Loire Valley Wine Guide

The 600-mile stretch of the Loire River valley and its tributaries make up one of France’s top wine regions. Get to know the wines (from Muscadet to Sancerre) in the Loire Valley Wine Guide.

Loire-Valley-Wine-Guide-Wine-Folly

In this guide, explore the grapes, wine appellations, history, culture, and climate of this diverse region. In truth, the Loire Valley feels quite varied from the foothills of the Massif Central to the hip Port city of Nantes. And, as you might imagine, the wines vary too!

  • Explore the many subregions of the Loire and learn their wine specialty.
  • Understand how terrain and climate affect wines from each of the 4 major regions.
  • Get a peak into the ethos that drives current Loire wine trends.
  • See what’s exciting in Loire Valley wines and try them for yourself!

Loire-Valley-Map-2020-Illustration-WineFolly
The Loire can be divided into 4 main areas.

Loire Valley Wine Regions

  1. Lower Lower: A maritime region called Pays Nantais (“Nantes Country”).
  2. Middle Loire: The vineyards in Anjou, Saumur, and Touraine (the “Garden of France”).
  3. Centre Loire: The Centre-Loire vineyards which include Sancerre that flank Burgundy.
  4. Upper Loire: Containing Auvergne and surrounding vineyards.

The Major Grapes

The classification systems in the Loire Valley dictate what grapes are planted here. Of course, many winegrowers are adopting practices to optimize growth and longevity in their vineyards, molding the landscape of what the Loire is becoming today. Still, there are a few major grapes that dominate the vineyards here.

Chenin Blanc

Most famously known in Savennières, Anjou, Saumur, Touraine, Vourvray, Montlouis, and Jasnières.

Light to full body, the tension of Chenin coupled with its juicy and tannic structure makes it hard to resist. Chenin, otherwise known as Plant d’Anjou, is the darling of the Loire because of how versatile it is. Made in every single style (dry, sweet, and sparkling), it also pairs with most every food because of its high level of acidity.

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Expect aromas of soft baked golden apples with undertones of quince, dried flower, and beeswax with an element of crisp minerality. For the experienced taster, wet wool is a blind giveaway of Chenin… and when grapes are affected with botrytis, expect a honeyed ginger note.

Cabernet Franc

Most famously known in Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and Bourgeuil.

Cab Franc ranges as expansively as Chenin. It runs the gamut between light to medium-bodied with a fresh tang of acidity. The savory character of Cabernet Franc pushes forward as well as red fruits, pencil shavings, and cedar notes.

Cabernet Franc is also known as “Breton” in the Loire and origins point to anywhere from Bordeaux to Spanish Basque country. Southwesterly origins, in any case. This cool climate loving grape is at its happiest growing on limestone soils.

Sauvignon Blanc

Most famously known in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.

If the the Loire was Instagram, its biggest Sauvignon Blanc “influencer” would be Sancerre. It’s a benchmark worldwide for this grape. Perhaps that’s because it’s native to the eastern Loire where Sauvignon Blanc also called Sauvignon Fumé or Fumé Blanc. Generally, Sauvignon blanc thrives in the cool continental climate of Centre-Loire.

Expect flavors of green apple and mirabelle plum with herbal and floral undertones that stand well against its sometimes flinty and sometimes smoky minerality.

Aerial Photo of Chateau de Goulaine vineyards in Loire Valley
Chateau de Goulaine (est. 1000 AD!) still grows Melon for their Muscadet regional wines.

Melon de Bourgogne

Most famously known in Muscadet Sèvre et Maine.

Have you ever smelled the sea in your wine glass? Melon de Bourgogne, or just “Melon,” exudes the sea-like qualities of its maritime vineyards in Pays Nantais, where its commonly known as “Muscadet,” which is the name of the regions where it grows. The briny citrus minerality on an often fattened-up or creamy lees aged frame lends itself to a quaffable “glou-glou” experience.

The grape is very much experiencing a rebirth as people are getting into more subtle things.

Gamay

Most famously known in Saint-Pourçain, Cotes du Forez, Cotes d’Auvergne, and Cote Roannaise.

Hailing from Bourgogne and the primary grape of Beaujolais, Gamay has a strong presence in the Loire and rightfully so. Growing conditions in the cooler eastern section coupled with the granitic soils of the Loire resemble that of Beaujolais. Gamay is one of the light-bodied reds (similar to Pinot Noir) with gentle tannins. a vivid presence of acid, and floral fruity notes.

Others to Know

  • Romarantin This grape grows only in the minuscule appellation of Cour-Cheverny in Touraine. Think dry Chenin with honey undertones. If you see a bottle of this, don’t hesitiate!
  • Chasselas An easy drinking varietal that surprises you with friendly balance of subtle fruit and chalky minerality.
  • Grolleau Noir An acid-forward Loire native who packs less of a punch and is well known as a blender with others, especially reds, rosés, and sparklings.
  • Pineau d’Aunis A blending grape who’s spicy-yet-mineral red fruit personality has a passionate following in the Loir Valley (not misspelled, “Loir” is a tributary!), specifically Coteaux du Vendomois and Coteaux du Loir.

Lower Loire Valley Wine Map by Wine Folly

Lower Loire Pays Nantais Vineyards

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. This is white wine country.

The Terrain: 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. (Sounding a bit like Seattle, Washington!)

The Soils: Pays Nantais vines grow upon Massif Armorican schist, mica schist, gneiss (metamorphic granite), granite sands, gabbro (intrusive igneous rock), amphibolite bedrock with sandy, stony soils and are predominantly on the left bank of the Loire. These soils are well-drained which is important for vines to survive in this wet climate.

By the way, grapes grown on well-drained, rocky-sandy soils tend to produce wines with high minerality, lighter-than-average body, and bolder aromatics.

Lower Lower Pays Nantais Wine Grapes by Wine Folly

Wine Varieties

  • Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet): Not related to the Muscat family although a distant cousin of Chardonny! It was originally brought from Burgundy to replant after a cold frost in 1709 killed a great number of Loire vineyards.
  • Folle Blanche: Used in wines labeled with the “Gros Plant de Pays Nantais” appellation.
  • Pinot Gris: Used in Coteaux d’Ancenis Malvoisie a sweet white wine.

Lower Loire Appellations

Muscadet AOP
The largest appellation (in terms of sheer size) in the Loire Valley contains several more focused regions. Wines labeled with Muscadet AOP are all crafted of Melon and best enjoyed young and fresh. Muscadet AOP wines are lean, minerally, and lacking fruit – save for subtle pink grapefruit pith and white pepper notes.

All Muscadet region wines (save for Malvoisie – a sweet wine of Pinot Gris) age from 6 to 24 months on their lees – “sur lie,” – to give them a rounder and more supple mouth feel. 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 rests. Wines taste creamier, but also often more of the yeasty, secondary aromas of cheese or beer.

Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine AOP
This region sits just southeast of Nantes and is thought to be one best appellations for Melon. The area has both sub-appellations and something called Cru Communaux or “communal crus” – growing zones that aren’t yet official appellations.

  • Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Clisson AOP: An official appellation with granitic gravel soils which lend rich wines with dried fruit notes. Wines are required to age 24–36 months on the lees.
  • Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Gorges AOP: Official appellation with clay, quartz, and gabbro (chunky volcanic rocks) with wines noted for minerality and smoky notes. They age anywhere from 24–40 months to fully develop.
  • Muscadet Sèvre et Main le Pallet AOP: An official appellation with gneiss and gabbro soils. These are more lean wines which age 18 months on the lees.
  • Goulaine: A Cru Communal named of the significant chateau in the area. Wines offer rich, ripe fruit notes and age on the lees for 20–30 months.
  • Château-Thébaud: Cru Communnaux with wines that have green fennel and anise aromas as well as salinity on the palate. Wines must age a long time on the lees, from 36–48 months.
  • Mouzillon-Tillières: A Cru Communal with tightly-wound Melon wines with noticeable bitterness.
  • Monnières-Saint Fiacre: Cru Communnaux that produces Melon with floral notes and subtle waxy character.
  • La Haye Foussière: A Cru Communal with very pebbly soils and wines with notable aromatics leaning towards menthol. Wines age at least 18 months.
  • Vallet: Cru Communnaux producing lean and floral wines which age at least 18 months on the lees.
  • Champtoceaux: A Cru Communal which is technically within Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire. Wines offer more fruit and age for at least 17 months on the lees.
Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire AOP
This is in the same area as Coteaux d’Ancenis AOP but this official appellation covers all the Melon-based dry wines in the area which are known to have flinty notes.
Muscadet Côte de Grandlieu AOP
A low region that’s closest to the Ocean. Wines are made of Melon and are very light, perfumed, dry, and lean.

Coteaux d’Ancenis AOP
The only red and rosé appellation found in this close to the coast. The reds use Gamay and Cabernet Franc and taste lean and floral. The surprise here is a tiny amount of Pinot Gris (here, they call it “Malvoisie”) which is made in a lightly sweet style.
Off-Beat: Fiefs Vendéens AOP
South of Nantes and close to the ocean a few small parcels make up Fiefs Vendeens AOP. It’s an adventure out of Loire Valley wine proper. Look for refreshing dry whites from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Melon, plus off-dry rosé and lighter reds of Gamay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Grolleau.

Middle Loire Valley Wine Map by Wine Folly

Middle Loire Anjou, Saumur & 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 (as in, mind-bendingly great), where sparkling wines rule, and where Cabernet Franc takes center stage.

The Terrain: The maritime weather is tempered as you move inland. The seasons and climate here feel more defined and hospitable. This particular part of the Loire is relatively flat is one of the warmest of the entire Loire Valley.

The Soils: There are a myriad of soils within the 5 sub-regions of the Middle Loire:

  • Anjou: Western spots show dark schist soils referred to as “Anjou Noir” which result in more powerful, structured wines. It’s impossible to dig, so the cellars are above ground. The eastern part shows oyster-flecked limestone known as “tuffeau blanc.” This stuff crumbles easily so there are lots of cellars great for sparkling winemaking.
  • Saumur: In the center of Anjou-Saumur lies Layon. It’s some of the best climate conditions in the world for “noble rot” (morning fog, Chenin Blanc, dry “foehn” winds) and thus Loire’s first Grand Cru sweet wine: Quarts de Chaume finds itself here.
  • Touraine: Touraine is located upon the Paris Basin and thus full of limestone (aka “Turonian tuffeau”) topped with flinty clay (“perruches”) or sand and gravel. Each of these soil types impart levels of “puissance,” structure and age-ability. Tuffeau is the most noble, followed by perruches and finally gravel.
  • Orleans: Limestone “tuffeau” with clay, sand, and gravel.
  • Loir Valley: More limestone “tuffeau” with clay, sand, and gravel.
Middle Loire Valley Wine Grape Varieties by Wine Folly
Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc dominate here.

Wine Varieties

  • Chenin Blanc: Sometimes referred to as “Pineau de la Loire”
  • Cabernet Franc: originating likely in the Basque region, it’s called “Breton” in the Loire
  • Others: Romorantin, Arbois (rare indigenous white grape), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay (mostly unoaked), Cabernet Sauvignon, Pineau d’Aunis (rare indigenous red grape), Malbec (aka “Côt”), Gamay, Grolleau Noir (a red), Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.

Anjou Wine Appellations

If Anjou were known for just one wine style, it would be rosé. Rosé accounts for half of the region’s production. Here are the main appellations for rosé used in Anjou:

Anjou Rosé

  • Rosé de Loire AOP: A dry rosé that typically uses Cabernet Franc and Grolleau with ripe red fruit aromas and a lean, zippy taste. This appellation can use grapes from all over the Loire.
  • Rosé d’Anjou AOP: A just off-dry style (barely sweet) with intensely fruity notes of strawberry, rose petals, and subtle spiciness of black pepper.
  • Cabernet d’Anjou AOP: A rosé! Using just Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon made in an off-dry style with candied fruit aromas of strawberry and red currant.

Anjou Red and White Wines

The Anjou region also produces some red and white wines:

  • Anjou Blanc AOP: A secret value spot for both dry and off-dry Chenin Blanc!
  • Anjou Rouge AOP: Simple, earthy red wines of Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc.
  • Anjou Village AOP/Anjou Villages- Brissac AOP: The best parcels inside Anjou of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Anjou Gamay AOP: An appellation specifically for Gamay making fresh and juicy red wines.

Future Loire Grand Cru for Dry Chenin Blanc? Savennières

Savennières is a unique Chenin Blanc area that has been vying for Grand Cru status for some time now. Any. Day. The region is unique in that the vineyards have traditionally been passed from mother to daughter. There are three Savennières appellations:

  • Savennières AOP Planted on five steep south facing hills. Some consider this to be best dry Chenin in the world. White lime flowers, anise, grapefruit and beeswax
  • Savennieres Roche aux Moines AOP Just 7 producers here on a steep schist slope which is hand-harvested.
  • Coulee de Serrant AOP This historic (12th Century!) renowned monopoly (single producer region–Nicolas Joly) and France’s only 100% biodynamic AOP. Dry, age-worthy Chenin that is harvested later than most other appellations in the region.

Anjou-Layon Sweet Wines

Sweet wines have historic repute in many of the Anjou appellations. All are crafted from Chenin Blanc and influenced by Botrytis cinerea or “noble rot” lending a rich, honeyed, and nutty nuance to these sweet nectars.

  • Anjou Côteaux de la Loire AOP: similar soil to Savennieres with lighter concentration of sweetness than other AOP’s on the Layon
  • Bonnezeaux AOP: exceptional noble rot Chenin Blanc wines that are comparable to Quarts de Chaume
  • Coteaux du Layon AOP: sometimes labeled with a village name as well
  • Coteaux de L’Aubance AOP lighter and more airy style of sweet wines when compared to those of Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume
  • Quarts de Chaume AOP: A “Grand Cru.” Wines must have a minimum of 85 g/l or 8.5% residual sugar (a little less than the sweetness of Coca Cola) but usually have much more than that!

Anjou Sparkling Wines

Whites of Chenin Blanc with aromas of nectarines and honeysuckle. Rosé bubbles include Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon with hints of fresh picked raspberries.

  • Anjou Mousseaux AOP: aka “Anjou Fines Bulles” predominantly white traditional sparkling method that covers wines from the areas of Anjou Blanc, Anjou Rouge, Cabernet d’Anjou and Rose d’Anjou.
  • Crémant de Loire AOP: This production area covers most of the Middle Loire. “Crémant” means producers use the traditional method and get considered more serious than that of Anjou Mousseaux.

Saumur Wine Appellations

Saumur is sparkling wine country. Vineyards planted on limestone soils give the grapes the bright acidity they need to make outstanding sparkling wines. Under the vineyards lie miles and miles of tunnels and caves- “troglodytes,” carved from the limestone – the perfect place to age these delicious, bright bubblies.

  • Coteaux de Saumur AOP: 100% Chenin Blanc that’s hand-harvested for vibrant, wines. Mostly known as a sweet wine although both sweet and dry styles exist.
  • Saumur Blanc AOP: Made into both still and sparkling styles. Vineyards are Turonian tuffeau (white chalky limestone).
  • Saumur Mousseux AOP: The lightly sparkling appellation in the area.
  • Saumur Rosé AOP: This region was formerly Cabernet de Saumur. Wines smell aromatic and taste mostly dry coming from sandy-clay soils..
  • Saumur Rouge AOP: Originally, Cabernet Franc was meant to be used in Saumur Brut sparkling wines, but this appellation has proven to make dry reds as well.
  • Saumur-Champigny AOP A region that’s mostly Cabernet Franc since the 1800s planted on sandy-chalky soils.
  • Saumur Puy-Notre-Dame AOP The highest elevation of all Saumur appellations and considered a golden child of Saumur’s red wines.

central-centre-loire-valley-wine-map-illustration-winefolly

Central Loire Centre-Loire Vineyards

Home to the most recognizable wine region in the Loire Valley–Sancerre,– known for its benchmark Sauvignon Blanc. The Centre-Loire surrounds the exact center point of France! Since this area is geographically closer to the Burgundy wine region (known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), you’ll see some overlap here.

The Terrain: Situated between three rivers- the Loire, the Cher, and the Indre- this far-eastern region is continental (warm balmy summers and cold, snowy winters) with very little Atlantic Ocean influence.

The Soils: Part of the Paris Basin, Centre-Loire has chalky limestone subsoils consistent with the ancient seas that were once located there, as evidenced by fossilized oyster shells you find beneath the vines.

  • Terres blanches (aka Kimmeridgian): Marl (clay) limestone that is slow to warm. This lends to richness and texture in wines.
  • Caillottes (Portlandian limestone): aka “Oxfordian” limestone which is stony and quick to warm which results in lean, early-maturing wines with vibrant notes of stone fruit.
  • Silex (Flint): Rocky with flint and clay, this soils is slow to warm and gives white wines a reductive character (smells like smoke and gunflint) to pretty flowers and minerality when the wines open up!
  • Sables (Sands): Well-draining soils that make lightly-colored, fruity red and rosé wines.

Upper Loire Valley Wine Grapes by Wine Folly

Wine Varieties

  • Sauvignon Blanc: Arguably the most important variety in this region that is emulated worldwide.
  • Pinot Noir: Due to the proximity and influence of Burgundy Pinot Noir is increasingly important here.
  • Chasselas: A rare, Swiss native that pops up in bottlings from the tiny Pouilly-sur-Loire appellation.
  • Others: Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Gris, and Gamay

Centre-Loire Appellations

  • Sancerre AOP: With centuries old repute, this appellation has long defined Sauvignon Blanc. Originally planted entirely with Chasselas until the phylloxera pandemic impact shifted the focus to exclusively Sauvignon Blanc for white wines in 1931. Pinot Noir also makes an appearance in both red and rosé from Sancerre – vibrant acidity, tart cherries, and earthy styled Pinot.
  • Pouilly-Fumé AOP: (aka Blanc Fumé de Pouilly) nearly identical soil profile to Sancerre with some of the most distinctive notes of gunflint and smoke (fumé) in the area.
  • Pouilly-sur-Loire AOP: The only appellation in the Loire where you will find Chasselas, an underrated variety with subtle notes of fresh daisies and dried apricot.
  • Quincy AOP: One of the most historic AOPs in the Loire as the very first Loire region to be named AOC in 1936. (making it the second oldest AOC in France behind Châteauneuf du Pape!) It’s east-facing plateau of chalk grows exclusively white grapes (Sauvignon Blanc with some Sauvignon Gris).
  • Reuilly AOP: One of the driest areas of the Centre, this AOP produces a range of refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and peppery Pinot Noir on limestone slopes facing south-southeast.
  • Menetou-Salon AOP: Sancerre’s “cheaper twin,” or “sister.” (Take your pick.) Flatter terrain of Kimmeridgian limestone (that white chalky stuff) beneath brown clay-rich marl produces whites with a bit of menthol, aromatic floral and silky reds and cotton-candy pink rosé wines.
  • Coteaux du Giennois AOP: Kimmeridgian limestone with some flint (rocks) produces bright, lean, minerally whites of Sauvignon Blanc and red/rosé wines with Pinot Noir and Gamay.
  • Châteaumeillant AOP: Surprise surprise! This appellation is mostly Gamay (~75%) with a bit of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Expect ripe, juicy wines with a touch of that Gamay bitter-green tannin.

upper-loire-wine-map-illustration-winefolly

Upper Loire “Auvergne” Vineyards

The oft-overlooked fourth sub-region of the Loire, the Upper Loire or “Auvergne,” and its hefty historical relevance in France (a 14th Century rival of Beaune!) is one with immense potential. These appellations are very much worth experiencing… if you can track them down!

The Terrain: Considered the most obscure region of the Loire at its most southernmost point (which is the actual geographic center of France!) with slopes predominantly western facing and climate that ranges between warm(ish) Rhone Valley temps (such as Côte du Forez) and high altitude extremes.

The Soils: Located atop over 500 extinct volcanoes and granitic soils of the Massif Central. Chalky clay, terraces of sand and gravel and rocks of granite and gneiss make up the subsoils of the Upper Loire.

Wine Varieties

  • Gamay: If you are a lover of Beaujolais, you will adore these. Of Burgundian origin.
  • Sacy (Tressalier–a rare white): Brings “vivacity.”
  • Pinot Noir: “Auvernat” means Pinot Noir… subsequently this variety grows VERY well here
  • Others: Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc

Upper Loire Appellations

  • Saint-Pourçain AOP: also known as “Limagne” (the name of the plain/plateau where it’s located) these wines are blends of Chardonnay/Sacy for whites and the Gamay/Pinot Noir are reminiscent of Burgundy. Vineyards exist on a single slope of alluvial terraces, chalky clay, and granite/gneiss, schist soils. Varied is the name of the game.
  • Côtes d’Auvergne AOP: This was once one of the highest producing regions in France (19th Century) and located on the same latitude as Saint-Emilion, Côte Rotie, Piemonte and the Willamette Valley (the 45th parallel!)… This exciting region of diverse hilly soils of clay, basalt, marl, granite, gneiss and sedimentary lava ash grows Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.
  • Côtes du Forez AOP: These southernmost vineyards of the Loire date back to the 1st century CE. Protected south/southeast facing foothills of basalt and granite slopes. The region is only 9 growers!
  • Côte Roannaise AOP: 100% Gamay (red and rosé), half of which are farmed organically and made via semi or carbonic maceration for tutti-frutti “quaffable” wines or traditional fermentation for a little more structure. Multi-colored quartz (pink, red and white) with red clay mix.

Last Word on the Loire

Over the centuries the Loire has been the embodiment of splendor, extravagance, opulence, gastronomy, nobility with vineyards as veins snaking through the breathtaking landscape. To know the Loire is to understand that you are still only scratching the surface. The further you go, the more you realize the Loire is a constant shift. Here are a few that are very much worth trying if you have the chance:

  1. Briney Melon wines in Muscadet and lightning-bolt Anjou Blanc Chenin Blanc.
  2. Layered age-worthy black schist Anjou Noir Chenin Blanc and heady, sharp-tongued, pencil-sharpened Touraine Cabernet Franc.
  3. World-famous Sancerre and unsung hero Auvergne.

Indulge the impulse, dive deep into this intriguing region. Just be forewarned, the Loire is to be experienced, never fully known.


Middle Loire Valley Wine Grape Varieties by Wine Folly

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About Natalie Halt

My obsession with the Loire borders on pathological and not just because of the Chenin. Well, mostly. @natalie_halt