The longest river in France, the Loire rises in the southern Massif Central some 630 miles away from its estuary at St.Nazaire on the Atlantic coast of north-west France. For half of this distance it flows north, but it is at the point close to where it begins its long turn westwards that the plethora of wine producing regions collectively referred to as ‘The Loire’ commence. For simplicity the region may be split into three main parts from this point onwards to the coast; the Upper Loire, The Middle Loire, and closest to the sea, The Pays Nantais.
The vineyards of the Upper Loire are the most famous, closest to Paris and with a strong market here and throughout the world. The Sauvignon Blanc grape dominates, with the renowned appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume leading the pack, with the less well-known Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Reuilly the source of some similar and very often superbly crafted (and less dear) wines from the same variety. Upper Loire Sauvignon Blanc, grown on chalky Kimmeridgian clay and flint is, at its finest, thrilling, more subtle than its popular new world counterpart, with fewer of the bright tropical fruit flavours that typify New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with a steelier backbone and a refined and often complex minerality. A little red is also produced here, from the Pinot Noir variety. The marginal climate this far north renders them lighter, sometimes more austere, than their Burgundian (or indeed Marlborough) counterparts, though some growers such as our own Andre Dezat excel, particularly in warmer summers.
The Middle Loire is more complicated, both geologically, geographically and in terms of the range of grape varieties grown, and styles produced. Travelling from west to east we first encounter Anjou, the name of the region around the town of Angers. In the past this has been associated with the grimly commercial Rose d’Anjou, whites of variable quality (and sweetness) made from the Chenin Blanc, and light reds from Gamay under the name Anjou Rouge. None of them need detain us. On a qualitatively higher note, some sometimes very good Anjou-Villages is made from the red Cabernet-Franc grape, and one occasionally finds examples of the fine, extraorinarily long lived pink Cabernet d’Anjou.
As one continues upstream, the Chenin Blanc variety reaches its highpoint in the appellations Coteaux de l’Aubance and Coteaux du Layon with their favoured enclaves Chaume, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, at their finest when nature cooperates to bring the magical sugar-concentrating mould known as pourriture noble or noble rot, which combines with the acidity of Chenin to bring wonderful, honeyed long lived sweet wines. In Savennieres, by contrast, the Chenin Blanc gives us world-class dry whites. Saumur brings the famous sparkling wines, also made with Chenin Blanc together with increasing amounts of Chardonnay, providing a more Champagne-like flavour profile to these Methode-Champenoise wines. Saumur-Champigny is a silky-textured, fragrant red from Cabernet Franc. Like Chinon, Bourgueil and St.Nicholas de Bourgueil, from the leading growers in fine years these can be wonderful, sometimes rich, complex red wines with a clear appeal to lovers of Bordeaux.
The Touraine region is both vast and confusing, but it is best known here for the dry whites made with the Sauvignon Blanc variety (Sauvignon de Touraine), the best of which can rival those of the Upper Loire, though many more can seem austere, herbaceous and excessively acidulous to the Anglo-Saxon palate. The Gamay of Beaujolais makes an appearance with some light, bright, sometimes appealingly rasping reds that commend themselves chilled for summer picnics, as do the Cabernet-Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir varieties. Some Touraine satellites that are producing increasingly interesting wines are Cheverny (dry Chenin/Chardonnay) and the Coteaux de Loir and Jasnieres, where some superb artisan wines are being made with Chenin (white) and Pinot d’Aunis (red). Touraine’s most famous and distinctive wines are the sweet Chenin Blancs made in Vouvray and Montlouis, like their counterparts in Anjou fabulous and amazingly long lived in great, pourriture-noble affected years, when they are labelled Moelleaux or Liquoreaux. Wines labelled Sec or Demi-Sec (dry or medium dry) can also last for decades, thanks to the high acidity of the Chenin variety. They are a notable, and on these shores underrated, accompaniement to sauced river and sea fish dishes.
Finally, we move back downstream to the Loire Atlantique, the Muscadet region, or the Pays Nantais as it is variously known. As the former name suggests, this is quintessentially oceanic country. One grape, the Muscadet or Melon de Bourgogne, dominates proceedings here. Neutral, decidely delicate, mineral, sometimes with a pronounced salty tang, it is usually left to rest on its fine lees for the winter following fermentation to provide an element of gras, then bottled in the spring to preserve freshness. Sentenced to years in the wilderness due to its desecration by industrial winemaking, to which its delicate nature is entirely unsuited, during the 1970s, it is now making a welcome and very often thrilling resurgence in the hands of increasing numbers of young artisan winemakers, who are adopting organic and biodynamic vineyard regimes, slashing yields to achieve concentration and reducing the use of sulphur. These are wines entirely suited to consumption with the shellfish and crustacaea that are produced on the coast here, but which deserve to easily extend their reach into the territory currently dominated by all-to often vapid Pinot-Grigio in this country.