The Loire Valley, which stretches for 1,000 kilometres through northern France, is one of the country’s most varied wines regions, partly due to its expansive geography. It starts way inland near the historic town of Sancerre, about two hours from Paris, then follows the river through Tours and Angers, ending up on the Atlantic coast at the newly-trendy city of Nantes, below which is the Muscadet region.
Most people associate the Loire Valley with white wine: light muscadet, crisp sauvignon blanc (very not-New Zealand), rich vouvray and aromatic chenin blanc. The last has an ability to age in the manner of Semillon from Australia’s Hunter Valley. But for most locals (and Parisiens), the valley is seen as a red wine region producing wines to be drunk young.
While France’s most famous red wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone are rated for their power and longevity, the reds of the Loire should be defined by their delicacy, though the higher quality wines also need age before they can express themselves.
These reds may have failed to come to prominence because the Loire has few large estates in the manner of Bordeaux chateaux, and few historically famous names such as we have in Burgundy and the Rhone. The widely feted Loire names tend to be white producers such as Domaine Huet, Didier Dagueneau, Baron de Ladoucette and Henri Bourgeois.
Of the Loire’s red grapes the predominant – and best – is cabernet franc. Some pinot noir is grown, along with a little malbec and gamay.
Cabernet franc is the third grape of Bordeaux, where it is blended with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, though in the prestigious villages of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion on the Right Bank it is highly regarded. Cheval Blanc is typically two-thirds cabernet franc while Ausone is about one-half (with merlot).
Because cabernet franc ripens early compared with cabernet sauvignon it can thrive in the cooler, inland areas of the Loire Valley – though insisting on ripeness is very important for quality maintenance. Talented young winemaker Arnault Couly, at Chinon property Couly-Dutheil, was one of the first to stress this, as well as the need to minimise the use of oak. For his flagship wines from Clos de l’Echo and Clos de l’Olive, which need at least four years to be approachable, and can age for at least 20 depending on vintage conditions, he uses no oak at all.
While Saumur-Champigny is often perceived to produce the best of all the reds, locals talk of the “four kings” for the grape: Saumur-Champigny along with nearby Chinon, then Bourgueil and the neighbouring St Nicolas de Bourgueil. Styles range from fresh and fruity, suitable for chilling, to deeper, earthy and more full-bodied wines which can develop for at least 10 years. These can be paired with hearty meat or mushroom dishes.
What these wines styles tend to share, however, is a marvellous spiciness (typically cinnamon) and a striking minerality, along with ripe, mainly red-berry aromas. Some go to the market entirely unoaked, while those which are vinified and/or aged in oak tend to be from large format (500 litre) older barrels.
Acidity is the backbone for ageing, and wines with a future need about four or five years to reduce oakiness and increase the sense of “fat”, says Xavier Amirault of biodynamic estate Clos des Quarterons in St Nicolas de Bourgueil. He also uses a little cabernet franc in the cepage for his shimmeringly acidic sparkling Les Quarterons, to which it brings body.
Wines made from old vines, of which there are a considerable number in this region, have a glorious intensity about them and sing of the terroir. Xavier Amirault tends vines as old as 90 years.
Tannins are present in most of the reds. But in the earthy, terroir-driven Bourgueil Racines 2012, made by Frederic Mabileau with grapes from 47-year-old vines, they come across as creamy. The Villeneuve Les Grand Clos 2005, from Saumur-Champigny, is another excellent wine, still very young with vibrant fruit and layers of tannins complemented with liquorice overtones.
Terroir as it relates to soil is a very important consideration in the region. One winemaker has been known to travel around with vineyard stones in his pocket. Rub two together and smell the granite-mineral characters produced by the compacted, fossilised sub-soils.
Overall the best wines tend to be produced from the layered tuffeau – a form of limestone – while those produced in the graviers (loosely translated as gravel) are more easy-going and approachable when young. Many of the houses in the small villages of the western Loire are made from the tuffeau, and as the rock weathers the buildings embrace a shimmering beauty, much like the wines.