The weather may have been glorious these last few days but the joys of a long weekend away have been taken from us. So let us provide some escapism by taking you on a little jaunt down the Loire, France’s longest river. The region is studded with over a thousand chateaux each with its own distinctive architecture and can keep most wine lovers busy for many a week. We’re ever hopeful this may be the precursor to a summer holiday spent cycling from one vineyard to the next with nothing more to worry about than where to spend the night. One can always dream.
The Loire river runs for over 600 miles from its source in the Massif Central all the way to the Atlantic coast. Affectionately known as the “Garden of France” the countryside that runs alongside the river is postcard picturesque as it meanders through unspoilt parts of France. One of the great attractions of this region is the variety of wines that can be found. Many of these are well-known names but there are still those wines that rarely make it onto the shelves here in the UK.
We shall start on the Atlantic coast in the area surrounding the city of Nantes where local seafood is made all the better by the local wine. Muscadet and Gros Plant du Pays Nantais are both fresh and bone dry white wines. Favouring the “Sur Lie” (lees aged) versions is recommended for both as they offer more depth and character. While Muscadet is a recognisable name Gros Plant du Pays Nantais is rarely seen out of this part of France but perhaps it is a wine to be enjoyed in situ. Fresh seafood and a sea breeze can certainly help a wine go down more easily.
Heading West towards the Medieval city of Angers we come to the honeyed wines of the Chenin Blanc grape. Sweet wines reign supreme here with the well-known Coteaux du Layon taking centre stage thanks to the famed Moulin Touchais estate. But Quarts-de-Chaume’s recent upgrade to Grand Cru status and Bonnezeaux’s consistent quality shouldn’t be overlooked.
If we head south of Angers we find Savennieres where Chenin is produced to be dry showcasing the minerality and terroir of this ever-growing appellation. Coulee de Serrant is certainly the most famous producer and one whose reputation has been improving dramatically over the last decade.
As a grape variety, Chenin is nothing if not adaptable and its well-known sparkling incarnation is to be found further along the river in Saumur. Similar to Champagne the wine is made in a traditional, bottle-fermented style that offers a creamier more honeyed mouthful than its northern contemporary.
Next stop is Chinon – the home of the best red wines of the area, all made from the Cabernet Franc grape. There are two main appellations: Chinon itself and the less well known, but better value, Saint Nicholas de Bourgueil. These days the wines are drunk young and fresh, sometimes chilled.
The university city of Tours is the largest in this area of France and was once the capital city. Located on the banks of the river its historical wealth and significance have provided some dramatic architecture and a strong cultural backdrop to the wine-growing region. It is the home of the ever-reliable Sauvignon du Torraine but also the more unusual Jasnieres, a lovely, fresh, normally dry white from the Chenin Blanc which is well worth seeking out.
Heading east along the river you will find Vouvray on one side and Montlouis on the other – both make dry, sweet and sparkling styles from Chenin Blanc but the Vouvray name is more recognisable. The best are probably the sweet wines, which can age for years and are capable of retaining a freshness of fruit that showcases a different side to the Chenin grape.
The last, and I think, one of the most interesting wines from this part of the Loire region is Cheverny; this aromatic dry white is made from mostly Sauvignon Blanc but the addition of Chardonnay (up to 25%) results in a lovely, fruity wine with a gentle softness.
Heading along the river past Orleans, the capital of the Loire region and site of the famous battle where Joan of Arc saved the city from the English in 1429, you eventually arrive at the home of Sauvignon Blanc. First you come to the wines of Coteaux du Giennois which are always good value but not as interesting as their neighbours Sancerre and Pouilly Fume. Sancerre, one of the oldest AOCs in France, comes in a vast range of quality levels, the best being wonderfully rich and complex with the classic minerality from the clay-limestone soil. Pouilly Fume tends to be a bit broader and softer than Sancerre and can sometimes have an almost flinty character.
Neighbouring these two is Menetou-Salon, the wines from these vineyards are similar in style to Sancerre and Pouilly Fume and can be great value for easy drinking Sauvignon.
Finally, to the south-west of Sancerre are the small areas of Quincy and Reuilly. These two wines are also mainly made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape and are not dissimilar to Sancerre but with a little more acidity. They tend to be harder to find but are worth searching out as they can offer a refreshing variation.
The dominance of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc in the Loire can be perceived as being a little dull especially as blends are not very common in these parts. But the diversity of climate and terrain thanks to the rivers meandering ways allows for plenty of variety in the wines produced here. Many should be enjoyed as close to where they were made as possible with plenty of food and preferably a warm summer’s evening to compliment them.
However, there are others that were made to be appreciated in any corner of the globe.
1995 Domaine des Baumard Quarts de Chaume £99 per bottle
Baumard is well known for its small production Quarts de Chaume – a sweet wine with balance and purity of fruit that melds and softens over time but remains elegant. A small glass of this after dinner would certainly soothe the soul.
2014 Jacky Blot Domaine de la Butte Bourgueil “Mi-pente” £41 per bottle
Deep and rich in colour this is a full, savoury, spicy Cabernet that is a great example of a Bourgueil. While some should be drunk young this vintage offers a little more age and will have a few years of life to go.
2014 Domaine Huet Le Mont Vouvray Demi-Sec £42 per bottle
Huet has been one of the top producers in the Loire valley for several decades now and the Le Mont vineyard is well known to be Huet’s best. The demi-sec is a complex, elegant, sweet wine that is full and honeyed on the nose but offers acidity and plenty of fresh fruit on the palate. These are wines built to last and time will soften and mellow the flavours to reveal many layers.