A journey through the Loire Valley. – Part 2

A few days ago we embarked on a journey through one of the most interesting and beautiful parts of France, the Loire Valley, which is the third largest wine region in terms of size.

We passed through the Lower Loire and down the river, towards two fascinating areas that are waiting to tell their story.

Chateau del Valle del Loira

There are three regions in Middle Loire that stand out: Anjou, Saumur and Touraine. This area has the most elegant and impressive landscapes in France, and it’s where the Chenin Blanc grape variety reigns. Sparkling wines are prominent and red wines also have a significant presence, especially those made with Cabernet Franc.

This region has a more temperate climate, the seasons are more defined and the environment is more hospitable.

Curiously in Anjou, half of all wine production is rosé, made with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grolleau, a local variety that is worth looking into if you call yourself a wine geek, which creates wines with aromas of roses, red berries and bananas.

In Anjou, sweet wines are made with Chenin Blanc, the queen of the region, many of which have Botrytis Cinerea or “noble rot ”. These wines are classified as Grands Crus.

As we have already mentioned, the Loire Valley is a large and spread out wine region. The vineyards near the right riverbank, in the Middle Loire region, have slate, shale and clay soils that give the wine a balanced structure, acidity and minerality with concentrated flavours reminiscent of linden flowers, anise, pear, candied lemon and hazelnuts.

It is here that sparkling wines are gaining ground, like the Anjou Mousseaux AOP designation, where they make Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc sparkling wines and Cabernet Sauvignon rosé wines.

In the Crémant de Loire AOP region, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay sparkling wines are made as well as sparkling rosés with varieties similar to those of Anjou Mousseaux. Unlike the Anjou, the Crémant often age on their lees and are bottled at higher pressure, which creates more bubbles than in the Mousseaux.

Saumur is the main sparkling wine maker in the Loire Valley. The land here has limestone soil that provides the acidity that the grapes need to make these bubbly wines made mainly with Chenin Blanc, but also with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, creating sparkling Crémant and Mousseaux with notes of stone fruits, almonds and a vanilla nuance, and good enough to stand tall next to the famous sparkling wines of Champagne.

Some late harvest sweet wines are also made with Chenin Blanc.

The best red wines of the Loire are made in the Saumur-Champigny AOP region. This area has a warm microclimate with patches of calcareous soils that create Cabernet Franc reds that are earthy and spicy, with silky tannin and violet notes.

One area to highlight is the new Touraine Noble-Joué AOP.

There is evidence that wines of this denomination, from limestone, calcareous clay and siliceous clay soils, were served in the court of King Louis XI, who was also a great admirer of the vin gris, a pale rosé wine traditional of the region. Touraine Noble-Joué was very popular in the nineteenth century but also struggled under events of the past: phylloxera, war, urban expansion, etc. which led to its destruction.

A group of wine growers reinstated the AOP status application (Appellation d’ Origine Protégée) and because of that, their vin gris can once again be enjoyed at the table in Tours. A delicate wine, full of aromas of cherries and strawberries, made with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris.

Vouvray is a region of the Loire Valley where the tuffeau (white chalk) soils predominate, and these are perfect for cultivating the flagship varieties Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, resulting in their famous interpretations of Chenin Blanc wines, with amazing longevity.

This same kind of tuffeau soil is home to St Nicolas de Bourgueil, Chinon and Bourgueil, which offer the region’s silkiest and most delicate red wines, with great aging potential. Quality wines that are strangely underappreciated.

Now for the smallest area of the three, the Upper Loire Valley.

The Upper Loire begins almost at the height of Orléans. It is the easternmost part of the Loire Valley and is home to the most internationally-famous denominations in the region: Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and where Chenin Blanc gives way to Sauvignon Blanc.

This area has more similarities with Chablis, in Burgundy, than with its siblings, the other two thirds of the Loire Valley. The climate is semi-continental and there are large temperature differences between day and night. The soils are varied, with three main types:

Terre Blanche: a mixture of clay, kimmeridgiana limestone (similar to Chablis, in part of the Champagne region and the white cliffs of Dover) and oyster shells.

Caillottes: stony limestone soils.

And flint soil, which provides a smoky and pierre à fusil (gunpowder) note to the wines, which is characteristic of this region.

White wines are made with Sauvignon Blanc and Chasselas, a historical grape from the area, Pinot Gris and Sacy, and reds are made from Pinot Noir and Gamay.

Sancerre AOP, found at the eastern end of the Loire Valley, is internationally recognised for its Sauvignon Blanc wines, which often overshadow the elegant Pinot Noir reds that are also made there.

Pouilly-Fumé is another famous region of the Loire Valley where wines with smoked notes stand out and whose Sauvignon Blanc variety grapes come from flint soils.

One of the regions worth knowing about, which was only officially recognised in 2011, is Châteaumeillant AOP.

It is France’s most central vineyard and the smallest Appellation dOrigine Protégée in the Loire. It produces red wines full of flavours of fresh forest berries and spices at the end, which are made with Gamay and Pinot Noir from sandstone and clay silica soils, as well as rosé wine made from Pinot Gris with notes of nectarine and red fruits.

It is difficult to try and summarise the full complexity and diversity of the Loire wines. The quality of the wines is perfectly matched by the beautiful surroundings they are created in.

So it is no wonder that, in the year 2000, the Loire Valley was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Travelling along the river Loire, with its enchanting landscapes and dozens of fairytale castles, surrounded by vineyards and wonderful food, is the best way to keep discovering these well-kept wine treasures right in the heart of France. Watch out Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne!

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