The Loire (loo – waar) is a 600 mile long river running from the south-east of France northwards towards Paris. Before it reaches Paris, at around its halfway point, it turns due west at Orleans and head to the ocean. Along those last of 300 miles are the vineyards of France’s third major wine region. Last week I visited the Loire valley with old friends from the Brentwood Wine Appreciation Society who’d hired a coach to drive from north London, crossing the channel to Calais to Paris and due south to Sancerre.
Sancerre is one of those legendary names if you’ve been learning about French wines, and yet I rarely drink a Loire wine. When I first started drinking, Loire’s pink Anjou Rose wines were popular but their place has been taken by ‘white’ Zinfandels on supermarket shelves.
So I was keen to visit and taste wines from names I knew from wine courses, and yet had little firsthand experience of. Names such as Pouilly Fume, Chinon, Saumur, Muscadet, Vouvray, Bourgeil, Savanierres and more. And a big bonus of travelling by coach meant someone else was driving and I could buy and carry home as much wine as I wanted.
The Loire is complicated. There are 68 different appellations and wine labels usually assume the appellation name is all you need to know.
Loire wines are generally made from a single variety. The cooler area up river, around the charming hill town of Sancerre, grows Sauvignon Blanc for white wines and Pinot Noir for reds. Across the river from Sancerre is Pouilly Fume which inspired Robert Mondavi to rename his Sauvignon Blanc, which was then an unpopular variety he couldn’t sell, to Fume Blanc which became so successful it is now a legal synonym for Sauvignon Blanc in the USA.
We later headed downriver to stay on an island in the Loire at the town of Saumur. In this region the varieties are Chenin Blanc and Cabernet France, and Chenin is used to make both sweet and dry wine and some delicious fruity rounded sparkling wines. Then near the coast the wine is Muscadet. Appropriately so, because Muscadet, made from an obscure grape known as Melon de Bourgogne, is said to be the world’s most perfect wine for seafood. There are some other grapes also grown, Gamay in Anjou, Folle Blanche in Nantes, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and some rare varieties.
I return home loaded with boxes of wines from all but one of the wineries we visited and in the coming weeks I’ll be talking about them.
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape, also available for the Kindle.