On The Road Part I: The Loire Valley
By David Brookes
The Loire Valley is one of France’s most important wine regions. It’s the fourth largest AOC winemaking region in the country with 63,000 ha of wine growing area and consists of 79 individual appellations.
It is arguably France’s most diverse wine growing area, stretching along the length of the Loire River some 600km from the coast to the centre of France. In what might be an oversimplification for a region so diverse, the Loire Valley can be divided into four sections.
The Pays Nantais is closest to the coast and centred around, strangely enough, the city of Nantes. Wandering the city streets late on my first night to lessen the effects of jet lag and my first serving of foie gras, it seems a prosperous, pretty town whose vinous exploits centre around the melon de bourgogne grape. Wine production here is 95% white wines and with its proximity to the coast and the abundant seafood available, Muscadet, the crisp, savoury white wine that hails from the region is the perfect wine on a table that is heaving under the weight of their delicious local oysters and langoustines.
Anjou-Saumur and Touraine
Moving away from the coast, the region of Anjou-Saumur is the next point of call centred around the city of Angers. Further inland still with the city of Tours at its hub, is the region of Touraine. It is in these regions of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine that the grape varieties of cabernet franc and chenin blanc strut their stuff.
One of the biggest takeaways for me as I sidled through this lovely slice of France and sampled the wines, is that if there was one leitmotif for the red wines, it would be freshness. Bright pure fruit with energetic lines. No overblown, heavy reds but sprightly vinous offerings that are just wonderful drinking. The cabernet franc in particular, which in many cases in the new world looks leafy and angular, in the Loire Valley seemed vivacious and purely fruited. Funny how that works sometimes.
The white wines from these central regions in the Loire run the complete bandwidth of styles, from sparkling and sucking on a river stone bone-dry, to dizzyingly sweet and unctuous, again, diversity… Wonderful diversity. The Touraine section of the Loire resounds with famous wine regions and styles. St-Nicolas de Bourgueil, Chinon, Vouvray, Coteaux de Loir and Jasnières to name a few and as is the case with a lot of French wine… they’re hard to pronounce but very nice to drink.
Just to the south-west of Angers I visited the wonderful biodynamic estate of Domaine Delesvaux whose owners, Catherine & Philippe Delesvaux not only produce a stunning range of wines, but have a great love for Australia and visit us regularly. Their daughter married an Aussie lad and between trying their lovely wines, I was told stories of the most beautiful grandchild in the world who now resides on Australia’s east coast.
One thing I love about traveling is those meetings with strangers where you instantly hit it off and are at ease with each other; it’s like you’ve met before, the conversation is warm and effortless… Sympatico. I also navel-gaze far more than I should and think about how often, wines are sometimes like the people that make them. Comfortable in their own skin with a relaxed energy and welcoming sense of grace. I felt that at Domaine Delesvaux.
The wines were beautiful from the bouncy Anjou Blanc & Rouge (chenin blanc and cabernet franc) through to a stunning selection of wines that gradually sweep upwards on the scale of sweetness.
On sweetness. A funny thing happens to our perception of sweetness in wine sometimes, especially when the wine in question has high levels of acidity. The soils here around Anjou have lots of schist. As Phillipe says “Chenin on schist? We never have a problem with acidity here”. The thing is, sometimes in these high acid sweet wines, the level of residual sugar can seem to way lower than it actually is, as the acidity tempers that sugar and makes it seem drier. It seems crazy but trust me, it is a thing. That goes for everything from German riesling to the amazing Coteaux du Layon of Domaine Delasvaux, which at the top end can weight in at a heady 400 g/L of residual sugar. They just appear unctuous yet retain a vivid freshness along their lines. Wine is cool like that.
But I digress. We need to talk about the fourth quadrant of the Loire Valley and arguably the most famous. It’s called the Centre-Loire and it’s not on the centre of the Loire Valley, it is in the geographical centre of France. It’s a French thing. It is here that you will find the world famous wines of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. You are going to have to trust me here, but if you are suffering from SBBO (sauvignon blanc burn out) you need to try a decent Sancerre to recalibrate and get your life back on track. It is a simple action that will change your perception of the grape variety.
Besides sauvignon blanc, pinot noir is the other main variety grown in the Central Loire and can offer an affordable alternative to the stratastrophic pricing of Burgundy. Actually, speaking of value, from the Central Loire, the regions of Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Reuilly are probably the ones to aim for if you seek value for money but it is in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé that the wines reach their zenith.
Thus endeth my initial Loire Valley road trip report and the briefest of overviews of this amazing French wine region. Of course, with a region this large; one that spreads from the Atlantic coast to the centre of France, it’s going to be complicated, with all manner of climatic and soil influences affecting what is grown in the soil and how those wines manifest themselves in the glass. But we won’t geek out to much. There is wine to drink, way too much cheese to eat and the people here seem really friendly. I’ll see you next report in Chinon… à plus tard.