OF ALL THE MAJOR wine regions of France, the Loire Valley is, arguably, the most fascinating.
Unlike Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône, the Loire is a lateral region, stretching 280 kilometers from the city of Nantes, inland from the Atlantic coast, to the centre of France. It’s known as the Garden of France for its abundance of fruit orchards and fields of artichokes and asparagus.
The Loire Valley has been inhabited since the Old Stone Age as evidenced by the troglodyte caves along the river bank at what is today the town of Vouvray. (Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, I stayed there in a luxury hotel whose rooms had been carved out of the chalk cliffs.)
But the twin glories of the region are its wines and its royal châteaux that are strung along the banks of the river like great grey pearls: Blois, Amboise, Chenonceau, Chambord, Villandry and Azay-le-Rideau. Each one is different in architecture and worth exploring. (If you have time to see only one, make it Chenonceau, pictured above, which is built like a bridge across the River Cher.)
Wine has been made in the Loire Valley since the first century. So diverse are the region's microclimates and soils that there are 87 different wine appellations. The Loire produces more white wine than any other region in France and is second only to Champagne in the production of sparkling wines. The winemakers here also produce rosé and red wines from Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir.
The best way to discover the wines of the Loire is to start in the west and work your way east along the river.
Pays Nantais, stretching from the city of Nantes, is the most westerly region. In this cool, damp, maritime climate, they grow the Melon de Bourgogne — originally a Burgundian grape variety — which, once fermented and bottled, appears as the white wine Muscadet. It may have the term sur lie on the label, which means the wine has been aged over the winter on the lees — the dead yeast cells and fragments of grape skins — to add complexity of flavour and texture.
They also grow a grape called Gros Plant here, which goes by the name of Folle Blanche and produces a wine similar in style to Muscadet but more rustic. This is the same grape distillers use to make Cognac and Armagnac.
The next appellation you hit driving east is Anjou-Saumur, the centre for Loire sparkling wine. Anjou, made from the Chenin Blanc grape, can be dry or sweet, and the best come from an area on the north bank of the river called Savennières — especially the sweet versions from Coteaux du Layon and a tiny appellation of seven hectares called Coulée de Serrant. This vineyard is owned by the Joly family and has been farmed biodynamically since 1984.
The region’s other sweet wine appellation, Quarts de Chaume, was designated the Loire’s first Grand Cru in 2011.
The best red wines of the Loire are grown in the Touraine region around the towns of Chinon and Bourgueil. They can be made from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot d’Aunis, the latter wine a favourite of King Henry III. (Incidentally, you can see the sarcophagi of Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine in the nave of Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon, once the largest monastic complex in Europe).
Continuing east, you’ll come to Vouvray, real Chenin Blanc country. The wines here have a varying degrees of sweetness, as well as a sparkling wine made in the traditional bottle-fermented method.
Next, you’ll arrive at the Upper or Centre Loire, the home of the most renowned wines of the region: Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, the finest expression of the Sauvignon Blanc. The soil is a bed of chalk that begins as the white cliffs of Dover and runs through the Champagne and Chablis regions. This soil imparts an identifiable mineral quality to the wines.
Pouilly-Fumé is a Chardonnay wine in the Mâconnais district of Burgundy, and a weightier wine because of the mixture of silica in the soil. This element gives a struck-flint flavour to the wine that may inform the ‘fumé’ of its name — or, as some believe, the name derives from the fog rising from the river that resembles smoke.
Three other satellite appellations also produce wonderful Sauvignon Blanc wines — Menetou-Salon, Reuilly and Quincy — that are usually less costly than Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
At this point in your journey you are only 125 kilometers east of Chablis, the northern gateway to Burgundy. In many ways, this area has more in common with Chablis than with the rest of the Loire Valley.
If you travel 94 kilometers northeast of Sancerre, leaving the Loire region, you reach the town of St. Bris-le-Vineux, an anomaly as it’s the only appellation in Burgundy, the go-to region for Chardonnay, that allows Sauvignon Blanc in its wines.
So next time you consider a wine vacation, consider the Loire Valley. You won’t be disappointed by the wines, the food or the scenery.
Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.