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The Loire Valley

by Tom Cannavan

An enormous amount of wine is created in this vast region, mostly white, but with a good deal of red too. Styles change as you follow the course of the river, according to the grape varieties planted and wine-making techniques practised. But the one thing all of these wines share is that they are made to display freshness and relatively high acidity, and rarely is oak used to ferment or age the wines.

The Loire, like Champagne, is close to the northern limits of commercial grape growing. Long, hot summers are the exception here rather than the rule, and the worry is always whether the grapes will ripen sufficiently. The relatively crisp style of most of these wines - white and red - contrast with the oaky, full-bodied whites and tannic, strong, fruit-driven reds from some other French and interntaional regions.

Geography and climate

The Loire valley covers a huge tract of land that follows the river from the Atlantic ocean near Nantes, all the way east and south almost to the Rhône. There is a huge variation in climate and soil.

The Loire splits quite neatly into 3 separate sections:

The western Loire, around Nantes, is the home of Muscadet. This is an area of low, sandy hills and the climate is cool.
 

In the middle Loire things heat up a little, and the climate is mild with moderate rainfall. The west of this area has a tendency towards the noble rot, and is capable of making some great sweet wines.

The upper Loire is to the extreme northeast of the valley. A more continental climate, summers are hot but short. The soil is a mixture of limestone, sand and chalk, known as "Tufa".

Grapes

  The Loire has a large number of different grape varieties, some of which dominate different parts of the region. They include:

  • Melon de Bourgogne dominates the western Loire, making Muscadet
  • Chenin Blanc which is the great grape of the middle Loire, with red wines made from Cabernet Franc
  • Sauvignon Blanc which is the star of the upper Loire. Reds are made from the Pinot Noir

The great wines of the Loire

The western Loire
This coastal area, the "Pays de Nantes" is the home of Muscadet. The Melon de Bourgogne grape makes a "neutral" wine. In cool years it can be rather tart. The better Muscadets come from Sèvre-et-Maine to the east of the city of Nantes. When choosing a Muscadet, perhaps the most important thing to look out for on the label is the term "Sur Lie". This means that the wine has been aged on its "lees", the mix of yeast cells and grape fragments that remains after fermentation. Sur Lie wines are bottled directly off the lees without filtration and have added fruitiness, a nutty quality and sometimes a little hint of sparkle on the tongue.

The middle Loire
This area includes such well known wine regions as Vouvray, Tourraine and Chinon. A whole range of wines is made in this large area, including red, white, rosé, sweet and sparkling. The great white grape of the region is the Chenin Blanc, which is used for both dry and sweet, sometimes Botrytis-affected wines. Dry Chenin Blanc may appear as Vouvray Sec, Savennières or under a variety of different regional names. This wine can be rather acidic and sharp, but the best examples have a more honeyed element which becomes more pronounced as they age. Chenin Blanc, even in quite modest bottles, makes one of the longest lived dry white wines.

From AC Coteaux du Layon come some great sweet wines. There is a micro-climate here not unlike that of Sauternes, that creates the conditions for Botrytis cinerea. These wines are luscious and balanced and reasonably priced. Look out for the wines of AC Quarts de Chaume and AC Bonnezeaux, the top two individual ACs within Coteaux du Layon producing brilliant sweet whites.

The middle Loire reds deserve to be better known than they are. AC Chinon produces Cabernet Francs that are fresh with raspberry fruit and an earthy quality. Look for estate bottled examples and there are some bargains to be found at around £6 or £10.00. AC Bourgueil and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil produce very similar wines, and the quality is just about as good.

There are fine sparkling wines made in many districts, often signified with the word Mousseux on the label. Sparkling Vouvray is probably the best of the lot, made by the Champagne method and again, reasonably priced. Best producers include Domaine des Aubuisières and Marc Brédif.

The upper Loire
Confusingly, this area is sometimes referred to as the "central vineyards" - confusing, because though roughly in the centre of France, it is the northeastern limit of the Loire Valley. The greatest name of the region is undoubtedly Sancerre. This world famous wine of the region is 100% Sauvignon Blanc for white wines (the rosé and red Sancerre is made from Pinot Noir), the best of which comes from the chalky hills around the town of Sancerre. At its best, Sancerre is an incredibly vivid, pungent wine, with grassy, gooseberry aromas and plenty of acidity.

  Just across the river lies Pouilly-Fumé, home of very similar wines, though prices are now creeping up to similar levels. Pouilly-Fumé is said to pick up subtle, flinty flavours from Silex, the flint-rich soil of the area.

Red and rosé wines are 100% Pinot Noir, and although less common and needing a good sunny vintage to fully ripen, can be very good. Top Sancerre producers include Bourgeois, de Ladoucette, Cotat, Château de Tracy and Crochet.

Just to the west of Sancerre lies an interesting region: AC Menetou-Salon. This area produces lovely wines using the same grapes, both red and white. Cheaper than Sancerre (and sometimes even better), top producers include Pellé, Chavet and Teiller.

The New World

Undoubtedly the biggest world-wide success for any Loire grape variety is with Sauvignon Blanc. Fine examples are produced in Chile, California, South Africa, Australia and, especially, New Zealand.

It is in New Zealand - more specifically in the Marlborough region of New Zealand - that Sauvignon Blanc has found possibly its greatest expression. The long, cool, dry ripening season and free-draining stony soil seems ideal for the variety. Marlborough Sauvignons are particularly intense: grassy and gooseberry flavours as in Sancerre, but with an added dimension of tropical fruit and really zingy, grapefruit acidity. Top producers include: Isabel, Cloudy Bay, Jackson Estate and Villa Maria. Other areas, in the south of North island are coming on stream with superb wines, as are some suitable areas such as Tasmania, off the south coast of Australia, and cooler areas of Chile and South Africa.

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