The Loire Valley is one of France’s largest and most diverse wine regions, with 65 designated wine appellations (called AOC or Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) along a 300-plus mile stretch of beautiful countryside, dotted with chateaux and lightly rolling hills, and filled with history, wars, romance, great cuisine and lovely wines.
The Loire River is the longest in France, and one of the last wild rivers in Europe; it starts in the Massif Central, and travels north and west until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Brittany.
Loire wines are crafted from around a dozen different grape varieties, including some of the best expressions of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Melon de Bourgogne in the world. Other varietals include include Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Malbec (called Côt in the region), Pineau d’Aunis and Grolleau. Loire wines can be bone dry, off-dry or sweet; still or sparkling, crisp or round, made for immediate consumption, or crafted to age for dozens of years.
The Loire produces primarily white wines (over 70 percent of production), and is the second largest sparkling wine region in France, after Champagne. Red wines tend to be softer and lighter in style and very food friendly.
Winemaking in the region can be traced back to the Romans, and to Saint Martin who allegedly planted the first grapes in 380 C.E.
The region is divided into three distinct wine areas: the Upper, Middle and Western Loire.
The Upper Loire, in the northeastern part of the valley, is home to great Sauvignon Blancs like Sancerre, Menetou Salon, Quincy and Pouilly-Fumé. Summers are hot but short, and the soil is a mixture of chalky, sandy and limestone soils. When well made, these minerally wines can stand up to all sorts of foods and offer a crisp, refreshing and elegant blast of white flowers, wet stones, citrus and grassy notes. A natural pairing with goat cheese, Loire Sauvignon Blancs work well with white fish, salads, creamy cheeses and tree nuts.
The Middle Loire is home to wines made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. The climate is mild, but tends to have a lot of rainfall, especially in the western part of the region. This can create botrytis or noble rot on grapes, which can produce some amazingly sweet and long-lived dessert wines.
Loire Cabernet Francs, grown at their best around Saumur, Chinon and Bourgueil, are characterized by their soft tannins, good acidity and notes of pepper, raspberry, cassis and tobacco. They are a surprising match with river and lake fish, and go well with roasted, braised and grilled meats, as well as poultry and cheese.
I’ve often thought that Chenin Blanc was the world’s most versatile grape — as it can produce wines of character all along the spectrum — dry, off-dry, sparkling, dessert and fortified; and all of these do very well in the Middle Loire Valley. Once, when in France, I was offered three glasses of white wine, and was asked to identify them. One was steely dry, and I surmised it was a Sauvignon Blanc; one was rounded, soft and off dry, and I figured that was a Chenin. And the last I was sure was an unoaked Chardonnay. I was wrong — all three were Chenin Blancs.
The Chenin Blancs made in Vouvray and Montlouis tend to be rounder, honeyed and off-dry; while those in Savennières are bone dry with no detectible residual sugar and can take up to a decade to soften. Chenin Blancs, depending on how they are vinified, are great aperitif wines; they pair well with cheeses, salads, seafood, breads and soups (think about trying a Chenin with a sandwich). When vinified sweet, they are perfect with stone fruit, tarts, pies and non-chocolate cakes.
The Western Loire, centered around the large city of Nantes at the eastern edge of Brittany, is the home of Muscadet, which is made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. This is an area of low sandy hills and the climate is very cool, with lots of maritime influence. Crisp Muscadet wines scream out to be paired with seafood, and I can think of no better pairing than with the oysters, mussels or clams for which neighboring Brittany is so justifiably famous.
We’re blessed here in the East Bay, as most of our local wine shops have a very good selection of Loire wines, as several importers of the world’s best Loire wines are located in Berkeley.
Here are a few of my favorite Loire wines:
Baumard Carte Turquoise — This Chenin Blanc/Cabernet Franc blend belies its modest price. The ripe fruits have kept their freshness, leaving a generous but crisp wine, with a delicate, elegant mousse.
Château d’Epiré Savennières Cuvée Spéciale — Bone dry with a waxy, white flowered nose, great minerality and power.
Pichot Vouvray — With aromas of shells, citrus and peach blossom, and clean, bright, polished peach and minerality on the palate, it is round in the mouth.
Chidaine Montlouis Les Tuffeaux — Across the river from better known Vouvray, Chidaine cranks out biodynamically farmed wines of meticulous purity and finesse. Les Tuffeaux is the demi-sec bottling: honeyed and round, a delightful aperitif wine that pairs perfectly with Asian, Mexican or other spicy foods.
Les Pouches Saumur Blanc — Single vineyard Chenin for under $12 per bottle!
Dagueneau — When he was alive, Didier Dagueneau elevated Loire Sauvignon Blancs to new heights, producing wines of elegance, depth and unmatched ageability. His Sauvignon Blancs — never cheap (some bottlings top $100 per bottle!) — are a delight: great minerality with citrus, wet stone and a hint of oak.
Auchere Sancerre — Bay Area residents are lucky, because the importer of this organically farmed crisp and lighter — weight Sauvignon Blanc lives here. Sancerres under $20 are hard to find on the West Coast, but this one noses in just under that.
Breton Bourgueil — Pierre and Catherine Breton’s wines are served at every hot wine bar in Paris. Meticulous farming practices (moving toward biodynamic), good ripeness levels, natural yeasts, great vineyard sites that produce yummy, food —friendly wines should make their wines a staple in your cellar.
Les Vignoles Saumur Champigny — Single vineyard Cab Franc for under $15. A juicy, easy quaffing wine that will go with most foods.
Clos Rougeard Saumur Champigny — Nearly impossible to find, this long-lived Cab Franc is brimming with flavor. There’s a sweet ripeness of black fruit, tobacco, sage, black pepper and ginger on the nose and a seamless richness of tender fruit on the palate.
— Jeff Diamond owns and operates Farmstead Cheeses and Wines in Alameda and Oakland. He has trekked through the Loire valley twice, and has taken several car trips through this diverse wine region.