A Beginner’s Guide to Loire Valley Wines

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From leahtravels.com, by Leah Walker
A Beginner’s Guide to Loire Valley Wines

There’s not much that I adore more than wine, especially French wine. While living in Paris, I’ve not only broadened my palate, but also my knowledge of the country’s wine. To further my education, I’ve traveled to most every wine-producing region in France and tasted more varieties and vintages than I can remember.

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Like all things French, there are many rules that come with the production of wine. Created in the 1930s by the French government, Appellation d’origine contrôlée {AOC} system is a designation that helps control the quality of products such as wine and cheese. To be classified as AOC, wines must be made from approved grapes in specific areas. Each AOC region sets forth their own rules regarding harvesting, vinification, and packaging. So, just because you know everything about wines in Provence, doesn’t mean anything when it comes to wines in Burgundy. And as if we needed another acronym to understand, the EU has created the AOP {Appellation d’Origine Protégée}, which is also meant to protect and ensure quality of traditional specialties throughout the European Union.

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One of the most important things to remember about French wine is that it’s not identified by the grape, but rather by the area it is produced. Chablis is a town in Burgundy, not a type of grape. The wine from this AOC area is made with 100% Chardonnay grapes. Although mostly associated with red, Bordeaux also produces white wine. Foreigners aren’t the only ones who have a difficult time understanding French wine. At a Parisian café a few months ago, I asked the waiter if he had a red Sancerre. He looked at me like I was stupid and said, “Sancerre is only white.” Au contraire, mon ami! The small town in the Loire Valley is famous for their white, but they also make nice red and rosé.

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In July, I had the opportunity to continue my vin education by exploring the Loire Valley as a French wine ambassador for Atout France, the country’s tourism board {see my itinerary}. For six full days, I drank my way across the 170-mile stretch known as the Garden of France, thanks to the fabulous planning of Loire Valley Wines, Wines of Centre-Loire, Loire Valley Tourism, and Pays de la Loire Tourism.

As the former playground of royalty, the Loire Valley is most known for its remarkable châteaux, but what many people don’t know is that excellent wine is also produced. Sure, Sancerre white wines are world renowned, but those are just the tip of the iceberg for Loire Valley wines.

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As France’s most diverse wine growing region, Loire Valley wines dot prestigious menus throughout the country and are respected among the French. Outside of France, wines from the Loire aren’t as readily available or known as those from Champagne, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. However, they deserve consideration from even the biggest wine snob. The Loire Valley is the third largest producer of AOC wines in France, and is the biggest producer of AOC white wines. Behind Champagne, France’s garden makes the most AOC sparkling wines and is the second leading maker of rosé, behind Provence.

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But with 50 appellations and denominations, where does one begin? I took on the grueling task of tasting more than my fair share of wines from the Loire, and I’m happy to pass my research on to you, my wine-loving friends. Here’s just a taste of some of my favorites from the Pays Nantais, Anjou, Saumur, Touraine, and Centre-Loire regions of the Loire Valley.

Muscadet

 

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Near the city of Nantes, in the Pays Nantais region is the large appellation of Muscadet. Known for its crisp, whites made from Melon de Bourgogne grapes, these light-bodied wines pair nicely with seafood, especially oysters. Given its proximity to the Bay of Bourgneuf, this makes perfect sense. Pale yellow, with notes of fruit and flowers, Muscadet whites are refreshing. Also produced are sparkling and rosé wines.

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Discover: Château de la Cassemichère was built in the 17th century and has been producing wine since 1740. Just 15 minutes from Nantes, visit the cellar to taste their range of wines that include white {Melon de Bourgogne, Chardonnay}, rosé {Gamay}, and sparkling {brut—Muscadet and Chardonnay blend; rosé—Gamay, Grolleau, and Cabernet Franc}.

Bonnezeaux

 

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About fifteen minutes south of the city of Angers, in the region of Anjou, is where you’ll find the village of Thouarcé and Bonnezeaux wines. The Chenin Blanc grapes that are used to make the sweet Bonnezeaux wines are grown on a tiny parcel and are hand picked only when super ripe. Bonnezeaux wines can be aged for decades, which develop in color from golden to copper and in flavors from citrus and apricots to honey. Drink these wines with foie gras as a starter and with blue cheese or pear gateau to round out a meal.

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Discover: Tucked into the vines of Thouarcé is Les Terrasses de Bonnezeaux. This glass-enclosed restaurant offers excellent views of the vineyards, as well as tasty French food. Enjoy a glass of 2011 Bonnezeaux from Domaine des Grandes Vignes Thouarcé. The grapes are grown just outside of the restaurant and the domaine owner might just be sitting at the table next to you.

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Also in the village of Thouarcé is Château de Fesles, whose origins can be traced back to 1070. Producing red, white, and rosé Anjou wines, the domaine also has a wide-range wines classified as Bonnezeaux. Go for a tasting at this historical property.

Chaume

 

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Similar to Bonnezeaux, Chaume is sweet, with great potential for aging. Located on a tiny parcel, in a single village, on the right bank of the Layon River are the Chenin Blanc grapes grown to make Chaume. The golden-to-auburn color, complex aromas of stone and candied fruits, spice, nuts, and honey are complimented by sweet and fruity flavors. These are also delicious with foie gras and blue cheeses.

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Discover: Owned by the Tijou family for five generations, Château de Bellevue is an 18th century home surrounded by the Layon Valley vineyards. A variety of Anjou wines are produced here using grapes such as Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Cabernet Franc. However, make sure to taste the Coteaux du Layon 1er cru Chaume, which is one of the two “crus” of the Loire Valley.

Saumur

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Saumur is located in the middle of the Loire Valley. It’s here that calcareous rock called tuffeau was quarried hundreds of years ago. Today, these hollowed-out caves are used as wine cellars. The region is mostly known for sparkling wines and light to medium-bodied reds, which are made from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pineau d’Aunis. The well-balanced, medium-bodied whites are produced using a minimum of 80% Chenin Blanc grapes, which can be blended with Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

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Discover: Bouvet-Ladubay was started in 1851, then quickly gained acclaim for its sparkling wines, which were exported around the world. A visit here is an unforgettable experience. After touring the former offices designed by Gustave Eiffel, descend into the five-kilometer system of tunnels on a vintage bicycle, while wearing a battery-operated headlamp. Learn about the various stages of winemaking and see more than 1,000 oak barrels, as well as ancient sculptures. The cellars are located above the St. Florent Abbey ruins, which date to the 11th century. After, visit the tasting room for a flight of sparkling wines, including a red sparkling, the contemporary art museum and their 19th century theater.

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Climb aboard a traditional Loire River boat with Loire Vins Aventure and Denis Retiveau. A boat captain and domaine owner, Denis will show you the beautiful town of Saumur from the water, while enjoying locally sourced foods and wines from his vineyard.

Vouvray

 

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Growing Chenin Blanc grapes, Vouvray is a large appellation in the Touraine region of the Loire Valley. Producing dry, sweet, and sparkling white wines, Vouvray wines work with a variety of foods. Drink sparkling with sushi, dry wines with shellfish and spicy foods, and the sweet with an apple tart.

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Discover: For time in the vines, look no further than Myriam Fouasse-Robert. Born into a family of wine growers from Vouvray, Myriam now is the wife of a wine grower at Vignoble Alain Robert. In 2014, she started Rendez-Vous dans les Vignes in order to pass along her love and knowledge of the area’s wines. Her tour, From Vine to Wine, features a walk through the vineyard, a look at the winery and cellar, and a wine tasting alongside local food specialties.

Sancerre

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On the far eastern side of the Loire Valley is the small town of Sancerre. On the left bank of the Loire River, grapes are grown alongside cereals on the appellation’s hillsides. The majority of grapes grown are Sauvgnon Blanc, but Pinot Noir is also grown for red and rosé production. Some of the world’s best Sauvgnon Blancs come from Sancerre. Pale yellow, with an intense smell of grass, citrus fruit, and minerals, the dry, crisp wine is lovely with Crottin de Chavignol {a goat cheese made in Sancerre} and shellfish. Garnet in color, the reds smell and taste of cherries, and are delicious with salmon. Rosé wines are light pink, fruity, and pair well with charcuterie.

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Discover: Take a peek at most of the Palace Hotel menus in Paris and you’ll most certainly see several selections from Domaine Vacheron. The caves are located in the heart of Sancerre and well worth a visit. If you’re lucky, owner Denis Vacheron will give you a tour and pour you a few glasses.

Menetou-Salon

 

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Southwest of Sancere, Menetou-Salon produces wines made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, as well as red and rosé from Pinot Noir. Pale yellow, the Menetou-Salon whites are medium bodied and pale yellow in color. The medium-bodied reds smell of stone fruit and have candied fruit flavors. The pale pink, light-bodied rosés have peach notes and taste of tart fruit.

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Discover: Domaine Philippe Gilbert is a maker of organic white, red, and rosé wines. Take a visit to the cellar, or taste their wine at Le Fluteau, the domaine’s restaurant in the village of Menetou-Salon. Its menu changes daily, featuring in-season products.

Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-sur-Loire

 

On the bank of the Loire River, just across from Sancerre, are the AOCs of Pouilly-Fumé and Pouilly-sur-Loire. In English, fumé translates to smoke. Named for its smoky gunflint smell, wines in this appellation are strictly white made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes. These light-to-medium bodied wines typically have a strong white flower and citrus smell and a crisp, acidic citrus and flint taste. Pair them with seafood and white meat. Pouilly-sur-Loire wines tend to have a lower alcohol percentage than Pouilly-Fumé, making the pale yellow wines easy to drink.

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Discover: For ten generations, Domaine Landrat-Guyollot has been producing wines in the Loire Valley. Now, Sophie Landrat-Guyollot is at the helm of this beautiful vineyard. Her attention to the quality of wines spills over into every aspect of the business, from the art on the labels to the design of the tasting room. Try the Pouilly-Fumé wines made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes {La Rambarde, Gemme Océane, and Gemme de Feu), as well as the Pouilly-sur-loire wine made from the Chasselas grape {Les Binerelles}.

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Loire Valley wines are not only delicious, but also an excellent value. Given the region’s diversity, there’s a wine that will appeal to most everyone’s taste. Whether in your country’s wine shops, visiting France, or are spending your holidays in the Loire Valley, I encourage you to give the these wines a chance. They’re one of France’s best-kept secrets.

 

I was a guest of Atout France, but in no way was my opinion swayed by the bottomless bubbles, the delightful Denis Vacheron, or the queen-like treatment I was given while in the Loire. As always, opinions are mine. For more information, check out Atout France, Loire Valley Wines, Wines of Centre-Loire, Loire Valley Tourism, and Pays de la Loire Tourism.

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