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The Loire Valley wine region technically begins in Auvergne, nearly in the center of France near Clermont-Ferrand, and stretches 600 miles west through Tours, Saumur, and Angers, finally ending up near the city of Nantes on the Atlantic Coast. It follows the Loire River, one of the longest in France and historically important for trade since the Middle Ages. The proximity of the Loire River allowed the export of the wines to Paris, and in the other direction to other countries, which increased the notoriety and popularity of Loire wines. The Loire has a long history; in the Middle Ages, the wines were more prized than even those of Bordeaux. It also has tremendous significance in the history of France, as its temperate climate, proximity to Paris, and abundant limestone deposits (called “tuffeau” in the region) made it an ideal location for secondary royal palaces, particularly during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci lived here at the end of his life, and Richard the Lionhearted is buried here.
The river produces a mesoclimatewithin a continental climat, a few degrees warmer than surrounding areas, which allows the grapes to ripen better. The soil is mostly the limestone tuffeau, which was mined extensively in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to build the great castles of the region. The limestone is friable but has great tensile strength and is a lovely white color: a perfect building material. For the vine, it stores water at deep levels, has excellent drainage, and the whiteness of the material reflects the sun back on the grapes, particularly close to the Loire River.
Such a large, long wine region has quite a variety of soil types, growing conditions and grape varieties. Red, white, rosé, sparkling wine and sweet wine are all produced here. The region is divided into four subregions which we’ll explore here, from East to West.
Although there are vineyards that extend down as far as central France that are technically included in the Loire Valley wine region, the region is generally characterized by four subregions, the first of which is the Central Loire, near the city of Bourges. Several of the famous appellations here, particularly Sancerre, is considered the quintessential terroir for the Sauvignon Blanc grape variety, producing a highly fragrant, nervous but balanced wine known for its elegance and ability to marry beautifully with the region’s distinguished cuisine.
The other important appellation of this subregion is Pouilly-Fumé, another Sauvignon Blanc-based wine but grown in a soil of silex (flint), which is said to impart a slightly smokey (fumé) aroma to the wine. In some of the regional appellations here, the Chasselas grape is also used.
Pouilly-Fumé produces only white wines. Sancerre produces primarily white wine, but also light-bodied reds made from Pinot Noir (Bourgogne is not far to the east of these vineyards).
We can roughly divide this subregion into two growing areas: the Touraine (the area near and East of the city of Tours) and the area around Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire. We start seeing some of the most famous royal castles in the Touraine, including Chaumont, Chenonceau and Chambord.
In the Touraine, red, white, and rosé wines are produced. For the white wines, it is in this growing area that we start to see one of the emblematic grapes of the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc (sometimes called “Fumé Blanc” in other parts of the world). Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay can be found here and there as well. There is some Gamay in this area, but Cabernet Franc is the main red grape here, with small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon (which ripens poorly here) and Malbec in places. We usually associate Cabernet Franc with Bordeaux, where it is used as a blending grape; it is quite prevalent on the Right Bank in appellations like Saint Emilion and Pomerol. In the Loire Valley, the farther west you travel, the more you’ll find red wines made 100% of Cabernet Franc.
West of Tours, we find the appellations of Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire, located just across the Loire River from each other. These appellations benefit from a microclimate that allows the winemakers to produce dry, off dry, moelleux (sweet) and/or sparkling wine (made using the MéthodeChampennoise), depending on the growing conditions each year. Other sweet wines made farther to the west are Savenierres and Côteaux de Layon.
It is also in this area that we see homes that are called “troglodytiques” or “like troglodytes.” These often appear as the façade of a home attached directly to a hillside. Behind that façade would be a home built into an old mine where tuffeau had been removed. These abodes have the advantage of staying warm in the winter and cool in the summer (although rather humid year-round). These old mines are also used to produce and store wine by local winemakers.
Moving west along the river, we reach the small cities Chinon and Bourgueil. This is where most of the region’s red wine is produced with100% Cabernet Franc. Chinon is a light to medium-bodied wine, known for its suavité and richness, while Bourgueil (and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil next to it) offer a somewhat more rustic and tannic wine. Both are considered the ideal terroir for 100% Cabernet Franc.
Arriving in Saumur, one notices the fairytale-like castle in the center of town. While the appellation Saumur-Champigny produces excellent 100% Cabernet Franc reds, the area around Saumur is one of France’s biggest producers of sparkling wine made from the Chenin Blanc grape.
The area around the city of Angers is called the Anjou, and it’s known for a microclimate sometimes referred to as “la douceur Angevine” (the warmth of the Anjou) that attracted Kings and winemakers. The area is known mostly for its Rosé d’Anjou and Cabernet d’Anjou, which are sometimes dry and sometimes off dry and made from Cabernet Franc and Grolleau.
The westernmost subregion of the Loire is the Nantais, the large region that surrounds the beautiful, modern city of Nantes. In this climate close to the Atlantic Ocean, it was decided as far back as the 17th century that the front-resistant grape variety Melon de Bourgogne would be planted in the area. Even though this grape has nothing to do with the Muscat family of grapes, it is used in four appellations that include that name: Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine; Muscadet-Côtes de Grand Lieu; Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire; and plain Muscadet. These wines are often aged on their lees, and bottled unfiltered, giving them more body and balancing their fresh acidity.
© Lauriann Greene, 2021
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