At times majestic, never more so than when overlooked by one of the many spectacular châteaux that lie close to its banks, it was in the past a vital trade waterway. Today, it is better known as a tourist destination. Throughout, the river has been a key factor in the production of wine, whether as a transport route, as a supply of water, for its cooling effects on the surrounding land, or for the mist that often lingers along parts of the valley and helps in the production of many of the fine sweet wines that the Loire Valley is famous for.
Know your grapes
The geology and climate - the terroir - varies dramatically along the length of the Loire, and, as a result, so too does the choice of grapes planted and the style of wines produced.
Red wines are in the minority but a combination of vastly improved husbandry over the last few years coupled with what looks increasingly to be the effects of climate change have made these wines more and more attractive. The main varieties are:
Gamay produces wines akin to Beaujolais in the south; in the Touraine, gamay generally has less overt fruit and a slightly earthy character which is not unattractive with food but some will find an acquired taste.
Cabernet franc One of Bordeaux's grapes is normally grown here as a single varietal. At its best it has a lovely fragrance and freshness with a good, gentle tannin structure and moderate alcohol, making it the ideal lunchtime red.
Pinot noir is the most delicate of the Loire's red grapes, producing excellent rosé as well as fine reds that, in the best years and hands can rival good village Burgundy (more Côte de Beaune than Côte de Nuits in style). They can be an excellent choice to serve with fish.
Côt (malbec) used to be widely planted in southwest France but in the Loire it tends to be grown mainly in the Anjou-Touraine region and is often blended with cabernet franc and gamay, for its deep purple hue and floral perfume.
Négrette is a deeply-coloured, perfumed ancient variety found principally in the Fiefs Vendéens, an outpost of the Loire below Nantes, a differnet strain from that found in Southern France. Wines are supple with black cherry/kirsch fruit.
Whites are made principally from three single grape varieties:
- Muscadet, or melon de Bourgogne as it is still sometimes called in France, dominates in the far west, producing fresh, dry, sappy wines that are a famous match for seafood but these days are very versatile with or without food.
- Chenin blanc covers much of the vineyard land around and between Angers and Tours, and is responsible for the Loire's sweet wines as well as some excellent - and quite varied - dry ones. Many develop greater finesse and complexity with age, but chenin is a grape that requires patience and understanding as, more than any other variety, it can pass through a rather ungenerous 'closed' phase, only to blossom again later. Something Noël Pinguet, for many years winemaker at Domaine Huet, likens to the unresponsive teenage years of our children.
- Sauvignon blanc offers important volumes of good, everyday drinking in the Touraine region but produces its best examples in the Central Vineyards of Sancerre and Pouilly and its near neighbours Menetou-Salon, Reuilly, and Quincy. Loire sauvignon is rarely oaked and is normally fresh, grassy, bone dry and lightly aromatic, making it the perfect wine to serve with fish or the local goat's cheese.
A marginal climate
Other than the grape, two other key factors should influence your choice of Loire wines. Far and away the most important is the name of the producer. Buy from a trusted, ideally tried and tested source and you will not be disappointed in quality terms.
The other major influence in the Loire is the style and quality of the vintage. As one of France's most northerly wine producing regions, and even with the apparent effects of climate change, the Loire does suffer from the vagaries of the weather, which means that the quality and even more the style of the harvest can vary quite significantly.
2005 and 2006 were warm, healthy vintages with ripe fruit and lower acidity, producing more approachable wines. 2007 and 2008 marked a return to much more typical, classically styled Loire vintages with wines that are lighter in body (and alcohol) and with much fresher acidity.
Buying from a retailer you have confidence in is the natural extension of all this. The vast majority of the producers The Wine Society works with in the Loire are long term suppliers we trust and enjoy working with. We love to introduce new finds and rising stars from time to time (Frédéric Mabileau in St Nicolas de Bourgueil and Denis Jamain in Reuilly are two good examples of the last few years), so you will see occasional new names and new wines. But these will only be from producers we believe have the commitment to be selective, no matter what vintage challenges present themselves.
A gastronomic tour
It would be impossible to talk about the Loire and its wines without mentioning food. The wines are restrained in style and made to complement a meal. Generally speaking, if you are looking for an easy drinking sauvignon to drink on its own you may be better off with something from Chile or the South of France. Like so many regions of France, the Loire has its own gastronomic heritage and its wines provide superb and highly varied accompaniments to the changing menu the length of the valley.
2009 - A great vintage in a riper style, a little short on volume but this more than made up for in quality, including for reds which achieved full ripeness. Some excellent sweet wines but with little botrytis.
2010 - An excellent vintage in the Loire, with whites shining particularly brightly, some good reds to those who waited to pick, and some fine dessert styles.
2011 - Not an easy vintage, though some top notch sweet wines were made. Rigorous selection was needed throughout.
2012 - Certainly a great vintage for Muscadet but trickier elsewhere, where the best wines are good rather than great.
2013 - For most Loire Valley producers 2013 was a decent, if not trouble-free, vintage in which white wines of freshness and vivacity were made by good producers. It was harder to ripen red grapes, the best of which are light and fruity for early drinking. Vouvray was cruelly devastated by hail.
2014 - A couple of growers have commented that you'd have to go out of your way not to make great wine in 2014. It certainly looks like that rare thing in the Loire: a top cabernet franc vintage, with consistent phenolic ripeness akin to 2005 commonplace. For Vouvray it is more of a dry than a moelleux vintage, but higher yields than the last couple of years are welcome.
2015 – two great vintages in a row and throughout the Loire Valley is an unexpected bonus and another year that's good for reds is great news. The whites have the freshness of 2014 but are a little more sweeter-fruited and friendlier, with a little less acidity than the more classic 2014s. In Vouvray there hasn't been a vintage since 1997 to have the level and quality of nobly-rotted grapes for making moelleux-style wines.