It is hard to believe the Loire valley lies just an hour from Paris. Peppered with storybook châteaux and sleepy riverside villages, this bucolic region is one of the most captivating in France. But while the castles and scenery have won the valley a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, its wines remain under-appreciated. Some of France’s most picturesque vineyards carpet the surrounding hills, covering the slopes in a patchwork of neatly lined trellises. Loire valley vintages might not have the prestige of Bordeaux or Burgundy, but thanks to the varied climate and terroir, they offer unmatched diversity. Use our Loire valley map below to navigate your wine tour.
The stretch of interest begins at Nevers, and using Loire à Vélo’s 800km of cycling routes, exploring the valley is a breeze. You’ll find there are numerous caves and châteaux vying to offer you a sip, or better a bottle, of their carefully crafted booze. Santé!
Sophisticated and rather pricy Sancerreand Pouilly-Fumé are made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, which is grown in the vineyards surrounding the neighbouring villages of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire. Characterised by grassy and herbaceous flavours, you’ll find these wines are more restrained than their zingy New Zealand cousins. Pouilly-Fumé is generally the more complex of the two and the best will have a smoky mineral character, said to come from the flint soils found here. If you’re feeling a little too giddy to spot the difference, peaceful footpaths in the surrounding countryside provide the perfect opportunity to walk off a liquid lunch.
The best time to visit Tours is spring, when wisteria is draped over buildings around the city, filling the air with a light, sweet scent. The wines are similarly perfumed: this is the place to sample Vouvray, produced from the Chenin Blanc grape. These wines can by dry, sweet or sparkling and range in flavour from apple to exotic fruits. As bunches of Chenin grapes ripen unevenly, they are handpicked in a unique series of harvests known as trie. The most prized grapes are actually those infected with a fungus called botrytis cinerea. Often referred to as noble rot, it makes the grapes shrivel, concentrating the sugars and flavours to make delectable moelleux (sweet) wines which smell a bit like marmalade.
The red Chinon, made from Cabernet Franc, is the wine to taste in this charming riverside village. Cabarnet Franc is the often overlooked parent of Cabernet Sauvignon (a genetic cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc) and it’s capable of producing a wide range of styles. The lightest wines have a leafy raspberry character and – ignore the wine snobs – can be drunk lightly chilled. More structured, peppery and tannic wines will be aged in oak. Neighbouring Bourgueil is the more prestigious appellation, famous for fuller bodied Cabernet Franc wines which are made to age.
Don’t worry if you’re feeling heavy-headed by the time you reach Saumur. This sleepy town has just the antidote: it’s a centre of spirit distillation and you can try a nip of clear, orange-flavoured triple sec or a fiery shot of absinthe. Saumur is also the place to indulge in a glass of the Loire valley’s sparkler, Crémant de Loire. It is made by the méthode traditionnellein exactly the same way as champagne, but the use of the Chenin Blanc grape rather than Chardonnay makes it lighter and more floral.
Around 50km further west, there are two wines to discover near the city of Angers. Semi-sweet rosés are rather out of fashion, but it’s worth bucking the trend to try the strawberry-laden Rosé d’Anjou, made from the Grolleau grape. This is also the spot to sample the exquisite Savennières, a complex dry white considered by many to be the best expression of Chenin Blanc.
Once-industrial Nantes is the last stop before the Loire reaches the Atlantic. Surrounding the city are vineyards planted with Melon Blanc, which is used to make Muscadet sur lie. Unusually this wine is left on its lees (the sediment left over after fermentation is complete) to give it a yeasty note and slight spritz. Try a glass with a platter of Nantes’ renowned seafood: the perfect end to a tough week of wine tasting.
Ellie Aldridge is a Rough Guides editor and a contributor to the forthcoming edition of the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. She blogs at www.travellingepicure.com, and you can follow her on twitter under @elliealdridge.