The Loire Valley is a very large wine region in western France, producing many styles. White, red, rosé, dessert and sparkling wines can all be found here if you know where to look.
The Four Sub-Regions
Due to the large size, it is easier to look at the Loire Valley by splitting it up. From east to west, the four sub-regions are:
- Nantais (Above in red)
- Anjou-Saumur (orange)
- Touraine (green)
- Central Vineyards (blue)
There are two key elements that set these four sub-regions apart: Climate and Soil.
For climate, we can use the rule of L.A.W. (Latitude – Altitude – Water):
Latitude: The Loire River is runs roughly along the same latitude, so we might not attribute any differences to this.
- Altitude: There are some altitude differences between these sub-regions, but…
- Water: This is the key feature, specifically each region’s proximity to the Atlantic Ocean.
As you will have read in last week’s article, water acts like a battery, storing thermal energy during the day and releasing it at night. This has the effect of moderating temperatures, making days cooler and nights warmer.
So to take the two most extreme regions:
- Nantais: closest to the Atlantic Ocean, so climate is less extreme (cooler days, warmer nights)
- Central Vineyards: furthest from the Atlantic, so more extreme (hotter days, colder nights)
And logically the remaining regions of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine lie somewhere in between.
Soils are the second element that makes these four sub-regions so different.
The soils are different between the regions due to geological history. Some parts of this region was an ocean bed millions of years ago, and on this time scale things can accumulate in very large quantities. This is why you may find fossilized oyster shells within certain soils, even though you may be far away from the nearest ocean!
Other parts of the Loire Valley will have been subject to other influences, contributing to it’s variety of soils like clay, limestone, sandstone and schist.
Don’t try too hard to memorize by rote which regions have which soils and how this may affect the flavours of the wine yet; understanding that such differences exist is enough for the moment.
Now that we understand that the Loire Valley is divided into these sub-regions due to differences in both climate and soil, it is understandable that each of these areas have certain grape varieties that suit these different environments best.
The following is a list of the regions and their most well-known varieties
(white grapes in green, black grapes in red):
Nantais: Muscadet (a.k.a. Melon de Bourgogne)
Muscadet is know for being a light-bodied dry white wine, and is said to be a perfect complement with natural oysters – which is convenient as the Atlantic Ocean is so close by.
Wines from Muscadet may also undergo a process called “sur lie“ which will appear on the label. This refers to aging the wine on the dead yeast cells left over from fermentation. The yeast cells break down, adding complexity and freshness to the wine.
Anjour-Saumur: Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc
Chenin Blanc here makes white wines in all styles (sparkling, dry white, sweet white). The sweet wines may be made from late-harvested fruit or grapes that have been affected by botrytis. Because these wines are not well known, they can be the source of great bargains.
Cabernet Franc makes dry red wines and also contributes to the rosé wines of the Loire Valley. Red wines are typically on the light- to medium-bodied end of the spectrum. Young wines can be fruity (e.g. raspberries), juicy and a little grassy depending on ripeness, while mature wines will develop into more complex, savory and rustic examples, pairing well with food.
The below photo shows a dwelling dug into the tuffeau (a soft, chalky limestone) cliffs, a soil type that is common in this region. Tuffeau is also common in Touraine (next sub-region). Wine producers may also used caves dug out of tuffeau to cellar and age wines.
Touraine: Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc
Two reviews of wines tasted from Touraine (specifically Vouvray):
- Review #32 – Bourillon Dorléan Vouvray Demi-Sec 2013 (16 Dec 2014)
- Review #52 – Les Pierres Blanches Vouvray Brut NV (8 Dec 2015)
Like Anjou-Saumur above, Chenin Blanc makes white wines in all styles. For sweet wines, botrytis does not occur as often here as in Anjour-Saumur, so more often this sweetness will be achieved by picking very ripe grapes in successive tries. The sweetness is finely balanced by Chenin Blanc’s naturally high acidity.
Chinon Cabernet Franc is the most prestigious red wine of the Loire Valley. These can also range from light- to medium-bodied, but also showing more complex aromas (e.g. pencil shavings) within a refreshing combination of fruit and acidity. The best wines can age extremely well.
Sauvignon Blanc is growing in popularity here, but the wines are normally less intense than those of the Central Vineyards. These can still provide refreshing and pleasant drinking at an affordable price.
Central Vineyards: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are the major areas within this sub-region, at the other extreme of the Loire Valley well beyond the influence of the Atlantic.
Sauvignon Blanc is the major wine here, generally more restrained than New World examples. Traces of flint in the soil is said to give a smoky, gunflint character to the wine.
Pinot Noir is a bit of a rarity here, and is usually lighter than examples from Burgundy due to the cooler climate. It makes light, fruity, attractive red wines.
Much wine produced in the Loire Valley remains in France, with only about 15-20% being exported annually, which must then be divided amongst the many wine-consuming nations of the world.
(If you want to practice your French, InterLoire publishes a report HERE)
For the discerning drinker, the Loire Valley is a chance to find value for money, while the less well-informed consumers will stick with big brands and regions other people are talking about.
Read more: A Brief Look At Wine Judging