkling wine as an aperitif, a white for a seafood appetizer, a red to go with many meat dishes, a sweet wine to finish up… the Loire delivers them all in a range of qualities, from entry-level to the sublimely iconic. These are wines that tempt you to pour another glass, unlike many of the fruit-filled heavy-hitters of warm-climate wine regions. With so many consumers and wine writers complaining about overextracted wines and rising alcohol levels, these wines ought to be far more popular than they are. It’s a complicated region in many ways, but that makes it all the more exciting: there are hundreds of gems waiting to be discovered.

Originally published August 2015.