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Home | Featured Articles | Off to the Loire!

Off to the Loire!

Brian Gurnham Chief Cork Officer

Next week I have the pleasure of beginning an eight day family tour of France's Loire Valley.  Always eager to expand my wine experiences, I thought it only appropriate to research the area prior to our arrival – both to sound a bit more knowledgeable, but more importantly, to try and ensure that we see and visit the best the region has to offer during eight short days.  So without further ado, here's a brief summary of the Loire Valley.  Follow us on Facebook  for photos and updates as I report from the “Garden of France”.

The Loire Valley [pronounced L'wahr] is located in northern France.  The Valley is a 170 mile segment carved by the Loire River (France's longest river), which winds over 600 miles from central France in the east, to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The Valley encompasses approximately 310 square miles and about 185,000 acres of commercially planted vineyards, and hundreds of wineries within its boundaries.  There are nearly 80 different classifications of wines in the region (AOC and Vin de Pays) and changes to the designations are common.  Loire Valley Wine Tour has compiled one of the more complete listings of AOC names.  But even armed with a current classification list isn't enough since, as you may remember, wine labels in France usually do not list the grape variety - more homework if you want to know what you are drinking.   

All this complexity presents an immediate challenge to anyone trying to pack everything into eight days.  Faced with the daunting task of targeting the best the Loire has to offer in such a short visit, I relied on the expertise of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson, authors of the World Atlas of Wines.  Based on their sage advice, the focus of our travels will be Saumur, Chinon, Vouvray, Sancerre, and Pouilly.


Our travels will begin driving west from Amboise, circumventing Tours to the commune of Saumur.  Saumur is home to six AOCs, each characterizing one of the diverse varieties of grapes, terroir, and styles of the region.  Wines labelled as from the AOC of Saumur, can be white, red or sparkling made from any of the permitted grape varieties (Cabernet Franc (red), Cabernet Sauvignon (red), Pineau d'Aunis (red), or Chenin Blanc (white).  Over 50% of Saumur grapes are made into sparkling wine using the traditional method.  Sparkling Chenin Blancs are known for aromas of peach, pear, lemon balm, hazelnut and almond, bright flavors and crisp acidity, and are devoid of the yeastiness of Champagne.  I confess I became lost trying to decipher the intricacies of sparkling wine AOCs which include Saumur Mousseux, Saumur Petillant, Saumur Brut, and Cremant de Loire, each with minor differences in aging requirements and enclosure types.  I have little doubt however, that subtleties will be sorted out soon after arrival.  In addition to the obligatory visit to the Chateau de Saumur, wineries on the list for a potential visit include Gratien and Meyer and Domaine de la Paleine.

Chateau de Saumur
Chateau de Saumur

In addition to sparkling wines, we hope to encounter still wines from the sub regions including:

·         Cabernet de Saumur - A rosé wine made from Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

·         Coteaux de Saumur - A medium sweet white wine made from Chenin Blanc.  In the best years Coteaux de Saumur wine can develop deep honeyed aromas and a rich nutty complexity.

·         Saumur-Champigny – A still red wine made from Cabernet Franc although up to 10% Cabernet Sauvignon or Pineau d'Aunis is allowed.

·         Saumur Puy-Notre Dame – The newest AOC some 12 miles south of Saumur, Puy-Notre Dame was formed in 2008 and produces still red wines from Cabernet Franc (85% minimum) and Cabernet Sauvignon.


Our travels will continue with a visit to Chinon, a short 30 miles southeast of Tours, a village steeped in history.  Home to the Renaissance writer François Rabelais, kings from the Plantagenets under English rule, Cardinal Richelieu, and site of the meetings between Louis VII and Joan of Arc, the village would be a Mecca for tourism even without viticulture.  But alas, I'm focused on wine, and Chinon wines have, in the past, been considered on a par with the best of Bordeaux.  Known for Cabernet Franc (locally called Breton), the AOC of Chinon allows for a Rouge, Blanc and Rose style although the latter two comprise a mere 8% of production.  The Blanc is made entirely from Chenin Blanc, the Rouge from at least 90% Cabernet Franc and up to 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Rose, 100% Cabernet Franc.  It is in Chinon and the neighboring AOC of Bourgueil where the terroir can produce age worthy wines with greater body and acidity than the typical lighter styled Cabernet Franc from the rest of Touraine.  There will be a couple of bottle in the luggage on the way home!


Straddling the Loire are the twin communes of Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire.  Here we have arranged for a tour to several local vineyards, hoping to walk among the grapes and meet with the winemakers.  The tour should be interesting as our collective French language skills amount to barely functional at best, and trying to converse about the subtleties of wine – well suffice to say it will be fun!  Vouvray is the spiritual home of white wines made from Chenin Blanc.   Vouvray styles may be dry (sec), or slightly dry (sec-tendre) with less than 0.4% residual sugar; medium dry (demi-sec) with residual sugar up to 1.2% noticeable to most wine drinkers; sweet (Moelleux) 1.2% - 4.5%; and the sweetest style, Doux, with more than 4.5% residual sugar.  If these aren't enough choices, Vouvray can also be in the form of a sparkling wine.  The region's micro climate marks the eastern end of the cooling effects of the Atlantic, and ripening the Chenin grapes can be a challenge.  Vouvray wines can vary widely from year to year, cool shorter growing season years favoring the drier styles, while the warmer seasons favor sweeter, dessert style wines.  Harvest isn't until late October or even November so we're sure to have plenty to look at in the vineyards.  With any luck, we'll get to taste a vintage Vouvray.  The wines' high acidity gives some vintages the ability to age for decades, far more than most any white wine.

Winery visits planned include Chateau Gaudrelle in nearby Rochecorbon, Domaine Huet, and Domaine de Cray.

Sancerre and Pouilly

Pouilly-sur-Loire - Chasselas
Pouilly-sur-Loire - Chasselas

After spending a day visiting the market in Amboise and the famous Chateau Chambord, our last stop will require a “road trip” – making the several hour drive to the communes of Sancerre and Pouilly in the far eastern region of the Loire Valley.  Although known in eighteenth century for Gamay and Pinot Noir, after the phylloxera outbreak in the late eighteen hundreds most of the vineyards were replanted with Sauvignon Blanc, which rapidly gained world recognition and now accounts for over 90 percent of production.  Our mission here will be to seek out Sancerre Rouge – the light bodied refreshing Pinot Noir of the region – which seldom makes the journey across the Atlantic.

Across the Loire is Pouilly, home to the AOC of Pouilly Fume.  Here we hope to ferret out an increasingly rare wine - Pouilly-sur-Loire - made from the Chasselas grape.  Chasselas, was sought after by the landed gentry of Paris during the early part of the century, but has withered with the popularity of its better  known competitor – Pouilly Fume.  The grape is now widely grown in Switzerland and is best known for its ability to reflect the elements of the terroir in which it is grown.  Regardless of what we find, tasting both a Sancerre and a Pouilly Fume and trying to see if we can tell the difference will be fun.  Sancerre is usually fuller bodied and more aromatic than Pouilly however both are known for high acidity and a flinty minerality, making identification a challenge.

If there is one thing my research has shown, the Loire Valley is among the most diverse wine regions in the world.  The climates range from cool maritime in the far western regions of Nantes to the drier, colder continental climate in the communes of Pouilly and Sancerre.  The terroir is equally varied though dominated by limestone and chalk – the famous tuffeau, a porous chalky limestone – is even used for underground caves.  The variety of grapes produced is among the most varied of any region – Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet (Melon du Bourgogne) and more.  And topping off the diversity, virtually every style of wine is produced - still wines, sweet wines, dessert wines, and sparkling wines.

Armed with hours of research into all this diversity, I'm now ready for the practicalities of customs, airports, the TGV, and dredging up those years of French classes.  Our base will be a small cottage in Amboise, just east of Tours.  We will be biking segments of the Loire du Velo (a bike route that travels along the Loire), and visiting numerous wineries and Chateau.  Our adventures, the fun, the challenging and even the embarrassing will be chronicled on Facebook.

Hopefully we will be successful at getting a taste of the best the Loire Valley has to offer but if we don't?  We'll just have to go back – oh darn.


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·  Loire Valley - The Garden of France
·  Cote de Nuits
·  Languedoc-Roussillon - The French Riviera
·  Provence
·  France - Birthplace of Wine


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