Lesson 10 – The Loire Valley
Today we are going to cover the Loire Valley. This part of France is a bit unusual. It stretches over 600 miles from the Atlantic to the interior of the country along the Loire River. It is just about bisects the country in half. Like the Rhône, there are a couple things to make sure you remember. Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, and Melon de Bourgonge aka Muscadet. These are the main varietals used throughout the area. There are also 4 main areas to the Loire Valley. Each has it’s own character. One thing to remember, in general, is that the wines from the eastern and western parts of the valley tend to be lighter in body while the wines from the middle part tend to be more full-bodied. Also, like last week with the Rhône, I’ll only be highlighting the most important aspects of the Loire Valley. Remember, we don’t need to get into Master Sommelier Level or even Advanced Sommelier Level material here. So let’s begin in the eastern part first.
Source: Salon des Vins de Loire
We begin in the East part of the Loire Valley. This area is sometimes known as the Central Vineyards or the Upper Loire depending on who’s talking about it. The Central Vineyards refers to the fact that these vineyards are in the central part of France, not the central part of the Loire Valley. Kind of confusing, huh? Anyway, the two big names here are Sancerre and Pouilly. There are a few other AOCs here that I will mention later, but for the most part, Sancerre and Pouilly are what we need to focus on.
Here, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir to a lesser extent, reign supreme. Prior to the phylloxera epidemic in the 19th century, the Pinot Noir grape was the predominant grape here. The area used to be under the influence of the Duchy of Burgundy, hence the vast amounts of Pinot Noir here. Once the epidemic was over and much of the Pinot Noir planted had been removed, Sauvignon Blanc became the main varietal in the area. Much of this was due to Sauvignon Blanc grafting easier to the American rootstock that was used throughout Europe (mainly France) to combat the louse.
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé whites while using the same grape, have a slight difference in style. For the most part, they are really so similar that it is difficult to tell the difference. The better Sancerre will tend to be fuller, while the better Pouilly Fumé wines will have more perfume. As with anyone talking about wine, here is the obligatory sentence. Pouilly Fumé is not the same as Pouilly Fuissé. Fuissé is in Burgundy (Mâconnais specifically) and uses the Chardonnay grape, while Fumé is obviously here in the Loire Valley and uses Sauvignon Blanc. The Fumé part of the name comes from one of two different stories depending on which one you subscribe to. One is the gunflint characteristic the wine can have from the terroir. The other is the early morning fog.
Speaking of the terroir, the soil is mostly composed of what is known as silex or flint mixed with clay. Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire (the name of the city from which Pouilly Fumé gets its name) are on opposite sides of the Loire river. Sancerre to the West, and Pouilly-sur-Loire to the East. the vineyards in Sancerre tend to have a higher elevation than the vineyards in the Pouilly Fumé region. The climate is very continental. So that means long cold winters and short hot summers. Frost in the spring is also a concern along with hail. Weather from year-to-year is extremely variable. Because of this variation in weather, vintages can also vary quite a bit.
Back to the wines, Pouilly Fumé can only be Sauvignon Blanc. However the AOC Pouilly-sur-Loire is made from the Chasselas grape varietal. Not something that will be widely available outside that region. Sancerre isn’t just white, though if it is, it is only Sauvignon Blanc. For the reds and rosés, it is the aforementioned Pinot Noir. Only about 20% of the total production is red or rosé.
Besides Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé, there are a few other AOCs in the area. Below is a list along with their styles/varietals:
- Côtes Du Gien Cosne-sur-Loire – Red (Gamay and Pinot Noir), White (Sauvignon Blanc), Rosé (Gamay and Pinot Noir)
- Coteaux du Giennois – Red (Gamay and Pinot Noir), White (Sauvignon Blanc), Rosé (Gamay and Pinot Noir)
- Menetou-Salon – Red (Pinot Noir), White (Sauvignon Blanc), Rosé (Pinot Noir)
- Quincy – White (Sauvignon Blanc)
- Reuilly – Red (Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris), White (Sauvignon Blanc), Rosé (Pinot Gris)
Moving west we come to the next area, Touraine. The two most well known wines are from Vouvray and Chinon. Add to that Montlouis-sur-Loire and Bourgueil to the list. This part of the Loire Valley is immediately west of the Central Vineyards. The two varietals to remember here are Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc. Just like the Central Vineyards, there are other AOCs in the area, and I will list them at the end of this section.
Cabernet Franc is what is used in Chinon and Bourgueil. Cabernet Franc is also known as Breton. These wines are considered the best reds in the Loire Valley. In the 19th century the wines of Chinon were considered as good as Margaux. In Chion up to 10% of the wine can contain Cabernet Sauvignon. There is a small amount of whites made here that use Chenin Blanc. Also, rosés are made in Chinon using Cabernet Franc and up to 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Bourgueil makes reds and rosés with the same restrictions in varietals. White wines are not made in this AOC however.
For Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire it is the Chenin Blanc varietal used here. Both AOCs only make white wines. Vouvray is typically thought of as the better and more well known of the two. These wines are notorious for being inconsistent in their styles. They can be anything from dry to sweet depending on the vintage. When it’s hot, then the growers will let the grapes ripen as long as possible and let “noble rot” occur to create sweet wines. In cooler years, they harvest earlier and create drier wines. They will also make semi-sparkling (Pétillant AOC) and sparkling wines (Moulleux AOC) depending on the vintage. One thing about the semi-sparkling wines is that they come bottled with a normal cork.
The climate is a mixture of a continental and Atlantic. This intersection of climates is what produces the extreme variations every year. Summers can be warm and rainfall in October can be low. As far as the soil it depends on the area. In Chinon and Bourgueil it is mostly sand and gravel. For Vouvray and Montloius-sur-Loire you have clay and limestone along with what is called tuffeau. Tuffeau is a chalky volcanic rock. It’s is very porous and retains water well. It is also the main building material in the Loire Valley.
Other AOCs in the area include:
- Cheverny – Red (Gamay – 40-65%, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec), White (Sauvignon Blanc – 65-85%, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Arbois), Rosé (at least 50% Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Pineau d’Aunis, and Pinot Gris)
- Coteaux du Loir (yes Loir, not Loire) – Red (at least 30% Pineau d’Aunis, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon), White (Chenin Blanc), Rosé (Pineau d’Aunis, Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Malbec, and up to 25% Grolleau)
- Coteaux du Vendômois – Red (at least 40% Pineau d’Aunis, 10-20% Gamay (10% in 2016), Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc), White (Chenin Blanc, up to 20% Chardonnay), Rosé (Pineau d’Aunis)
- Cour-Cheverny – White (Romorantin)
- Jasnières – White (Chenin Blanc)
- St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil – Red and Rosé (Cabernet Franc, and up to 10% Cabernet Sauvignon)
- Touraine – Red (Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meuier, Pinot Gris, Pineau d’Aunis, and Grolleau), White (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Arbois, up to 20% Chardonnay), Rosé (Gamay, Cabernet Franc, Pineau d’Aunis, Grolleau, with up to 10% Gamay Teinturier de Chaudenay or Gamay de Bouze)
- Touraine Amboise – Red (minimum of 60% Gamay, 10-30% Cabernet Franc and Malbec), White (at least 60% Chenin Blanc, up to 30% Sauvignon Blanc, and up to 15% Chardonnay), Rosé (at least 80% Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec)
- Touraine Azay-le-Rideau – White (Chenin Blanc), Rosé (at least 60% Grolleau, Malbec, Gamay, not more than 10% total of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon)
- Touraine Mesland (at least 60% Gamay, 10-30% Cabernet Franc and Malbec), White (at least 60% Chenin Blanc, up to 30% Sauvignon Blanc, and up to 15% Chardonnay), Rosé (at least 80% Gamay, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec)
- Touraine Moulleux – Red (Cabernet Franc), White (Chenin Blanc, Arbois, up to 20% Chardonnay, up to a total of 30% Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, Pinot d’Anuis, Malbec, and Grolleau), Rosé (Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Noble, Gamay, Grolleau)
- Touraine Noble-Joulé – Rosé (at least 40% Pinot Gris, at least 10% Pinot Noir)
- Touraine Pétillant – Red (Cabernet Franc), White (Chenin Blanc, Arbois, Sauvignon Blanc, and up to 20% Chardonnay), Rosé (Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Noble, Gamay, and Grolleau)
- Valençay – Red (30-60% Gamay, at least 30% total of Pinot Noir and Malbec, up to 10% total of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon), White (At least 70% Sauvignon Blanc, Arbois, and Chardonnay), Rosé (30-60% Gamay, at least 30% total of Pinot Noir and Malbec, up to 30% Pinot d’Aunis, with or without Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, which together must not be more than 20% of the entire blend)
Yeah, that’s a lot of stuff. Again, you really don’t need to know the details of all of these AOCs right now.
Next to Touraine is Anjour-Saumur. This area makes it all. OK, so Touraine does too. While there are a lot of AOCs here, again I will only focus on just three – Anjou, Samur, and Savennières. All of the Loire Valley varietals are present here. Also sparkling and semi-sparkling wines are made in Anjou and Samur, though Samur is better known for them.
The main varietal for Anjou is Chenin Blanc for its white wines. For its reds, it is Cabernet Franc. The rosés made here are mainly Grolleau. Grolleau is mentioned earlier in this article in the listing of AOCs for Touraine. However, here it is a main ingredient. It is from the French word for crow, grolle. Up to 45% of the wine made in Anjou is rosé. For the white wines, the style is dry to medium-dry to sweet and the main varietal is Chenin Blanc. However, up to 20% Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc may be used. A higher quality Anjou red wine is made called Anjou-Villages. There is also an AOC in Anjou just for the Gamay varietal called obviously Anjou Gamay.
Anjou is an all-encompassing AOC for the region. Within this region is Savennières. This small area is situated on the left bank of the Loire river just southwest of Angers. This is a Chenin Blanc only area. And the wines made here are some of the best examples of Chenin Blanc. Within Savennières are two single vineyard AOCs. Savennières Coulèe-de-Serrant and Savennières Roche-aux-Moines. Of the two the former is considered to have the best dry white wine in the Loire Valley.
Saumur makes all 3 types of wine. It really shines as a sparkling wine area however. Just like Anjou, Cabernet Franc is the main varietal for reds. The best of these is considered the AOC Saumur-Champigny. For the whites, it is the same as Anjou – Chenin Blanc with up to 20% Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. For the sparkling wines, the style is mostly very dry though any style is allowed. Chenin Blanc is the main grape for the white sparkling wines and it is enhanced with Chardonnay. Some of the best sparkling whites in Saumur can compare to good Champagne. They also make a rosé sparking wine that can be either Cabernet Franc or Sauvignon.
As we move closer to the Atlantic Ocean, the climate becomes more influenced by the ocean. Summers can be warm with mild autumns. The terroir is a mixture of schist, clay, shale, and tuffeau depending on where in Anjou-Saumur you are at.
Most of the main AOCs are already mentioned so here is a list of some others:
- Anjou Coteaux de le Loire – White (Chenin Blanc)
- Bonnezeaux – White (Chenin Blanc)
- Cabernet d’Anjou – Rosé (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon)
- Cabernet de Saumur – Rosé (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon)
- Coteaux de l’Aubance – White (Chenin Blanc)
- Coteaux du Layon & Coteaux de Layon Villages – White (Chenin Blanc)
- Coteaux du Layon-Chaume – White (Chenin Blanc)
- Coteaux de Saumur – White (Chenin Blanc)
- Quarts-de-Chaume – White (Chenin Blanc)
Finally we reach the Atlantic Ocean and the area known as Pays Nantais. In this part of the Loire Valley, the wine is known as Muscadet. They are made from the Melon de Bourgonge varietal. The characteristic of this wine is a dry light-bodied wine. The one thing to remember with these wines is that Melon de Bourgonge is considered a “neutral grape.” This means that it typically doesn’t much going on by itself. What the winemakers do here is ferment the wine sur lie or “on its lees.” The lees are the dead yeast at the bottom of the barrel. By keeping the wine in contact with the lees the wine becomes a fuller-bodied wine. Typically wine is not fermented this way as the lees can create problems. However, in the case of Melon de Bourgonge it is helpful. As long as the winemaker has the wine rest on the lees for at least an entire winter and he is not part of the regular Muscadet AOC, then he is entitled to use the term sur lie on the label.
Obviously this area is influenced by the Atlantic. What that means is the winters can be brutal and frost in the spring detrimental. Summers are normally warm and sunny. The terroir itself varied depending on location. It can be anything from clay, sand, gravel, granite, schist, and silt. The regular Muscadet AOC is mostly sand and silt.
Below is the list of AOCs here:
- Muscadet des Coteaux de la Loire
- Muscadet Côtes de Grandlieu
- Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine – usually considered the best AOC
So that concludes the lesson on the Loire Valley. Just make sure to remember the highlights of each of the four areas and the main varietals they use. It’s a lot of info to digest as always and you’ll need to go over it multiple times for it to sink in. At least that’s how it works for me. Next week we will tackle Alsace. An area of France that isn’t completely French.
Thanks for stopping in today. I will see all of you next week.
Mark V. Fusco
Aspiring Sommelier in Training