The Loire Valley is known as “the Garden of France” for its parks, gardens, fruit orchards and, of course, vineyards. Home to around 4000 wineries, it’s a region that produces a wine for everyone, from light crisp Muscadet of the Pays Nantais, to earthy, spicy reds from Chinon. Still, sparkling, dry, and sweet – the combination of diverse soil types with different micro-climates created by the Loire River and its tributaries, allows for an incredible range of wine production. The region is home to mostly varietal wines. Think Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Melon de Bourgogne.
Here’s an overview of the Valley’s most important regions, starting at the Atlantic Coast, and moving inward.
Lower Loire Valley – Pays Nantais
The vineyards just off the coast of the wet, cool Atlantic focus on bright, mineral whites primarily from the Melon de Bourgogne grape. The main appellations growing this refreshing, lower-alcohol wine (11.5-12.5%) (and what you’ll find written on the bottle rather than the grape variety), are Muscadet, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, and Muscadet Côte de Grandlieu. The difference between them: The first is the largest appellation making dry, early-drinking wines that are inexpensive and meant to be quaffed with shellfish. The second takes a more serious approach, aging wines on “lees” or dead yeast cells to give roundness and texture, while the third is a sub-appellation that produces Muscadet known for its perfume.
Middle Loire Valley – Anjou, Saumur, Touraine
Following the river from the ocean inland, the landscape becomes more complex, as do the wines and styles made. The middle of the valley is Chenin Blanc, Cab Franc, and sparkling wine country.
Crémant de Loire AOP
If you’re looking for a break from Champagne (and commensurate prices), the French sparkling wine category of crémant is a good starting point. Crémant is made throughout the Valley but is most prominent in Saumur. Wines are made using the same traditional method as Champagne but will less aging time and different grapes. Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay are used for the white versions while Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon may be used for the rosé.
Coteaux du Layon AOP
Also within Anjou, this appellation is known for its extraordinary sweet wines from 100 percent Chenin Blanc. The wines compete on a quality level with Sauternes due to Botrytis cinerea or “noble rot” which gives a honeyed, apricot note. Look for sub-appellations of Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Charme Grand Cru (which has a whopping 85 g/l sugar) for the most exceptional examples.
Under the umbrella of the Anjou region falls one of Chenin Blanc’s most renowned expressions: Savennières. Lovers of the grape look to this appellation to find wines that can age for years, even decades, due to Chenin’s high acidity, concentrated flavors of flowers, fruit, and citrus, and the unique soil and climate conditions found here. Some wines are made in a deliberate oxidative style.
The second most famous Chenin appellation falls under the Touraine umbrella. While Savennières tends to be made in serious styles, Vouvray makes Chenin in a range, from approachable, off-dry, to age-worthy. Vineyards sit on a distinct type of soil known as tuffeau limestone, which lends intense fruit and mineral character. You’ll find the words sec, demi-sec, moelleux and doux on the labels to indicate sweetness, from dry, off-dry, to luxuriously sweet.
The most well-known Cabernet Franc region in the world, Chinon produces light- to medium-bodied reds with an earthy, spicy, dark-fruited quality that can’t be replicated anywhere else. The reason likely lies in the combination of tuffeau soils with a cool, moderate climate. From the best producers, these wines can age for many years due to that all-important component of acidity, giving them a racy freshness. Chinon is a good place to explore if you’re grown tired of powerful reds or want something lighter to drink in the summer.
Upper Loire Valley – Central
This may be the smallest region but it packs the most punch for its famous vineyards planted with Sauvignon Blanc.
This appellation sits on the far eastern end of the Loire Valley. A mix of soil types (limestone, clay, pebbles, and flint) provide complexity that gives these wines their archetypal character: bracing acidity, with fresh-cut grass, citrus, and chalky minerality. While most buyers look for Sauvignon Blanc, you can find fresh, lighter-bodied Pinot Noir under this appellation, too.
Across the river from Sancerre are the vineyards of Pouilly-Fumé. The only grape allowed to use the appellation is Sauvingon Blanc, which has a distinct smoky and earthy quality due to the flint soils known locally as “silex.” The wines may present as more mineral, citrusy, and austere than Sancerre, depending on the producer.