A (Painless) Beginner’s Guide to Uncorking French Wine: The Loire Valley — Part 2

The Loire Valley: A Feast of Good (and Affordable) Wines and Magnificent Châteaux

This series aims to help those of us who adore French wine feel more confident when talking about it, buying or ordering it. If you want to start at the very beginning, here’s Part 1, which is more of a general introduction to les vins français (French wines).

Today we’ll tackle Part 2 by exploring one of my favorite French wine regions. C’est parti ! (Let’s go!)

When you first think of French wine, maybe it’s la Bourgogne (Burgundy) or la région bordelaise (the Bordeaux region) that comes to mind. With good reason—these are two of the most famous winemaking areas in l’Hexagone (the “hexagon” is a nickname for France).

But today I want to introduce you to an important, intriguing, and diverse region—la vallée de la Loire (the Loire Valley). I was just there with my husband this spring and it is such a wonderful region to visit if you have the chance.

Château de Chambord and Château de Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley

My Approach to This Guide

The Loire Valley is big and has a lot going on, from four sub-regions to three distinct climates, numerous different soil profiles, and a whole bunch of varying grapes and styles of wine. Many wine guides you may come across are dense with text and technical terminology. They can be tedious and even boring. Let’s avoid that!

So here’s how we’ll give you a practical guide to use immediately.

  • We’re going to take it easy and simply dip our toes in the waters of France’s longest river, which stretches 625 miles/1005 kilometers, a lot of it flanked by vineyards.
  • We’re going to skip fancy wine words (tuffeau, anyone?), so ne vous inquiétez pas (don’t worry).

Instead, we’re going to focus on giving you:

  • the essentials, and
  • an idea of which wines you might want to try.
  • We’ll also make a few recommendations (at the bottom of this post ), so you can have them handy if you’re shopping for wine or a gift for a fellow wine-lover.
  • And finally, we’ll provide some pairings. What food with which wine, just a few suggestions. As always, please do leave any questions or thoughts in the comments at the very bottom of this article. Writing about wine is such a labor of love and I’d be thrilled to hear from you!

The colors on the map help to identify the general sub-regions of Loire Valley wines, and you may recognize some towns or names of wines.
We’ll talk more about them below. Map credit: Daniel Kim.


Loire Valley Wine Basics: The Four Main Areas

The easiest way to get to know the wines of the Loire Valley is to start with the four wine-producing areas or sub-regions, each of which has its own preferred grapes and styles. Taking a look at the map above will help to orient us.

Why? Because the ‘where’ of winemaking gives you many clues to what the wines might be like. Here’s just a bit to know to help you get your feet (and your palate) wet.

1. The Lower Loire/Pays Nantais (pronounced “pay-EE nahn-TAY”)

On the Map:
Looking at our map above, note the green-hued areas at the far west side of the region. Here we are very close to the Atlantic Ocean, and the wines reflect that oceanic spirit. Think “beach wine” in all the right ways, even on a cloudy day.

Star Grape:
Muscadet (pronounced “moos-kah-DAY”). This white variety, like a lot of other French grapes, is sometimes called by another name (in this case melon de Bourgogne or just simply melon). So if you see “Muscadet” or “Melon de Bourgogne” on a wine list, and you’re looking for something generally lighter but interesting, give it a try!

Wine Personality:
Cape Cod-meets-Hamptons vibes. Imagine the perfect partner for seafood or other light faire—dry white wines with floral and fruit aromas and often a mineral quality, sometimes with “bready” notes (i.e., smells or tastes like brioche or toast or yeast) that come from a particular way of aging wines. Wines of the Pays Nantais are generally crisp, but sometimes more round and full depending on the details of who and where the wine comes from exactly.

Perfect Pairings:
The culinary tradition in the Pays Nantais is not exclusively seafood, but you’re going to find a lot of oysters, delicate fish, and even salade nantaise which will often feature des crevettes (shrimp) and du saumon (salmon). But also crêpes, duck, and other delicacies. You could also pair it with sushi, clam chowder, my sultry lemony anchovy pasta, or a summery salad (think shrimp, avocado, zucchini, green beans, sweet peas, radishes, feta and the like).

2. Anjou/Saumur (pronounced “ahn-ZHOO soh-MYUR”)

On the Map:
Just east of the Pays Nantais is the Anjou/Saumur area. On our map, it’s the red and rosy-shaded block, and that makes sense because it’s a region known for reds and rosés (even though the map colors are not always indicative of who makes exactly what).

Star Grapes:
Chenin blanc (shuh-nehn-BLAHN), the star white grape, and cabernet franc (cah-behr-nay-FRAHN), the red star of the region, are two cépages (grape varieties) you might really want to get to know.

As someone who doesn’t generally love sauvignon blanc, I used to be wary of the Loire, which features it widely. It’s nice to have the option to order a chenin, which is dry, generally less herbal and citrusy on the nose than a sauvignon blanc, with a tendency towards more peach, apple, and pear (along with a lot of other possibilities depending on how the wine is made).

This is one of my favorite grape varieties, so don’t miss the chance to taste it. Also, most of the elegant sweet wines of the Loire region are made from chenin because its complexity, good acidity (and certain other characteristics) make for beautiful semi-sweet and sweet wines. There is even a Grand Cru (highest ranking) for a sweet wine in Quarts de Chaume, in the heart of Anjou/Saumur.

Cabernet franc from the Loire is for those of us who like structured, elegant wines that pair with lots of foods. These wines can be lighter and more reserved or more fleshy and spicy, depending on the details.

Wine Personality:
Humble yet fabulous. In this smallish area, you’ll find great value and variety in wines that are often under-appreciated.

There are famous dry and sweet whites from Savennières, where one vineyard has been under continuous production since 1130 when monks planted it. You can also find some unique rosés here, notably Cabernet d’Anjou and Rosé d’Anjou. There are delicious cabernet franc-based reds that are structured and versatile. And then there are the elegant sweet wines of Coteaux de l’Aubance and Bonnezeaux that for my money (and for less money!) can be a great alternative to the more well-known Sauternes from Bordeaux.

Perfect Pairings:
With a dry white chenin blanc from the Loire, think grilled chicken skewers or even pork chops or these tasty paupillettes. By the way, as I learned from one of my wine mentors, a sweet chenin blanc from Bonnezeaux (yes, what some might call a “dessert wine”) can also be scrumptious and impressive with a roasted Sunday chicken dinner.

Loire rosés are perfect for apéro, brunch, or dinner on the terrace. As for the reds from this area, they match well with pâté, steak frites, roasted lamb, herby chicken sausages, and even a good burger.

3. Touraine (pronounced “too-RENN”)

On the Map:
Take a look at the orange, coral and yellow-shaded areas around the towns of Vouvray and Tours, just east of Anjou/Saumur. This castle-studded landscape is absolutely gorgeous (Leonardo da Vinci is buried here) and the view pairs perfectly with any of the local wines below.

Star Grapes:
This region shares the same star grapes as the Anjou/Saumur region. Chenin blanc and cabernet franc (plus a few others but we’re keeping it simple).

Wine Personality:
Charming Chameleon. In Touraine you’ll discover a whole rainbow of color and flavor to suit almost any occasion. You’ll find standout red wines from Bourgueil and Chinon, generally from blends of cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon and/or côt (aka malbec), so lots of good structure and balanced fruit. Some are even made to age in your cellar if you fancy buying a case or two and keeping the bottles for awhile.

The white wines of Vouvray and Montlouis range from bubbly (sparkling white wine made by the same method as Champagne is the star in this corner of the world), and from sweet to bone dry and minerally (meaning you get a little flinty or rocky notes when you smell and/or taste the wine).

TIP: in this area, because of the variation in sweetness to dryness, especially when looking for a white wine, it’s a good idea to talk with your sommelier or wine seller to make sure you’re getting something that will delight you.

Perfect Pairings:
The great news: I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t pair well with a wine from the Touraine. There really is something for every dish and occasion, and the relationship between quality and price is fantastic.

TIP: Absolutely do try a white wine from the Touraine with a goat cheese from the same neighborhood. Scroll down for some wine suggestions.

4. The Center/Upper Loire

On the Map:
If you’re cartographically challenged like me, the fact that this area doesn’t appear to be in the “center” or “upper” as it relates to the overall Loire Valley, makes the name confusing. But fun wine fact: it refers to the position of this winemaking region (which includes all the yellow-and green-colored spots on the east of this map) in relation to the river itself. The Loire flows from the south to the north here, then takes a turn westerly around Orleans. This is the most inland of all the Loire sub-regions.

Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé are the most well-known appellations in this charming and mouth-watering wine region that offers whites and reds with real refinement and a freshness that lets the fruit speak. You won’t find many big oaky wines here.

Star Grapes:
Sauvignon blanc (white) in the Upper Loire and especially from the appellations of Sancerre and Menetou-Salon, brings all the things we love about this grape (its pretty aromas, citrusy and herbal notes) in a lively and elegant expression. These wines are very, very different from a sauvignon blanc produced in a hotter region where flavors are more ripe and rich.

Another sauvignon blanc to try is the flintier Pouilly Fumé appellation (fumé means “smoked” and refers to that flinty quality that can be noted in the wines).

Pinot noir (red) is produced in the Center/Upper Loire in a lighter-style that makes a fantastic partner to roasted meats, pot au feu, roasted turkey, duck, and chicken. If you love pinot noir but don’t care to spend the money on a fancier wine from the Bourgogne, check out a Sancerre rouge (a red Sancerre)—one of my favorites.

Wine Personality:
That friend who is timelessly chic and always welcome. Lighter-style and refined wines.

Perfect Pairings:
With the whites: grilled or sautéed seafood, goat cheese or Greek salad, vegetable or scallop risotto.
With the reds: an onion tart, lighter roasted meats like veal or pork, Thanksgiving dinner (!), or a sweet Sunday picnic of cold fried chicken.


 

Scroll down for specific wine recommendations and leave a comment!

 


Some recent Loire Valley favorites from the cellar at our weekend house in the French countryside

And Now…Some Wine Suggestions for When You’re Shopping

Here are just a few ideas to inspire you. My best advice is to go right into your favorite wine shop and say:

I’d like to get to know the wines of the Loire Valley. What can you recommend?” and open up a conversation. Talking to wine people always ends with something good!

On that same note, if you’re in a French restaurant, open la carte des vins (the wine list) and look for the Loire Valley Region or for any of the grapes or appellations we’ve talked about here. Tell your sommelier you’re interested in these wines and see what happens.

Since I don’t know what your caviste has on offer, use these recommendations as a guideline and your local wine expert will help you find a great option.

Let me know how it goes (or any questions you might have) in the comments below.

Sparkling — For a brunch or picnic or apéro, bring something unexpected and lovely:

White — Seafood dinner:

Rosé — Not at all Provençal:

Red — For lighter fare and an elegant dinner:

Red — A crowd-pleaser of medium body and easy tannins:

 


Bon ben, friends, we did it!

Let me know if you found this article helpful and if you love (or want to try) the wines of the Loire Valley.

Santé les amis !


SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER


About the Contributor

Karen Bussen

Love led me from New York to Paris, where I live and write about food, wine, my French language journey and exploring l’hexagone with my husband. WSET level 3 in Wines & Spirits. DALF C1 diplôme en langue française. For more, find me on Substack: https://karenbussen.substack.com/

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

3 Comments

  1. Betty Carlson Jul 6, 2024 at 11:11 PM - Reply

    This second in your series is very helpful. I took 10 years of wine-tasting classes early on when I moved to France, but got lost in all of the technical details and eventually forgot quite a bit of the information. This is a good refresher course. My personal favorites are the wine from the “Center/Upper Loire” — but I wouldn’t have been able to put that geographical name on them.

    • Karen Bussen Jul 7, 2024 at 2:03 AM - Reply

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! It means a lot to know you found it helpful. We’ll continue the series with another great French winemaking region 🙂

  2. Kim Baker-Brindel Jul 8, 2024 at 8:00 PM - Reply

    Bonjour Karen
    As an ex-NYer who has made her life in the Loire Valley for well over 20 years, I HEAR YOU! Loire Valley wines were an unsung hero for so long and are now properly appreciated for their distinct and varied personalities. While Burgundy and Bordeaux wines have over-priced themselves, Loire Valley wines remain intelligent, divers, tasteful and affordable. Bravo to our newer generation of winemakers as well who are championing biodynamic and alternative methods while respecting the personality and the affordability of quality wine from this region. Back in NYC I cringe at $15 for a glass of wine when here we can enjoy for $15/20 a bottle, a delicious and reputable chenin. La vie est belle ici en Touraine!

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.