In this advanced guide we’ll explore the wines of the Loire Valley of France–from Muscadet to Sancerre. Figure out where to look to your next bottle of Loire.
The Loire Valley Wine Guide
The Loire Valley is home to over 4000 wineries that produce a dizzying array of elegant, quality wines. There are racy whites, refreshing rosés, reds that favor fruit over force, and sumptuous sweet and sparkling wines that even rival neighboring Champagne. It is here in the “Garden of France” that you can revel in beautiful summer days, stunning chateaux and several of France’s most underrated wines.
Vineyards of the Loire Valley lay on both sides of the 634 mile (1015 km) river (the longest in France)–hugging the banks, perched on nearby hillsides or in sheltered pockets along the many tributaries.
You’ll find the Loire River Valley situated about 2 hours drive south of Paris. The region is next to many of France’s most famous drink regions: it’s directly north of Cognac, south of Normandy (cider!), and west of Burgundy. The Loire, as a whole, is very diverse in wine styles, in climate, in geography and in geology and, for this reason, it can be divided into 3 primary growing areas:
A Lil’ History of the Loire ValleyLike most of the vineyards of France, we can thank the Romans for getting things started. When they conquered Gaul in the 1st Century AD, they recognized the climate and soil were perfect for vines and that the river made a convenient “roadway” to move goods throughout the empire.
By the Middle Ages, the Loire was at the heart of France. Midpoint between the more Latin south and the Germanic north, this is where culture and language met. Monks of the Catholic Church tended the vineyards and the wines gained in popularity, especially with the English and the Dutch.
The French aristocracy made the Loire a “summer retreat” in the 15th–17th centuries, building lavish chateaux and further popularizing the local wines.
The French Revolution caused big changes in 1789. Building the National Railroad brought both cheaper wines from the south and more exotic selections from Burgundy and Bordeaux, leaving the Loire behind. While the Loire was one of the last regions to be affected by phylloxera in France, it was also one of the last to recover…
But all was not lost. When the Appellation d’Origin Contrôlée was introduced in 1935 (the system for quality wines in France), the Loire Valley became recognized as a region of quality. Today it has 69 AOP’s (official designations) which make up 75% of the wine production.
Lower Loire Valley
The Pays Nantais is all about white wines–the bracing, citrusy, sea-spray-in-your-face type of white wines,– that scream for fresh oysters.
The Pays Nantais is all about white wines
Landscape: The majority of the vineyards are found on the flat, south facing banks of the Loire, Sèvre and Maine rivers. The Atlantic Ocean is very close, from 6–60 miles (10–96 km) to the west, so the climate is maritime with cold, damp, stormy winters, cool cloudy springs, warm humid summers and often blustery falls. Sounds a bit like Seattle, WA.
Soil: The soils in Pays Nantais are predominantly volcanic (igneous) with top-soils of porous gneiss (granite-like rock). So, this means vineyards have good drainage, which is ideal for the wet climate.
Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet): not related to the Muscat family, originally from Burgundy
Folle Blanche: only found in Gros Plant de Pays Nantais AOP
Pinot Gris: a minor blending grape
Lower Loire (Pays Nantais) Appellations
- Muscadet AOP
- Muscadet AOP is the largest appellation (in terms of size) in the Loire. All the wines are dry, crafted from Muscadet. Expect these wines to be generally inexpensive and best enjoyed when young and fresh. Most would call basic Muscadet a simple “quaffing” wine, and you’ll find nearly all are consumed locally or at bistros in Paris where they’re the perfect companion to seafood and shellfish. Muscadet is lean, minerally and lacking fruit save for subtle pink grapefruit pith and white pepper.
- Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine AOP
- 70-80% of the wines of Pays Nantais are labeled with Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine AOP (“Muscadet of the Sèvre and Maine Rivers”). The region is just southeast of the city of Nantes . Many producers age their Muscadet wines on their lees–“sur lie,”– to give them a rounder, more supple mouth feel, and a delightful spritzy taste. To age a wine on the lees is to refrain from filtering the wine after fermentation and stir up the dead yeast particles as the wine ages. Wines will develop a creamier texture but also often more yeasty, secondary notes of cheese or beer. There are several sub-appellations that are worth investigating if you love the lean, saline character of Muscadet:.
- Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Clisson AOP: Granitic gravel soils lend dried fruit notes
- Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Gorges AOP: Soil types of clay, quartz and gabross (course grained volcanic rock) give wines minerality and smoke.
- Muscadet Sèvre et Main le Pellet AOP: Soil types of gneiss and gabross bring out floral aromas.
- Muscadet Côte de Grandlieu AOP: Wines are known for their more perfumed character.
- Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire AOP: Wines are known for their more flinty notes.
- Gros Plant de Pays Nantais AOP
- The only region to create white wine from Folle Blanche (aka Gros Plant). Folle Blanche is famous as the grape used for distillation into Armagnac and Cognac. In the Pays Nantais, Folle Blanche is called Gros Plant and reveals a crisp, light white wine brimming with subtle nuances of gold apple, citrus, and yellow pear. The best Folle Blanche vineyards are very close to the Sèvre and Maine rivers on sandy, gravel soils.
- Coteaux d’Ancenis AOP
- This appellation offers a bit of the only red and rosé wine to be found in this part of the Loire. The reds and rosé wines are fruity, dry and made with Gamay and Cabernet Franc. The Coteaux d’Ancenis AOP also fashions dry to slightly sweet whites from Pinot Gris (here, they call it Malvoisie “mal-vwah-szee”).
- Fiefs Vendéens AOP
- South of Nantes and close to the ocean you’ll find a few small parcels that comprise Fiefs Vendeens AOP which is a bit of an adventure off the beaten track of the Loire Valley proper. Look for refreshing dry whites from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Melon du Bourgogne, plus off-dry rosé and lighter reds of Gamay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Grolleau.
Middle Loire Valley
Anjou, Saumur and Touraine
The vineyards surrounding the towns of Angers and Tours lie in some of the most elegantly breathtaking scenery in all of France. This is where Chenin Blanc reaches its zenith (mind-blowingly awesome), where sparkling wines rule, and where Cabernet Franc takes center stage.
Landscape: The blustery and damp maritime weather is tempered as you move inland. The seasons are more defined and the climate is more hospitable.
Soil: The soil types are as numerous as the varieties of grapes. There are 4 main sub-regions:
- Anjou: around the city of Angers
- Layon: a sweet wine region located along the Layon river encompassed by Anjou
- Touraine: Around the city of Tours
White Wine Varieties
Chenin Blanc: also known as Pineau de la Loire–it’s the principal white grape
Chardonnay Cool climate styles are typically zesty and unoaked
Arbois: indigenous to the Loire
Romorantin: indigenous to the Loire and found only in Cour-Cheverny AOP
Red Wine Varieties
Cabernet Franc: native to the Basque region, it flourishes in the Loire where it’s called Breton. The main red grape.
Pineau d’Aunis: indigenous to the Loire
Malbec: referred to as “Côt” in the Loire
Grolleau: indigenous to the Loire, makes great off-dry Anjou rosé
Middle Loire (Anjou, Saumur and Touraine) Appellations
If Anjou were known for one wine style it would have to be Rosé. Rosé wines account for half of the regions production. Here’s what’s to know when looking for a bottle of Anjou rosé:
- Rosé de Loire AOP: is dry in style, made from Cabernet Franc and Grolleau from throughout the Loire Valley.
- Rosé de Anjou AOP: is slightly sweeter and known for aromas of roses, red berries and banana. It’s made primarily with native Grolleau grapes (a grape definitely worth seeking out if you’re a wine geek).
- Cabernet d’Anjou AOP: ranges from off-dry to sweet and made with both Cabernet (Franc and Sauvignon) varieties.
Beyond rosé wine there are several regional appellations to know for red and white wines:
- Anjou Blanc AOP: predominantly dry to off-dry Chenin Blanc.
- Anjou Rouge AOP: simple fruity/earthy reds made with Cabernet Franc/Sauvignon.
- Anjou Village AOP/Anjou Village Brissac AOP: The best parcels inside Anjou of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon
- Anjou Gamay AOP: light, fruity, early drinking reds
- Savennières AOP
- Renowned for producing some of the most age-worthy Chenin Blanc wine in France, if not the world. Vineyards are close to the right bank of the river or nearby on soft, sheltered slopes. The slate, schist and clay soils give the wine structure, balanced acidity and minerality combined with concentrated flavors reminiscent of white linden flowers, anise, pear, candied lemon drops and hazelnuts. The wines are produced in an oxidative style, making them taste very different (more nutty, less fresh and fruity) than other Chenin Blanc from the region. Also, inside Savennières are two smaller, special climats (i.e. official named vineyard plots):
- Anjou Côteaux de la Loire AOP
- Sweet wines shine in many of the Anjou appellations. All are crafted from Chenin Blanc and some are influenced by Botrytis cinerea or “noble rot” lending a sensual honeyed, nutty nuance to the nectar. Anjou Côteaux de la Loire AOP is the overall regional designation for sweet wines and there are a group of select vineyards found in the Layon area which include:
- Bonnezeaux AOP – a 17.5 acres (7 ha) biodynamic monopole owned by Nicholas Joly
- Chaume AOP (a premier cru) 82.5 acres (33.4 ha) on steep, schist (decomposing granite) slopes.
- Coteaux du Layon AOP: Sometimes labeled with a village name as well
- Coteaux de L’Aubance AOP
- Quarts de Chaume AOP: Wines are labeled Grand Cru and must have a minimum of 85 g/l or 8.5% residual sugar–the highest of any non-fortified sweet wine in France!
- Anjou Mousseux AOP
- Let’s not forget bubbles! You’ll find value and character in a bottle of Anjou Mousseux AOP. Blanc de Blanc are made from Chenin Blanc, with aromas of peach, apricot and honeysuckle while the Blanc de Noir (rosé) show the strawberry quality of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvingnon and other sanctioned red grapes.
- Crémant de la Loire AOP
- Slightly higher up the scale is Crémant de la Loire AOP -. Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay for the white version and similar red varieties as Anjou Mousseux for the rosé. Crémant is often aged on the lees, adding complexity to the wine, and is bottled under higher pressure resulting in more bubbles than Mousseux.
- Crémant de la Loire AOP
- Produced here, just as in Anjou
- Saumur Mousseux AOP
- The region really shines with its Saumur Mousseux AOP–also known as Saumur Brut. Chenin Blanc based with perhaps a little Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay and with flavors of fresh stone fruit, nutty almonds and a whiff of vanilla.
- Saumur Mousseux Rosé AOP
- Made with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Côt, Gamay, Grolleau and Pineau d’Aunis and brimming with bright berries and soft stone fruits
- Saumur Blanc AOP
- Dry Chenin Blanc-based whites come from the 20 communes.
- Saumur Rouge AOP
- Spicy Cabernet Franc-based reds from make for easy drinking.
- Saumur-Champigny AOP: A special, warm, micro-climate found on the chalky slopes near the city of Saumur form this wine (the name is derived from the Latin ‘igni’ which means ‘field of fire’). Many claim these earthy spice Cabernet Franc-based reds, with silky tannins and notes of violet, are the best in the Loire.
- Cabernet de Saumur AOP
- Rosé is dry and medium bodied.
- Coteaux de Saumur AOP
- Renowned for sweet, late harvest wines of Chenin Blanc.
- Touraine AOP
The region-wide appellation of Touraine. Whites are a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, while reds feature Cabernet Franc and Malbec (aka Côt), often with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay and Pinot Noir. Dry Rosé is created with the same varieties, but may also contain Gamay, Grolleau, Meunier Noir, Pineau d’Aunis, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir.
Inside this AOP are several special zones that are allowed to add their village name:
- Touraine Mesland AOP:The first region to plant Gamay in 1838 and today produces rosé with notes of ripe raspberry and earthy red currant.
- Touraine Amboise AOP: Known for plummy, brambly reds, medium-bodied Chenin Blanc white wines (grown on smoky, flinty clay and limestone soils) and vibrant, dry rosé.
- Touraine Chenonceaux AOP:
- Touraine Oisly AOP:
- Touraine Noble-Joué AOP: Recently declared in 2001. Found just south of Tours, Touraine Noble-Joué was once famous for vin gris (a pale rosé wine) since the time of King Louis XI (who was a big fan!). The region suffered problems in the past (phylloxera, urban sprawl) but is now enjoying a revival. Currently 6 producers are making vin gris of Pinot Noir, Pinot Munier and Pinot Gris–all brimming with cherry and strawberry aromas, and lots of finesse.
- Touraine Mousseux AOP
- Sparkling white wines with Chenin Blanc and red and rosé mainly with Gamay and Cabernet Franc.
- Touraine Pétillant AOP
- Sparkling white wines with Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and red and rosé mainly with Gamay and Cabernet Franc.
- Vouvray Pétillant AOP/Vouvray Mousseux AOP
- The only sparkling wines in the Loire required to be aged a minimum of 12 months prior to release, including at least 10 months on the lees (most producers cellar wines for longer). This requirement makes this appellation comparable to Champagne, but at much lower prices.
- Vouvray AOP
- Famous for these amazing interpretations of Chenin Blanc in an array of styles. The grapes are grown on the distinctive, tuffeau limestone soils, creating intensely fruity still wines, ranging from dry to sweet, and high quality sparkling wines. You’ll find information on the labels to indicated sweetness levels. Sec is the driest (0 – 0.4% residual sugar), followed by Demi-Sec (0.4 – 1.2%) plus two levels of sinfully luxurious dessert wines – Moelleux (1.2-4.5%) and Doux (over 4.5%).
- Montlouis-sur-Loire AOP
- Another lessor known region making Chenin Blanc in a similar style as Vouvray and planted on the same tuffeau soils. The wines are crafted dry to sweet and have an earthier, more mineral quality compared to Vouvray. Montlouis-sur-Loire Pétillant need only be aged for 9 months, while Montlouis-sur-Loire Mousseux has no aging requirement.
- Bourgueil AOP
- Instantly recognizable Cabernet Franc wines known for their aromas of graphite (think pencil shavings), strawberry and raspberry. Here, the Cabernet Franc is grown in a mix of sandy gravel (more fruit/floral) and limestone (more spice) making for medium-bodied reds and structured rosé wines.
- St. Nicholas de Bougueil AOP:Yielding Cabernet Franc reds and roses with lighter aromatics that are easy going and reveal lots of red fruit when young. Legend says this variety was originally planted here by Cardinal Richelieu.
- Orléans-Cléry AOP
- Cabernet Franc with more spice and plummy dark fruit.
- Chinon AOP
- Featuring a mixture of soils, including tuffeau, which is great for both Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc (aka Breton), giving both varieties wonderful aging ability. Reds and rosés are light- to medium-bodied and although paler in color, they have deep, dark, spicy fruit character.
- Cheverny AOP
- The mixed soils (sand, clay, gravel and limestone) of Cheverny AOP produce white wines from mainly Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris and reds from Pinot Noir and Gamay. Here, the wine laws are a little different (there’s always an odd one in the bunch). Instead of regulating the percentages of grapes that go into the blend, here it’s the percentage of each grape planted in the vineyard.
- Cour-Cheverny AOP: Inside the Cheverny appellation is the only region to craft wines from the indigenous Romorantin grape. Think citrus, beeswax and honey. Wines are made off-dry on excellent vintages.
- Haut-Poitou AOP
- To the south, Haut-Poutou received AOP recognition in 2011. Whites show the more tropical and exotic side of Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes blended with a little Sauvignon Gris. Definitely worth looking into if you like a richer, fuller style. There are also peppery rosé and red wines, showing notes of black fruits and berries with Cabernet Franc and some Gamay and Pinot Noir.
- Valençay AOP
- This area is more influenced by the River Cher than the Loire River. Thus, whites (of Sauvignon Blanc) are refreshing. You can also find very light-bodied rosés and reds dominated by Gamay and Cabernet Franc.
- Orléans AOP
- Surrounding the city of the same name on the eastern edge of the Middle Loire. Here, the grape varieties begin to change. Chardonnay is the main white variety, referred to as Auvernat Blanc by the locals. They also have different names for the two main red grapes used for rose and red: Auvernat Noir is Pinot Noir and Pinot Munier is called Gris Meunier.
- Coteaux de Loir AOP
- Known for extremely floral whites of Chenin Blanc as well as light-bodied red and rosé made from Pineau d’Aunis with touches of Cabernet Franc, Mablec (Côt) and Gamay.
- Coteaux du Vendômois AOC
- Similar reds to Coteaux de Loir and Rosé wines are 100% Pineau d’Aunis (aka Chenin Noir)
- Jasniéres AOP
- Produces only 100% Chenin Blanc – dry and angular with amazingly good aging ability.
- Terre Blanche is a mix of clay, Kimmeridgian limestone, and oyster shells, creating wines that are fruity, ageable, and angular with high acidity
- Caillotes features small pebbles of Oxfordian limestone and yields wines with delicate perfume and less structure than Terre Blanche.
- Silex, or flint, lends a smoky, gunflint quality to the grapes
- Sancerre AOP
- Sancerre AOP is on the eastern edge of the Loire Valley. Here, grapes are planted in all three soil types and, when blended together, create the benchmark for Sauvignon Blanc – racy, refreshing with zippy citrus, lemongrass, gooseberry and chalky minerality. Often overshadowed, the red wines of Sancerre are elegant expressions of Pinot Noir – fresh and easy drinking with bright, high-acid cherry and plum aromas.
- Pouilly-Fume AOP
- Further south, on the right bank of the river, are the vineyards of Pouilly-Fume AOP. Sauvingon Blanc is the only sanctioned grape and the region owes its name to the “smoky” attributes wines have from being grown on silex (flint) soils. These wines are often blended with the fruitier and lighter Sauvignon Blanc which is grown on Caillote soil (sandy, pebbly soil) as well as deeper and creamier Sauvignon Blanc planted on clay (Terre Blanche).
- Pouilly-sur-Loire AOP is strictly for white wines made primarily with the obscure Chasselas grape (often blended with a hint of Sauvignon Blanc.)
- Côteaux du Giennois AOP
- Côteaux du Giennois AOP, northeast of Sancerre, receives the most rainfall in the area. Here, Sauvignon Blanc crafts crisp, minerally white wines, filled with quince and white flowers. Gamay and Pinot Noir blend to produce medium-bodied reds with peppery blackberry and plum and rosés that remind you of tart red fruit and soft peaches.
- Menetou-Salon AOP
- Southwest of Sancerre is Menetou-Salon AOP. The white wines are vibrant with a distinctive aroma of dried chamomile flowers, while the rosé and red Pinot Noir wines are medium-bodied with notes of cherry, plum and candied fruits.
- Quincy AOP
- Quincy AOP was the second region in France to be granted status in the 1930’s, after Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Vineyards are planted on terraces of Kimmeridgian limesone, with sand and silt, above the Cher River. Expressions of melon, pear, grapefruit, minerals and minty herbs are indicative of this AOP.
- Reuilly AOP
- Neighboring Reuilly AOP is one of the hottest and driest parts of the Loire Valley. Chalk and limestone soils lend a crisp citrus, cut grass and mineral quality to Sauvingon Blanc while Pinot Noir creates red and rosé wines with light fresh acidity, red cherry fruit and minerality.
- Sainte-Pourçain AOP
- Further south and higher in elevation are several lesser-known AOP’s. Sainte-Pourçain AOP encompasses 19 communes on the Allier River, 90 miles south of Sancerre. Chardonnay and Sacy or Sauvignon Blanc create fruity, grassy and spicy whites, while rosé is crafted from 100% juicy Gamay. Pinot Noir is blended with Gamay resulting in reds that are fresh and light with ripe red fruit notes.
- Châteaumeillant AOP
- One of the newest regions, (officially recognized in 2011) Châteaumeillant AOP is located in the foothills of the Massif Central, making it the most central vineyard in France. It’s also the coolest and smallest AOP of the Loire! Soils of sandstone, mica shist and clay silica dominate as do red varietals Gamay and Pinot Noir. Wines are brimming with bright berry flavors and a peppery finish, while rosé, with the addition of Pinot Gris, show notes of peach nectarine mingled with red fruits.
- Côte Roannaise AOP
- Côte Roannaise AOP creates fruity off-dry rosé and sippable reds from 100% Gamay, as does Côtes du Forez AOP which is right next door and has, officially, the most southerly vineyards of the Loire.
- Côtes d’Auvergne AOP
- Another more recent addition is Côtes d’Auvergne AOP (2011). The volcanic slopes along the Allier River are a mix of clay and limestone, home to Chardonnay that is bright with apple and citrus character. Gamay and Pinot Noir produce medium-bodied wines with lots of red fruit aromas.
Saumur is sparkling wine country. Vineyards planted on limestone soils give the grapes the bright acidity they need to make outstanding sparkling wines. This is the Loire’s biggest producer of bubbles – partly due to the geographical size of the region and the rules governing yield. Under the vineyards lie miles and miles of tunnels and caves, carved from the limestone – the perfect place to age these delicious, bright bubblies.
“Saumur is sparkling wine country.”
Saumur isn’t all bubbles, the regions red and white wines are growing in popularity in the US and beyond.
Most of the vineyards are found to the south of the city of Tours, planted on the slopes of the Loire and Cher rivers. Soils range from chalk, sand, gravel, clay and limestone pebbles but the most notable is tuffeau, a pourous limestone soil that contributes to the zesty acidity found in the grapes of Touraine.
North of the Loire you’ll find three regions along the right and left banks of the Loir (no “e”!) River.
Upper Loire Valley
The Upper (or Central/Centre) Loire is the smallest region, but it’s home to the most famous Loire appellations–Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. The Sauvignon Blanc from these two areas are emulated throughout the wine world.
In many ways, this area has more in common with the Burgundy region of Chablis, ( only 70 miles/125 km to the east), than with the rest of the Loire Valley. The climate is what can be called semi-continental with big differences in the daytime and nighttime temperatures (the diurnal swing). Frost is always a concern during spring and fog engulfs the valley in the fall.
Centre is closest to the source of the Loire River in the Massif Central Mountains and the majority of the vineyards are found along the river where they take advantage of its temperature moderating influence. The soils vary quite a bit with three distinct soil types, all found atop a base of Kimmeridgian Limestone, (the same as Chablis, parts of Champagne, and the white cliffs of Dover).
White Wine Varieties
Sauvignon Blanc: aka Blanc Fumé (smokey white)
Chasselas: historic grape of the region
Pinot Gris: indigenous to the Loire
Sacy: aka Tressailier
Red Wine Varieties
Wine Map of the Loire Valley
A 12×16 wine map print of all the appellations in the Loire Valley. Designed to be used; printed on spill-resistant paper.
Loire Valley Wine Poster