Wines of the Loire Valley(1)

This is intended to be the first of a series of postings on Loire Valley Wines. This, the first, hopes to set the scene and position the Loire in the complexity of French Wine Production and then each successive posting will deal with its appellations gathered into five convenient groupings, examining the characters of their wines, their grapes and the dishes which will show them at their best.

Many years ago when I was buying wine for various outlets in the UK, I came across a sweet wine I had never heard of before, “Le Coteaux du Layon” brimming over with flavour, complexity and, unlike many other sweeties, with a distinct acidity which perfectly balanced the intense sweetness. This wine was the revelation which began my never ending love affair with the Loire Valley. I must confess that, up to that point, I had regarded wines from the Loire as a bit of a “shelf-filler” consisting mainly of over-sulphured Anjou Blancs, cheap Roses and Sparklers,with,perhaps, the Sauvignon Blancs of the Central Vineyards and the elegant reds of Saumur-Champiny getting an honourable mention.

What I actually discovered was a cornucopia of over 60 appellations covering the whole range of wine from intensely sweet to searingly dry. Huge, new-world look-alikes to elegant, “taffeta” reds and delightful, rustic curiosities cheek by jowl with wines of worldwide renown.I rediscovered wines which I had previously treated with scant respect and found new ones which took my breath away. Of course, living in the region, as we have done for five years, has enabled us to delve deep into the hidden Loire to discover both the best wines and the best producers.

But, I have also found myself enthralled by the region itself, a timeless land where the Loire winds its majestic way through centuries of history, epitomised by the magnificent Chateaux sited throughout the Valley and standing guard over every major town, (and often village), and, not least, but perhaps most importantly, we have grown the love and respect the people themselves.

In France, when people think of the Loire, and particularly Anjou, they think of the “Douceur”, which translates as the sweetness of life. This applies both to the land and the inhabitants. Neither are dramatic and both are gentle and welcoming, the countryside is picturesque and rolling and the locals have an healthy respect for the good things in life, not just for enjoying their wine and cuisine but also taking the time to do it properly and to pay it due respect, there is no hurried sandwich taken on the run, this is a land of two hour lunch breaks with three hours on Sundays. An invitation to lunch in a wine village will almost always find Monsieur disappearing for half an hour only to emerge from a dusty cellar with a 1945 Coteaux de Saumur, a 1936 Layon or some other treat. Which he will proceed to pour with due homage but with no pretension. Vignerons are proud of their wines and unlike the more famous wineries of Bordeaux or Burgundy the problem is not getting in for a tasting it will be getting out again afterwards! Many is the time I have taken people into a chais when the sun is high in the heavens and the temperature is in the 40’s only for them to stagger out again in the pitch darkness of a warm Anjou, summer night!!

So, back to the nitty-gritty, having waxed lyrical on the attractions of the Loire, just why is the region so important in French wine making?

One reason is its sheer size, not only is The Loire 635mls.long, but, more importantly, the land mass of the river and its tributaries account for 20% of the land mass of France. These tributaries are exceedingly important as almost all the great appellations are based around rivers like the Cher, the Thouet, the Layon and, rather confusingly, La Loire’s little brother, Le Loir. The reason for this is quite simple; the Loire itself is simply too big, too self important, to leave dinky little slopes which can be used for planting vines, the valley is too wide and flat and vines do not do well on flat, fertile plains, instead this is used for market gardening, giving the region another source of fame as the provider of much of France’s produce. This is reflected in the name chosen for the wine of its Vins de Pays; the evocative “Le Jardin de France,” (The Garden of France). This huge area encompasses a vast change in micro climate and terroir from the harsh slopes of the Massif Central to the flat coastal plains of the Nantais and this is, of course, reflected in the wines. The climate is Oceanic in the West with hot summers and mild winters, becoming more continental as we progress eastwards with winters progressively becoming much harder. Another reason why the Loire has become France’s second largest producer of appellation wines is the experience of its winemakers, almost genetically engineered to cope with that most capricious of grapes, the Chenin, and the vagrancies of the climate, which, in parts, is on the limit of commercial wine production. Most of its grape varieties are grown throughout the world, but to see and taste them at their best The Loire sets the benchmark, whether they are Chenins from Anjou, Sauvignons from Touraine or Cabernet Francs from either. It is true that the region lost its way somewhat in the 60’s and 70’s, having been seduced by the easy money to be made from the great Rosé boom. Old winemakers shook there heads in disbelieve as vineyards of aged Chenin were ripped out, to be replaced with the ubiquitous Grolleau, the mainstay of Rosé. However, after the bottom dropped out of the Rosé market, the old values re-emerged and, because of the realisation that quality would be the one thing that would sell the wines, a great drive commenced to improve them and this has made the Loire one of the most exiting wine regions in the country. Further, In Anjou, much of the Grolleau was ripped out and replaced by Cabinet Franc, leading to the renaissance of that area not just as a producer of great whites but as also as the home of ever improving reds. (It should be noted that the production of red wine in Anjou is a quite recent phenomenon and that California has produced reds commercially for a much longer period. In fact the first red wine appellation in Anjou was only granted in 1936, and it is still in a state of flux, for example my own village will be awarded its own appellation, Saumur-Puy Notre Dame as from this year.) We are now seeing a generational change as the current group hand over to their sons and daughters. Many of the new “Patrons” are college trained and have worked in Bordeaux, Burgundy, Australia and the New World, thus we can expect another leap forward in quality as they build on the advances made by their parents.

Having now set the scene, I hope that we have succeeded in exiting your taste buds and that you will stay with us as we proceed to examine each appellation in detail.

For the purposes of study I normally divide the Loire into five main regions. These are;

1. The group of vineyards nearest to the source of the Loire. Eg. Le Coté d’Auvergne

2. The Central Vineyards around Pouilly Fuisse and Sancerre.

3. The Touraine

4. Anjou/Saumur

5. The Nantaise

And these will be the subjects of the next five postings.

Thus the next posting will be a detailed look at the first group of vineyards stretching from the Côtes du Forez to the Côte Ronnaise, the most southerly of the Loire.