The Loire Valley stretches some 1,000km, from its source in the Cévennes in southern France to the working estuary of Saint Nazaire on the coast of Brittany. The Central Vineyards region, best known for sauvignon blanc and the appellations of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre, is aptly named, lying not only in central France but also at roughly the halfway point, which visitors are reminded of by a simple marker on the bridge over the river.
The Loire is the longest river in France, longer than the mighty Rhône, and only a little shorter than the Rhine, so it is no wonder that it is made up of so many different terroirs, and a natural home to so many grapes and appellations (read our guide Loire wine guide). The Loire is a region full of history but today also one of innovation, whether driven by a well-travelled younger generation taking over the reins from hard-working parents, newcomers attracted by some of the lowest vineyard prices around, a growing trend for organic, biodynamic and natural wines, or the opportunities presented by climate change in this region once considered 'marginal' but where good reds are now being made every year. Yet much of it still has a certain sleepy charm, there are fewer big, fewer still rich, producers, and the grand châteaux which populate its east west axis are of historic rather than vinous interest (even if some appellations share their names). And many of us still dismiss its wines as 'the stuff my parents – even grandparents – used to drink'.
Whatever your current position on Loire wines, there is plenty to discover, and it's worth exploring, whether meandering on a long road trip, biking from a local campsite, or researching from the comfort of your armchair. I have been visiting the Loire since first going there as a student nearly forty years ago and I am drawn back in every time I go – by its wines, its food and its people.
It can help to approach the Loire in chunks, by its main grape varieties such as the sauvignons of the Centre and Touraine, or the chenins and/or reds of Anjou and Saumur, or geographically – fly/drive to Nantes, Tours, Paris, even Lyon if you are starting in the south. There are classics and curiosities the length of the Loire, whether they be grape varieties or the regions and appellations themselves. Here we have grouped some of the classic appellations alongside some that are less familiar (sometimes not even obviously Loire).
Appellations guarantee provenance but also imply quality, and one definition of classic 'judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind' may be applied both to appellations and their wines. The AC (now AOP – these things are eternally complicated) system was introduced in the 1930s and the Loire was among the first to take advantage of the marketing opportunity, with the following all established in 1936 (the same as AC Bordeaux, incidentally): Anjou, Chinon, Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine, Quincy, Rosé d'Anjou, Sancerre, Saumur and Saumur-Champigny, Vouvray, with Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-sur-Loire, Reuilly, St Nicolas de Bourgueil, along with off-the-beaten-track Jasnières (one of the chenin wines I first fell in love with) the following year. It is interesting to note, among this short list (in Loire terms at least!), those that have taken best advantage of their status. Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, despite hot competition from more modestly priced sauvignon blanc wines from Quincy, Reuilly, and Menetou-Salon, which only received its AC in 1959, have flown.
An appellation's fortunes will not only be quality-related, of course. Often the size of a potential AC limits its opportunity in the first place, and the smaller the number of growers in an established one, the less the potential for cohesive marketing. How many wine enthusiasts honestly know that Menetou, Pouilly-Fumé, Quincy, Reuilly, and Sancerre are all situated in the Loire's Central Vineyards and only make white wine from one grape: sauvignon blanc (which many people now think comes from New Zealand!)?
The chasselas grape was once far more widely planted in France and especially in the Central Vineyards, where it produces Pouilly-sur-Loire, but sauvignon blanc became such a cash cow that it was often sacrificed to quench the seemingly insatiable thirst for its more widely planted bed fellow. But pockets of old vines and dedicated producers remain. Domaine Landrat-Guyollot's Les Binerelles and Domaine de Riaux's Vieilles Vignes, both from the same Pouilly commune of St Andelain incidentally, are consistent favourites.
Some of the Loire's classic appellations have been through the ebb and flow of overproduction (often market driven) and poor quality, low production (mostly due to climatic conditions) with sometimes poor, sometimes exceptional quality, with corresponding reputation. In some ways it is a wonder that they have survived at all. Muscadet – with its selection of appellations around the city of Nantes, the latest of which, in 1994, is the Côtes de Grand Lieu between Nantes and the coast – is the most obvious example. Shocking quality, and mean, not very drinkable wines in the 1970s perhaps led many of us to think this was a wine only our parents drank – but no more! Quality is not only up but consistent in a way it never was, and prices have barely changed. Add to that a younger generation of innovative and quality-conscious growers, and a now major initiative towards establishing Cru Communal Muscadet – AC recognition for higher-quality Muscadets aged longer pre and post bottling – and you have a region that deserves another look. Especially if a lighter, crisp, dry white is on the shopping list and you could start with something like La Haie Fouassière, Le Clos du Château L'Oiselinière.
One of the grandest reputations is for Savennières, and this is certainly a chenin AC that has seen a lot of change (since 1952), most for the better. There is a concerted move towards more environmentally friendly methods, partly driven by a younger, more enlightened generation, but the region has been cruelly hit time and again by frost and other climatic challenges that have pushed prices inexorably up. There is good wine to be had but you still have to look hard for it and be prepared to pay for it.
The Loire is rightly renowned for its sweet (chenin blanc) wines, which remain seriously undervalued for their quality (one best kept secret we're happy to keep to ourselves!). Yet the Coteaux du Layon appellation was only created in 1950, and Quarts de Chaume a little later (1954). Making fine dessert-grade chenin is not easy every year, not least because climate change can disrupt the necessary accident of events that leads to botrytis (noble rot) in the grapes. A natural drying of the grapes on the vine – passerillage – can also make beautiful, very pure wine, but without the complexity that comes with noble rot. And producers are making less of these wines as they become less and less fashionable.
The more far-flung corners of a region will often harbour the more esoteric, whether they be grapes, styles, even people! How about the southern French grape negrette in the Vendée, or pinot gris in the Nantais, or Reuilly where it makes a gris-style of rosé? Réthoré-Davy in the Pays des Mauges also makes syrah, which we bought recently for Wine Without Fuss, and malbec (ditto), often known in the Loire at côt. Many of the younger generation are opting to use the more familiar name malbec, not least Jean-Hubert Lebreton of the historic Anjou appellation, whose pure malbec delighted us in a large blind tasting earlier this year.
Touraine, with its AC since 1939 and in many ways the most traditional of the Loire's regions, has its own new baby, born in 2011, in the form of the Touraine-Chenonceaux appellation (one of those cleverly using the château name, but they actually put their money where their mouth is and host a summer tasting event in the beautiful château grounds). Our favourites have consistently been those from the delightful Denis family at Domaine de la Renaudie, and Luc Poullain's (Domaine des Echardières), who has to do a good job because he is Président of the appellation. Philippe and Fabienne Angier at Alpha Loire make a great baby brother Touraine Rouge, as they have no vines within the Chenonceaux appellation, using roughly 50% of the essential malbec alongside cabernet franc, which makes a great introduction to the style.
There are other ACs that straddle the classics and curiosities camps, both established in 1993. Cheverny, that blend of majority sauvignon blanc with chardonnay, seems out of kilter with the rest of the Loire, but has been pleasing Wine Society members for years. Its neighbouring appellation Cour-Cheverny is, rather confusingly, based on another white grape entirely, the rare romorantin, another historic grape formerly widely planted, now confined largely to this small corner of north-east Touraine.
The Vendée, on France's Atlantic coast south of the Loire and Brittany, claims to be its sunniest region, if memory serves me right. Certainly, a camping holiday there many years back was spot on, with fantastic deep beaches perfect for my daughter to crack riding her bike on. It is home to young Jérémie Mourat, who took over a successful business from his father and turned it into an even more successful one, building the sort of cool winery and tasting aforementioned Jean-Hubert Lebreton, and Jérémie Huchet from Muscadet territory and room you might see in the new world, and now offering vineyard tours by bicycle or golf cart… as well as a cracking range of wines, including a selection from close friends (which include a partner in crime there). Stars to pick out would be his pinot noir vinified as a white, or the refreshing and delightful red from the same organically farmed vineyard.
Vendôme is an historic region that once sold most of its wine into Paris. AC status only came in 2001, largely thanks to the efforts of the very good local co-op. The specialities here are chenin blanc, and the distinctly curious, at least to the uninitiated, pineau d'aunis (which also appears in Touraine) and in the tiny Coteaux du Loir AC which was established in 1948, which I also first discovered as a student. But wine made from pineau d'aunis, with its usually quite pale colour, strawberry fruit and distinctly peppery character is a taste I did not acquire until I joined The Wine Society as a buyer back in 2004. Tasting it with perhaps its best producer – Eric Nicolas – with simply served rare beef cooked by his wife Christine, remains one of the highlights of my wine life.
Châteaumeillant was another important region that relied on selling vast amounts of wine to the brasseries of the capital. Now it is a tiny vineyard area being revived by a very good co-operative cellar and a few private producers, notably investing here when it is just too expensive to invest closer to home. Others have seen the attraction of Côtes de la Charité 'between the Loire and Burgundy' for the same reasons, including Domaine Serge Laloue, who make our Exhibition Sancerre, who are already making smart chardonnay and pinot noir there.
In the far south is the Côte Roannaise, which became an AC in 1994, and which we now give an FC- prefix to rather than a LO- reference, and group with other Massif Central appellations in our French Country section of the List. Along with Côtes du Forez (2000), it is officially part of the Loire, but there is a fierce independence in these regions and several have grouped together under the Loire Volcanique banner to promote their regions together, yet separate from the Loire. After all, a gamay from the Roannaise has far more in common with Beaujolais, its nearer neighbour, than with Touraine, where it tends to be lighter, leaner, sometimes a little earthy. Excellent with gutsy local charcuterie but less charm than the grape achieves further south.
Saint-Pourçain and the Auvergnat Puy de Dôme are equally off the beaten track and owe the individuality of their wines to volcanic soils, as well as some pretty dramatic landscapes. We've been toying with a volcanic mixed case, but for now feel free to explore these wines as they come and go.
And one last comment on the curiosity front is that the Loire has gone big into natural wines. Our recommendation for now at least, until more people can make natural wine stable, is to explore the wines of these more remote regions producing totally authentic grapes and wines with flavours and styles you can't quite find anywhere else.
And don't forget the classics, which are not classics for nothing.