Jardin de la France is a name that has been used for centuries to describe the Loire Valley. It encompasses not just the area’s natural beauty, the abundance of flowers, fruits and vegetables grown in the valleys and rolling green hills around the Loire but also the region’s tranquil lifestyle. Even the towns and city, all fed by the Loire and its tributaries, share its charm.
In such a place it is no great surprise that the Loire has long been a prized region in France – not only for the quality of its natural produce but also as a place for retreat and relaxation. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Central France, the Loire is dotted with dozens of grand châteaux, cathedrals and castles, many of which tower close to the river. Chambord, built by French King François I as a hunting lodge, and Fontevraud Abbey, where Henry II the former King of England is buried, are just two of the many to be found throughout the Loire. As one of France’s great rivers it has long been the lifeblood for North-Eastern France.
Wine is close to the heart of the Loire – grapevines a vital piece of local pride and culture. And it has been that way for thousands of years, since the Romans introduced wines and winemaking. Wine production stretches all the way from Nantes on the Atlantic coast over 500 kilometres to the east with more than 4,000 wineries in between. By and large it is a wine garden; a tapestry of grape varieties, vineyards and ownership with largely handmade wines from small plots. Boutique winemakers working their own vineyards to craft wines that are utterly unique to not only France, but the world.
The Loire’s position in Northern France is also at the limit of viticulture. While on the same latitude as Dijon it lacks the added advantage of Burgundy’s more continental climate, with much of the region at the mercy of the fickle North Atlantic. It is only through the warming effects of the surging Loire River that fruit can adequately ripen, and then only the earlier ripening grape varieties. And the wines it creates are never bold and brash – they are a picture of French restraint.
The Loire Valley is the most varied of France’s wine regions. It encompasses 87 appellations and 14 grape varieties stretching across Western and Central France. On the Loire’s western coast the delicately flavoured melon de Bourgogne grape is grown around the town of Nantes to make Muscadet. And from there every kilometre travelled inland provides greater protection from the Atlantic allowing the ripening of more characterful varieties, such as chenin blanc, cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc.
The Loire is also a wine region very much at home with a wide range of styles, making sparkling, white, red and sweet wines of the highest quality. It is the second-largest sparkling wine region after Champagne, utilising the traditional Champagne method. In the Loire, chenin blanc, chardonnay and cabernet franc are blended to create exceptionally detailed and fine sparkling wines that challenge many Champagnes, although at a much lower pricepoint, offering great value. The Loire’s sweet chenin blanc styles can last decades if not a century in bottle while the dry whites and reds are the epitome of style and elegance. There is not much that the Loire Valley can not do extremely well. It is also a wine region well and truly on the rise.
For decades the Loire has remained in the shadow of Bordeaux, Champagne and Burgundy but their increasing prices have brought greater focus to regions such as the Loire and Alsace. These are country wines in the best sense – wines that are reserved, savoury and traditional in style that first and foremost reflect local terroirs and grape variety in equal parts, unadulterated by winemaking influence. It is this purity in the wines from the Loire Valley that is their standout feature, and also makes for tremendous value.
The Loire Valley starts on the Atlantic coast near the picturesque town of Nantes. From the coastal vineyards towards Angers there is a single grape that dominates – melon de Bourgogne. Melon is a distant relative of chardonnay but bears little resemblance to it in the wines labelled as Muscadet.
While there are a number of appellations, there are two under which most of the local wines are labelled – Muscadet and its regional sub-appellation, Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine. The former is the broad regional wine that is generally lighter in character while the wines labelled as Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine must come from a distinct region, close to the Sèvre and Maine rivers directly south-east of Nantes.
Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine is often aged on lees, and labelled as ‘Sur Lie’. There are now also seven Crus which are as yet rarely seen – specific areas in the Sèvre et Maine appellation which vignerons can apply to have certified as a Cru wine. This differs from the Burgundian sense of Cru related solely to vineyard origins, with Muscadet Crus having to come from a particular plot of land as well as be passed as acceptable by local authorities.
The finest vineyards in the Muscadet appellation are made up mostly of gentle slopes and rolling hills. Clay, gravel and sandy soils from the river are also underlaid by schist, granite, gneiss, quartz and other volcanic rocks. Muscadet’s close proximity to the ocean and exposure to wind and storms also make for tough growing conditions – the vines constantly at risk from the elements, particularly frost and late season rain.
With around 80% of the wines traditionally enjoyed in the Loire by a parochial audience, often with freshly caught local seafood, Muscadet has often been fashioned to be a simple dry white. But recent years have seen an increase in single vineyard wines and longer lees ageing so that Muscadet can no longer be dismissed as the Loire’s white for everyday drinking. The wines are now better than ever before.
Nowhere is this clearer than at Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin. The estate has existed since the early 18th century and is now run by its ninth-generation winemaker Pierre-Marie Luneau and his dynamo wife Marie Chartier. The domain is no small concern, with 50 hectares under vines, which makes the wine quality even more remarkable. The vines are old for Muscadet with an average age of 45 years and some up to 70 years of age, from which all fruit is handpicked – something that is very rare in the region.
Luneau takes a Burgundian approach to his vineyards, following in the footsteps of his father who was one of the first in the region to vinify different terroirs separately. For over 30 years they have made a wide range of cuvées, often between 25 and 30, split up according to the vineyard and soil type. One of the keys to great Muscadet is the handling of yeast lees – helping the wines to gain texture and complexity. The local laws require wines labelled as ‘Sur Lie’ to be aged on yeast lees for a minimum of six months, with most wineries bottling soon after this date to have their wines on sale in the brightest and freshest condition possible.
Domaine Pierre Luneau-Papin takes a different tack, aided by 40 underground tanks built over 50 years ago, no doubt at huge cost. As not all the tanks are required for every vintage, Pierre-Marie Luneau can age some cuvées on their lees for significantly longer (up to 32 months) helping them to develop beautiful texture and complexity. This is particularly vital for Muscadet which is a more neutral grape variety. His Gula-Ana Cuvée is also matured in oak, creating a very different, exotic but delicious expression of Muscadet.
The 2018 La Grange Vieilles Vignes Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie is a classic regional style made from vines of at least 35 years of age and aged on lees for seven months. It has subtle peach skin, citrus and mineral fruits with a dry and almost spicy palate and attractive creamy texture. A different beast altogether is the 2014 Excelsior Cru Communal Goulaine Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie. It has been sourced from the highly prized Goulaine Cru which, due to its protection from prevailing winds, is often the first vineyard to be harvested in the entire appellation. With indigenous yeast ferment and 36 months on lees, which were regularly stirred, it is superbly complex with powerful citrus and honeydew supported by waxy, lanolin complexity.
Heading east from Nantes the climate and landforms slowly change – the oceanic influence tempered away from the coast. That protection from the worst Atlantic storms allows more grape varieties to ripen around the town of Angers, particularly cabernet franc and chenin blanc, the latter of which is the absolute star in this part of the Loire.
Chenin blanc is a chameleon – its character very much dependent on where it is grown. Near the banks of the Loire it creates full-bodied, acid-driven almost waxy dry wines that need years to fully flower. But when chenin vines are hidden in protected little pockets away from the Loire it can create some of the world’s greatest and longest-lived dessert wines in appellations such as Vouvray, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume.
One of its most famous exponents is the historic estate of Moulin Touchais, first founded in 1787 and now hidden behind a nondescript gate in the town of Doué-en-Anjou. The estate is still owned by the same family and has 150 hectares of wines, 35 of which are in the renowned Coteaux du Layon appellation. These vineyards sit on the river Layon, which is a tributary of the Loire and in good vintages provides the perfect conditions for development of the noble botrytis mould.
The estate bottles a single wine each year under the Moulin Touchais label which is made from 80% late harvest botrytis-affected fruit and 20% of less ripe, high acid fruit. This is the miraculous secret that creates not only deliciously sweet wines but also a searing backbone of acidity that allows the best vintages to age well for many decades.
Moulin Touchais is released from 10 years of age but the estate also keeps significant volumes for long ageing – the cellar currently holds an estimated two million bottles of wine stretching as far back as the 1800s. A tasting of a wine made from a blend of vintages from the second half of the 19th century showed the almost unmatched ageing potential of these vinous treasures. The 1997 Moulin Touchais is a richly sweet vintage with layers of waxy, honeyed quince fruits. Big and bold yet with exceptional acidity it will drink well past its 50th birthday. The 1985 Moulin Touchais is a much more reserved style – still tightly wound at 34 years of age with lanolin, citrus, custard apple fruits that are bright and pure, well balanced with a lightning bolt of acidity. Leave this another 10 years and thereafter it will drink well for decades.
Chenin blanc is not only responsible for stunning sweet wines, it is equally suited to making dry white styles. Traditionally it has been the Savennières including the wines of Nicolas Joly that have created the headlines, with the village of Saumur more renowned for its sparkling wines, but that is also changing. The vineyards of Saumur sit on a limestone plateau of tuffeau, atop a cliff overlooking the Loire. The local tuffeau also holds moisture, which once made caves ideal for growing mushrooms, with many of these now maturing the local wines. Saumur also adjoins Saumur-Champigny, home to fine and elegant cabernet franc.
One of the leading new-wave producers in the region is Mathieu Vallée of Château Yvonne. Vallée’s home and winery adjoin an ancient troglodyte set of caves, which are cold and damp, and this is where he ages his wines. With 28 vineyard plots, made up of 3 hectares of chenin blanc and 8 hectares of cabernet franc, Vallée crafts truly magnificent wines.
Like many of his local compatriots, and a growing movement in the Loire which is a leader in sustainable farming, Vallée farms biodynamically with minimal intervention, zero additions aside from sulfur and bottles without fining or filtration. The 2016 Saumur Champigny is a lively expression of cabernet franc showing bright and juicy redcurrant and graphite with a touch of green herb. Mid weight with supple tannins, the wine is beautifully balanced and subtle, finishing with layers of savoury complexity. Similarly, the 2017 Saumur Blanc has layers of fine and detailed fruits, with a textural richness, crisp acidity and a delicious savoury quality. Both wines, while delicious now, also have the balance to age well.
As we move further east through the middle and upper Loire Valleys again the mix of grape varieties changes – cabernet franc and chenin blanc now fade with the rise of sauvignon blanc, which is by far the Loire’s most famous export – in particular from the twin villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
In many ways sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley differs greatly from its New World rivals. While the wines from New Zealand and Australia shout their varietal characters, Loire sauvignon is defined by its regional typicity. Like the melon de Bourgogne of Muscadet and the chenin blanc of Saumur, these are wines that showcase their cool-climate origins and soils.
While Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé draw the limelight, other villages such as Quincy, Reuilly, Cheverny and Menetou-Salon also craft wines with distinctive and subtle character that are generally more reserved and savoury in style than their famous neighbours. Wine producers such as Domaines Tatin show how impressive these regions can be. Forty years ago there were only two families left creating wines in Quincy, despite a long history of winemaking in the area. Today there are over 300 hectares planted in the region with the local wines renowned for their understated and elegant expression of sauvignon blanc.
The three appellations of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé and Menetou-Salon sit in a row – Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé on either side of the Loire with Menetou-Salon further inland. Sancerre is a stunning hilltop town with views over the Loire and the various valleys from which its wine is drawn. While Sancerre has no formal Cru system its geography is very much like Chablis, the land folded to create a whole range of different exposures to the sun, some more advantageous than others.
The various soil types also add character – generally limestone and clay-based soils that extend into Menetou-Salon are found to the west, clay and gravel near the town of Sancerre through to more flinty soils near the river – but the reality is much more complex, with flint occuring in some vineyards to the west and vice versa. And throughout the region fossilised limestone shells are found all over the vineyards.
Based on soils and vineyard location, Sancerre can produce a wide range of wine styles as seen at Domaine Pierre Prieur et Fils. The 2018 Sancerre, which is a regional blend from all three soil types, is a herb-scented style – subtle guava fruits are well balanced with an acid-driven and juicy palate. The 2017 Les Coinches is made from fruit sourced off a steep pebbly vineyard located between Verdigny and Chavignol. It is a more exotic expression – vibrant passionfruit and slaty aromas followed by a more chalky palate that is fine and long on a drying finish.
A more unique style of Sancerre from Domaine Pierre Prieur et Fils is made from the Les Monts Damnés vineyard – ‘the damned mountains’ – one of Sancerre’s steepest, planted on white clay and limestone above Chavignol. The 2017 Les Monts Damnés is an incredibly powerful and brooding expression of sauvignon blanc showing a robust flavour profile and the power, balance and acidity to drink beautifully over the next 10 years.
Further inland is the little enclave of Menetou-Salon. In these rolling green hills sauvignon blanc again takes a different turn producing brilliant, understated wines, such as those crafted by winemaker Paul-Henry Pellé at Domaine Pellé.
Menetou-Salon also shares Kimmeridgian limestone marl soils and thus produces wines quite similar to Sancerre with precise, pure fruit characters evident in both sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, although with a touch more restraint than its more famous neighbour.
Domaine Pellé, unlike many producers of Menetou-Salon, places equal emphasis on pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. The majority of white wines are made with a light touch; fermented and aged in oak, plus aged on their lees making for richly textural sauvignon blancs that, while reserved, also have exceptional levels of complexity. This is seen across the range particularly in the single vineyard wines. The 2017 Vignes de Ratier is planted in a shallow vineyard with only 50 centimetres of soils above Kimmeridgian limestone bedrock with full wood ferment and maturation. It is exotic, mouth filling and powerful with tropical and mineral fruits tightened up by a core of razor-like acidity. The 2017 Le Carroir is remarkably different – taken from the only vineyard in the appellation planted on flinty soils – showing a finer and more delicate style with herbal, smoky fruits, a similar spirit and vitality to young riesling.
East across the river from Sancerre in Pouilly-Fumé, Loire sauvignon blanc takes quite a different turn. Gone are the stark hillsides and steep vineyards, replaced by low lying hills and less altitude. While the soils are relatively similar to Sancerre the wines can be quite different.
For many years Serge Dagueneau & Filles has been a leading local producer, now run by fourth-generation winemaker Valerie Dagueneau. The 2017 Pouilly-Fumé is a reserved expression practically bursting with local gunflint characters. On the palate it is bright, crisp and tight with a lovely line of pure sauvignon fruit again topped up with flinty nuances. It will build nicely in bottle over the next five years.
The Loire Valley is without doubt one of the world’s greatest wine regions offering unique wines with subtlety and substance. While it generally lacks the simplicity of a Cru system or classification to help identify its greatest wines, nor iconic grape varieties such as chardonnay, syrah or cabernet sauvignon, there are dozens of wineries with wines that are not out of place among the world’s best, spread out among many appellations. There are also surprises at every turn in the Loire making it a region well worth exploring.