The Traveller's Guide To: The wines of the Loire

Producing reds, whites and rosés, the Loire has an astonishing variety of wines. Jim Budd drinks in the splendour of the region
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The Independent Travel

THE LOIRE IS 1,000KM LONG. DO THEY GROW VINES ALONG THE WHOLE LENGTH OF THE RIVER?

Not quite the whole length. The Loire rises in the mountains of the Ardèche - only about 100km from the Mediterranean. Travelling downstream the first appellation is the Côtes de Forez, about 150km from the source. However, it is not until you reach the Loire's halfway mark at the small town of Pouilly that you find the first Loire wine that has an internationally known reputation - Pouilly-Fumé made from Sauvignon Blanc.

THE LOIRE MAKES MAINLY WHITE WINE - RIGHT?

Not entirely correct. True, just over half the wines are white but it is not as clear-cut as many imagine. Several parts of the Loire, such as Touraine and Anjou, make more red and rosé than white. Furthermore, the best-known Loire wines in the UK are the whites. Muscadet, of course, but also Pouilly-Fumé, Vouvray, Coteaux du Layon and Sancerre, although the latter also makes red and rosé wines from Pinot Noir. The Loire has an amazing range of wine and makes almost every style. The whites vary from bone dry, through demi-sec (medium dry) to luscious sweet. There are rosés from dry to sweet and reds from light to full-bodied. Not forgetting some very good sparkling wines. There are even a few sparkling reds made mainly from Cabernet Franc.

DESCRIBE A LOIRE RED

The Loire makes many attractive reds - from light, fruity Gamays that are delicious to drink young, to more concentrated, structured reds made from both Cabernet Franc and Côt (the local name for Malbec). These will happily age at least five to 10 years. Loire reds are little known here but they are well worth a try. Coming from northerly vineyards they have sufficient acidity to balance the fruit and make them great food wines. Unlike bigger reds from hotter climates Loire reds are never cloying.

IS THERE ANY TYPE OF WINE THAT THE LOIRE DOESN'T MAKE?

The Loire doesn't officially make any fortified wines, so nothing in a port or sherry style, though you never know what experiments adventurous producers have stashed away in the deepest recesses of their cellars.

ALL THE APPELLATIONS ARE CONFUSING. WHAT'S THE INSIDE TRACK TO LOIRE WINES?

I suggest that, initially, you forget about the appellations - around 75 at the last count. Instead concentrate on the way the climate changes over the 400km from Sancerre/Pouilly to the Atlantic Ocean and which grape varieties are best suited to the local conditions.

Let's start in the Central Vineyards, especially Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Here the climate is semi-continental with spring starting up to two weeks or more later than in Nantes, so a shorter growing season. Therefore early ripening Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are mainly planted here. Further west in eastern Touraine, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir are still planted but so too are Gamay, Cabernet Franc and some Chenin Blanc. Cabernet Franc and Chenin, the Loire's two classic varieties, are later ripening varieties and here is their eastern limit of where they will ripen properly.

The best Loire reds made from Cabernet Franc come from Chinon, Bourgueil and St Nicolas-de-Bourgueil in western Touraine and from around Saumur, especially Saumur-Champigny. In Anjou, the birthplace of Chenin Blanc, the long, fine autumns allow Chenin Blanc to ripen fully and, especially, in the Layon Valley to produce wonderful sweet wines that have a marvellous balance of honeyed sweetness and refreshing acidity. Also, the best reds from Sancerre are now very good and compare favourably with some Burgundies. Finally, the area close to the Atlantic Ocean is devoted to the Melon de Bourgogne, the Muscadet grape. The Melon ripens early so avoids autumnal storms from the Atlantic and, of course, you need a wonderfully crisp white to go with all that marvellous seafood.

ANY OTHER MAJOR APPELLATIONS?

The straight appellation Touraine offers good value, especially Sauvignon and Gamay mainly from the Cher Valley, east of Tours. Also look out for the attractive reds from Touraine-Mesland just west of Blois. In Vouvray, close to Tours, you'll find dry to sweet whites from Chenin Blanc. There are also very good sparkling wines, particularly pétillant - a favourite of mine. The centre of Loire sparkling wine production, however, is in Saumur. You'll also find good still white and red wines here.

Anjou has a big range of wines in all three colours. The whites range from dry to sweet. The best sweet wines come from the Coteaux de l'Aubance and Coteux du Layon, particularly Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. These are some of the world's great sweet wines. The reds run from easy drinking Anjou Rouge to Anjou Villages that are more sturdy and often need three or four years to show their best.

HOW CAN I SURPRISE AND IMPRESS MY FRIENDS?

Well, there are certainly some small and little known appellations. The Coteaux de Giennois just north of Sancerre makes similar whites from Sauvignon Blanc, while the reds are an easy-drinking blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay.

Orléans and Orléans-Cléry have just been promoted to full appellation status. The vineyards are on the south bank of the Loire close to the eponymous city. The main varieties are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Orléans and only Cabernet Franc for Orléans-Cléry. These vineyards were more extensive in the Middle Ages when they supplied Paris.

Next, to the south of Blois and close to the famous châteaux of Chambord and Cheverny, are the vineyards of Cheverny and Cour-Cheverny. The latter comes exclusively from Romorantin, a rare local grape that makes crisp, dry whites. The Cheverny appellation covers wines in all three colours, mainly using Pinot Noir, Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Further north there's the small Coteaux-du-Vendômois appellation in the very pretty valley of Le Loir near to Vendôme. This is one of the most northerly vineyards in western France. Look out for the pale and refreshing rosé made from Pineau d'Aunis. Further south just to the west of Angers is the Coulée de Serrant, one of the Loire's most famous wines and made from Chenin Blanc. This tiny appellation - only seven hectares - is owned by the Joly family and is part of the larger Savennières appellation that makes brilliant dry wines, perfect with local fish and a beurre blanc sauce.

Another curiosity is Touraine-Noble-Joué - a rosé made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Pinot Meunier - from close to Tours.

WHAT ARE THE BEST RECENT VINTAGES?

The Loire has been fortunate with a run of good vintages since 2002, which have wonderfully balanced wines. 2003, a very hot year, produced big, rich wines and is probably best for sweet whites. 2004 is rather patchy but the best producers made some very good wines, especially reds. The conditions in 2005 were perfect - the grapes looked magnificent when picked. There are some lovely wines and best are now starting to be released. Going further back, 1998 is really the last poor year in the Loire, while 1997, 1996 and 1995 are all very good vintages. Prior to that, look out for 1989 and 1990.

MY GRANDFATHER LEFT ME A BOTTLE OF VOUVRAY 1947. IS IT STILL DRINKABLE?

If it has been properly stored, then it should be wonderful. 1947 was one of the great vintages in the Loire and wines, like Vouvray or Bonnezeaux, made from Chenin Blanc, have an incredible ability to age and are some of the world's longest-lived wines. This can be over 100 years in exceptional vintages.

I WANT TO VISIT A FEW PRODUCERS. DO I NEED APPOINTMENTS?

Usually this is not necessary. Many Loire vineyards are still family owned and it is often the producer who will welcome visitors. This is one of the great things about visiting in the Loire - getting to meet the wine-maker rather than a professional guide. However, it may well be worth phoning in advance to see if someone will be around. Good producers are always busy with their vines, in the winery or increasingly away travelling selling their wines in France and elsewhere.

Remember that the French drinking and driving laws are very strict. The limit is 0.5 mg/ml, which is lower than in the UK. If you are driving and tasting wine, it is always best to spit it out. The French for a spittoon is un crachoir and wine producers won't be surprised if you ask for one. If you are tasting in a cellar with an earth floor, you can spit on the floor.

ANY SIGNPOSTED WINE ROUTES?

Yes. Start by looking at www.vinsvaldeloire.fr. This covers Anjou-Saumur and Touraine. Click on "Take a break". This has recommended circuits by car, bike and on foot as well as recommendations of what to see and where to get further

Also helpful are the Maison des Vins in Angers, just by the château (00 33 2 41 88 81 13), Saumur, in the tourist office (00 33 2 41 38 45 83) and in Blois, at Place du Château (00 33 2 54 74 76 66).

RESTAURANTS WITH GOOD WINE LISTS?

There are certainly a number to choose from. Here are a few. In Angers try Le Relais (00 33 2 41 88 42 51), while in Saumur L'Escargot (00 33 2 41 51 20 88) has a good list of Saumur wines. In Sazilly close to Chinon, the Auberge du Val de Vienne (00 33 2 47 95 26 49) has a comprehensive list of Chinons. East of Tours, I recommend the Bon Laboureur in Chenonceaux - fine cooking, good wine list and a knowledgeable front of house.

Just north of Amboise, L'Aubinière in St Ouen-les-Vignes (00 33 2 47 30 15 29) is also very good. Although it is not near any vineyards La Promenade in Le Petit Pressigny (00 33 2 47 94 93 52) is one of the best restaurants in the Loire and the wine list is superb - well worth the journey to southern Touraine.

In Loir-et-Cher there is Le Domaine des Hauts de Loire (00 33 2 54 20 72 57), a luxurious hotel in its own park at Onzain, and Le Bistrot du Cuisinier (00 33 2 54 78 06 70) on the banks of the Loire facing Blois, which has a good list including a range of wines by the glass.

Further east Le Tour (00 33 2 48 54 00 81) in Sancerre is back on fine form and has a detailed list of Sancerres. In the nearby little village of Chavignol La Côte des Monts Damné (00 33 2 48 54 01 72) also has a good list of the local wines.

ANY OTHER TIPS?

Remember that the Loire Valley covers a large area and that it is better to see one part at your leisure rather than rush frantically from one end of the valley to the other. So unless you have plenty of time, don't try to see Anjou and Sancerre at the same time.

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