The Loire Valley offers some of the most diverse, interesting and food-friendly wines in the world. But when is the last time you saw a Chinon on a wine list, or thought to order a Muscadet with your oysters?
Part of the problem is the wines themselves – they tend to be challenging, more on the earthy and complex side than fruity and forward. They also lack the sexiness of their Bordeaux and Burgundy counterparts. And (we’re among friends, so let’s be honest) you probably have no idea what a Chinon is.
(It’s a red wine from the Chinon region that’s made using the Cabernet Franc grape – but I’m getting ahead of things.)
There is a long history of winemaking in the Loire. As with much of the Old World, Romans first planted vines in the Loire Valley some two thousand years ago.
However, it wasn’t until the fifth century that viticulture and vinification began to really take hold.
Winemaking in the Loire came to its own during the Middle Ages, when the nobility lost their monopoly on the industry as vineyard ownership was opened to the middle class. The industry’s rise was also supported by the region’s proximity to the Loire River, which promoted trade and transport.
The phylloxera epidemic that swept France in the 19th century did not spare the Loire Valley, but this was only a hiccup for the region. Vintners and vineyards came back stronger than ever, and today this vast region is on UNECSO’s World Heritage List.
Indeed, vast is a good way to describe the Loire Valley – it stretches 630 miles from the Atlantic Ocean halfway across France. In fact, the Central Vineyards are so named not because they are in the center of the Loire, but in the center of France.
And while all manner of grapes grow in this region, there are really only four you need to know.
The primary white grapes are Muscadet (grown closest to the Atlantic), Chenin Blanc (grown primarily in the central Loire Valley) and Sauvignon Blanc (found primarily in the Central Valley).
The primary red grape is Cabernet Franc, grown mostly in the middle sections of the Loire Valley, though Pinot Noir and Gamay play notable supporting roles.
One of the best things about these varietals is, they make super food-friendly wines that tend to offer good value, as they don’t have as much name recognition.
For simplicity’s sake, the Loire Valley can be divided into four major regions, each containing its own notable appellations.
Pays Nantes – Muscadet is the primary grape, used to make wine of the same name. It is bracing and crisp with a hint of ocean in its character. As you might imagine, this wine is brilliant with oysters and shellfish. The Sevre-et-Main appellation is considered the best, producing richer, more flavorful wines.
Anjou-Saumur – Every possible type of wine is produced here, from an array of grapes. The key ones to remember are Chenin Blanc from Savennieres and Cabernet Franc from Saumur-Champigny.
Touraine – Although generally known for producing good, not great, wine, there is value to be had here. The best reds are from Bourgueil and Chinon, both made with Cabernet Franc. For white wines, terrific Chenin Blanc comes from Vouvray, and Sauvignon Blanc from Touraine.
Central Vineyards – Sauvignon Blanc is the primary grape in this part of the Loire. The best come from Sancerre and Pouilly Fume.
If nothing else, remember the two or three regions that sound most interesting to you and seek them out at your local retailer or favorite restaurant. You won’t be disappointed!