Decode the Wines of the Loire Valley
For Americans used to seeing grape varieties on labels, Loire wines can be puzzling. Here’s how to look beyond the label to find the style you prefer.
The Loire is the garden of France, the land of castles, the place where the purest French is spoken. And it is the home of some of the most delicious, delectable, enjoyableFrench wines.
That’s a serious assertion, considering the counter-claims of so many other French wine regions. But Loire wines have lightness, airiness and freshness that put a spring in the taste buds of those who love powerful Rhônes or elegant Burgundies. There is no such thing as a heavy Loire wine, nor a high-alcohol Loire wine.
That consistency of character is remarkable when you consider that the Loire follows a 630-mile course from a source near Beaujolais to the Atlantic Ocean. The Loire is a land of moderation: It’s cold in the winter, and never gets super hot in the summer. Vines can really only grow here because of the river and its tributaries, which raise the temperature just those few vital degrees and ensure long, leisurely autumn days for the harvest.
The countryside is beautiful—wide expanses of vines, gentle slopes, grand castles and ancient cities, all dominated by the rivers and the milky blue light of the summer sky. If a vineyard area deserves to be called pastoral, this is it.
These are the unifying natural factors that make the Loire such a special place. Of course, humans have come along and complicated the wine map with 87 appellations that, depending on which side of the cellar door you’re on, create a compelling mosaic of specific wines or raise a wall of incomprehensibility.
There’s irony in that confusion, because in terms of grape varieties the Loire could not be simpler. When you realize that the region is dominated by a mere four major varieties—Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne and Cabernet Franc—the wines become accessible, and therefore enjoyable. This is step one in deciphering the surface complexity of Loire wine.
With prices remaining reasonable for most Loire wines, this is a great time to discover crisp, grassy Sauvignon Blanc; versatile Chenin Blanc in all its styles; fresh and fruity Melon; and the surprising richness and ageworthiness of the Loire’s Cabernet Francs.
On a conical hill in the eastern reaches of the Loire, the city of Sancerre dominates the vineyards that tumble down the slopes of pure white chalk. Small villages, packed with wineries, are linked by roads packed with tractors. In the valley just to the east, the Loire River divides Sancerre from its neighbor, Pouilly-sur-Loire, where Pouilly-Fumé is produced.
This is the spiritual heartland of Sauvignon Blanc. From here, the grape has spread around the world, bringing its unforgettable grassy and citrus aromas, flavors of grapefruit and gooseberry (the green, tart fruit essential to many British fruit pies) to millions of wine drinkers.
What is it about this grape that has so enchanted wine drinkers? It is the simple, fruity purity above all. This is not a grape for wood (although it has been tried, most notably in California Fumé Blanc). It is exuberant, bright, great with food and as an apéritif.
In the Loire, Sauvignon Blanc is also a grape of terroir, of several different terroirs in fact. “Great Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre should have balance above all,” says Jean-Marie Bourgeois, who heads the eponymous house of Domaine Henri Bourgeois in Sancerre. “Fruit, body, minerality and above all acidity. In each terroir, you are looking for the balance of these characters.”
Across the river, in Pouilly-sur-Loire, Pouilly Fumé is generally richer, a product of the greater amount of clay in the soil. The wines start awkwardly, and only after three years do they start to show their ripe, full-bodied character.
In their different ways, producers in both these appellations craft “serious” Sauvignon Blanc—that is, Sauvignon Blanc that can have complexity and some potential for aging. They are not always inexpensive: Some of the top Sancerres and Pouilly Fumés can sell for upwards of $40, although they are also available for around $20.
In Touraine, to the west of Sancerre, the Sauvignon Blanc is for pure, early-drinking pleasure. Wines labeled with the variety are common, at attractive prices under $15. Louis Chainier’s Domaine Chainieris one of the largest producers, with 500 acres of vineyards as well as a négociant business. The style of their Touraine wines, as he describes it, “brings out the fruitiness of the grapes, light and fresh.”
Loire Sauvignon Blanc: complex and weighty, or fresh and light; marked by grassy and citrus aromas, flavors of grapefruit and gooseberry, balanced by acidity and minerality.
Appellations to look for on the label: Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon, Reuilly, Quincy, Touraine.
Top producers: Château de Tracy, Domaine Henri Bourgeois, Domaine Masson-Blondelet, Domaine Michel Redde, Domaine Vacheron.
Chenin Blanc is, for Loire vintners, both the most versatile grape and the most frustrating.
It’s versatile because it can produce so many styles of wine: sparkling, dry white, medium-dry white, sweet white, late-harvest white. It’s frustrating because what can be produced varies each vintage.
That’s why Benjamin Jouveau of Domaine Huët in Vouvray, one of the very best producers in the appellation, describes Chenin Blanc as a “polymorph”—it can exist in many forms. “In some vintages we can make everything, in other vintages we can only make certain wines,” he says. “The grape reacts to the vintage in a way that no other grape does. We make vins de terroir, wines of place, as well as wines that express the vintage.”
Vouvray, close to Tours in the central region of Touraine, is one of the two core regions for Chenin Blanc. The other is in Anjou, to the west, and the vineyards of Coteaux du Layon, Saumur and Savennières. While every style of Chenin is produced in Anjou, each appellation here has its own specialty.
Medium-sweet and sweet wines come from the Coteaux du Layon appellation. Ultrasweet botrytis-based wines come from Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, two small enclaves in Coteaux du Layon.
For Saumur, the style is sparkling—fines bulles, as they call them in the Loire. This is Champagne in miniature—the grand houses, the miles of cellars carved out of the tufa and the same méthode traditionelle for making its Saumur and Crémant de Loire.
Savennières is, in many ways, the purest expression of Chenin Blanc. The grape can’t hide behind any sweetness in these bone-dry wines. Three appellations—Savennières, Savennières Roches-aux-Moines, and Coulée de Serrant—make up this rare enclave on the north bank of the Loire with its precipitous slope to the south. The wines, with their extreme minerality and initial austerity, need years to reveal their character.
Melon de Bourgogne
Even though it involves a single region (Muscadet) and a single grape variety hardly found anywhere else (Melon de Bourgogne), these wines are of major importance to the Loire.
The Muscadet vineyards spread out to the south of the Loire as it widens and empties into the Atlantic Ocean. From this vast expanse— a real sea—of vines, Muscadet produces wines that represent one of the world’s great partnerships with seafood and fish. Its crisp, no-nonsense, brisk fruit acts like a waft of fresh air, just touched by the salt of the nearby ocean.
The story of how Melon de Bourgogne arrived from Burgundy (where it is no longer planted) to this oceanside vineyard is the story of a frost and Dutch demand.
In 1709, frost wiped out the Muscadet vineyards. The search was on for a frost-resistant white grape that would produce good quantities of wine to quench the thirsty Dutch traders on whom the region depended. Enter Melon, where it has been ever since.
In fact, Muscadet is not quite as simple stylistically as it seems at first. There is fresh Muscadet, the apéritif and oysters Muscadet. And then there is a richer style, occasionally aged in wood, but certainly with spice and yellow fruits. This richer style can age, developing toasty characteristics over four to five years.
However, “the best Muscadet is fresh, crisp and lively. There is a Muscadet for every hour of the day,” says Pierre-Jean Sauvion, whose family has run estates in Muscadet since the 1930s, based at Château du Cléray.
Christophe Gadais of Domaine Gadais Père et Fils describes the wines as having “steely minerality, concentration without weight. We don’t want too ripe fruit, we want to keep freshness.”
The most familiar Muscadet comes from the region of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, the land between those two rivers. Wines that carry this appellation are bottled sur lie. Keeping the wine on its lees (the yeast cells left after fermentation) until bottling gives Muscadet an extra crispness, almost a light prickle on the tongue. Expect to see the term sur lie on the label.
Muscadet is not expensive. A typical bottle of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine will cost around $15 or less at your local wine shop.
Loire Melon de Bourgognet: Bone-dry, crisp, fresh, bursting with lemons and grapefruit.
Appellations to look for on the label: Muscadet, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire, Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu.
Top producers: Domaine de l’Ecu, Domaine Gadais Père et Fils, Domaine Landron, Domaine Luneau-Papin, Sauvion.
The massive castle of Chinon looms over the city that is at the heart of one of the four major red wine appellations of the Loire. It was here that Joan of Arc, on her mission to rid France of the English, first met the future King Charles VII of France.
Around the city, vineyards planted to Cabernet Franc climb the slopes above the river Vienne. To the north, the vines run into Bourgueil and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, while to the west, they join those of Saumur-Champigny. Cab Franc is the Loire’s signature red grape, and these four appellations form the core of red wine making in the Loire. (Cabernet Franc is even used as the red grape in sparkling wines from Saumur.)
That there is an enclave of red grapes in a wine region dominated by white is easily explained. “We’re in a microclimate,” says Jacques Genet, owner of Domaine Charles Joguet, “a small area of the Loire Valley that can ripen the Cabernet Franc, while keeping its freshness and elegance.”
Cabernet Franc ripens earlier than its offspring, Cabernet Sauvignon. That makes it ideal for the cool Loire, and it has been grown here since the 17th century, when it was first planted at the abbey of Bourgueil.
The four appellations are surprisingly different, despite their closeness. Winemakers of Saumur-Champigny makes the lightest wines of the four, with a vibrant range of black currant and berry fruits. Saint-Nicolas-de- Bourgueil, the smallest of the four, and Bourgueil produce wines that are very similar: the best firmly tannic in their youth, demanding two or three years’ aging, then revealing complex red currant and spice flavors.
Chinon is by far the largest of the appellations. The most important difference between these wines and those of Bourgueil lies in the tannins. Chinon’s tannins are more enveloped in a rich velvet coating, giving them immediate appeal, even though they age well.
These wines still offer good value because they are underappreciated, and are not just for drinking when young—a reputation they have acquired because they are so deliciously fruity. Keep them for six or seven years, and they gain an impressively rich depth of flavor and smoky concentration. They are smooth, opulent sometimes, yet always with the acidity and freshness that are the true hallmarks of Loire wines.
Loire Cabernet Franc: Aromas of tobacco, spice and violets; delicious raspberry and black currant fruit flavors. Tannic when young, they have impressive aging ability.
Appellations to look for on the label: Chinon, Bourgueil, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Saumur-Champigny, Saumur.
Top producers: Bernard Baudry, Charles Joguet, Couly-Dutheil, Domaine des Roches Neuves, Domaine Yannick Amirault.
To read about cuisines that pair well with Loire wines, click here.