Wine tasting in the Loire

The Loire is a big river in a big valley, and so the wine region of the Loire is – you’ve guessed it – big. We didn’t quite appreciate this and probably set out to explore too much of it in one long weekend. So that’s my first piece of advice: if you’re here for three days, don’t try and cover the whole Loire! Or even half of it. It’s a beautiful region, though, dotted with astonishing chateaux to give your eyes something to drink in between sips of wine.

The best thing about the Loire is the sheer variety of wines. There are whites; dry, off-dry and sweet, quaffable and serious reds, roses that are more than just barbecue plonk, quality sparkling wines and some world-class stickies. On top of that, you can find plenty of good stuff for around six quid just as easily as you can seek out more refined juice heading up past £20. For me, half the joy of any wine trip is bringing back a few boxes so that for the next little while I can drink wine that actually comes from a place I’ve visited and enjoyed, rather than a bottle from a shelf in a shop that means nothing beyond whatever imagery they’ve cleverly conjured up with the label.

Yes, you’ll need a car. Big region, lots of winemakers in lots of villages. It may be possible to explore the Loire by public transport, but you aren’t going to be taking much wine home then!

I can thoroughly recommend the town of Saumur as a base. It has a beautiful setting on the bank of the Loire, topped with its chateau, and is big enough to have plenty of eating and drinking options while being small enough to get in-and-out easily and to explore on foot.

Wine aside, you can’t visit the Loire and not stop at a chateau. Azay-le-Rideau is a lovely one, and not insanely busy like the blockbuster pair of Chenonceau and Chambord.

My big tip for enjoying any wine-tasting trip is: find at least a couple of recommendations. It’s great fun wandering around the villages and stopping at random winemakers, but unless you are very lucky you’ll taste a lot of kinda-maybe-okay-sorta-good-mebee-not wine. In my (very) humble experience the best wine makers are seldom on the main roads, seldom right in the middle of the most picturesque villages and very seldom the ones with viticulture museums and guided tours attached! The best winemakers are the ones down a quiet lane just outside the village with nothing to advertise their presence beyond the little brown “vignoble” sign on the main road.

So how do you get recommendations? Three ways. Firstly, when you have a brilliant wine at a restaurant (either in the UK or perhaps actually on your wine trip) make a note of the maker; it’s a real delight to actually knock on the door of the place your favourite plonk came from. Secondly, be brave and talk to people. We fell to talking with a great winemaker in Alsace and explained our intended tour around France; they recommended a winemaker they knew in the Rhone Valley and sure enough their reds were brilliant. They were also down a small lane outside the village and were probably the last place we’d have stopped at random! Thirdly, invest in a little wine guide like Oz Clarke’s useful pocket book. They’ll usually mention some recommended makers, and while these are quite often in the top end of the price range they’ll definitely be good. I reckon a balance of 50/50 random discoveries and recommendations is a good trip.

Oh, and wherever you go wine tasting in Europe remember that most of these small family businesses offer tastings and sales from their cellar as a sideline; don’t expect a smart shop and properly observed opening hours. You may well need to knock on the door and ask whether they’re available. The French especially seem to revel in giving no indication whatever that there might actually be anyone at home willing to show you their wine. In France, if you’re looking for a big “OUVERT” sign and a propped-open cellar door before stopping, you’re likely to miss out on an awful lot of pleasant discoveries.

Here’s a link to our other wine-tasting trips if you’d like more ideas.

Wines of the Loire

Where you go is going to depend on what you’re most interested in. So for the wine buff here’s a little more information on the wines of the Loire.

The Loire is mainly Chenin Blanc for white wines, Cabernet Franc for reds, although Sauvignon Blanc comes into the picture further east and further west is Muscadet.

There are four principle areas, each with a different expression of the grapes. Closest to the coast is the Pays Nantais, where the typical wine is Muscadet; sharp, fresh, uncomplicated plonk to swig with seafood if you can’t find anything better. Alright, perhaps that’s unkind, but I have to admit to liking wine with a bit of body.

Moving east and you’re into the Anjou/Saumur area, where the wines are much more interesting. Yes, there’s the well known Anjou rose, but some of this is much better than the summer barbecue fuel you may be used to. There are good, dry, minerally whites made with Chenin Blanc, at their very best in Savennieres. Reds are made with Cabernet Franc, very quaffable young but more robust and interesting if aged and oaked. The Chinon appellation is probably the best. Chenin Blanc is good for sticky dessert wines, and the Coteaux de Layon appellation is world-class; light and honeyed but with botrytis complexity. Finally there are genuinely classy bubbles on offer, especially around Saumur.

It’s a similar tale in the Touraine area further east, and to be honest it seems like a fairly arbitrary dividing line. Touraine includes the most famous Loire wines of Vouvray, interesting because they are made bone dry, off-dry and also quite sweet; these latter can be cellared for decades. The Touraine also has all the best of the grand chateaux to visit!

Finally, stuck out furthest east is the Centre region which includes the great appelations of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume, where the Sauvignon Blanc grape is used to make wines utterly different to the elderflower and gooseberry pub plonk we’re used to in the UK. I assumed that I hated all Sauvignon Blanc until I had a good Pouilly Fume.

Look carefully at this photo… : )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>