A visit to the Loire Valley in early summer is a joy, and we can only hope we’ll all be back there soon. There are 600+ ‘winemaking miles’ stretching inland from the mouth of the Loire and at the moment 69 ACs. Every young winemaker you spot is trying to do something different and in effect this means he/she is trying to raise his/her game. Every special terroir is ready to be turned into an appellation and equally an appellation with a conscience. It is very noticeable that younger winemakers are following organic or biodynamic practices because they want both nature and their vines to flourish, as well as demonstrating to us that they care about their environment.
If you parachute into the broad Muscadet region east and south-east of Nantes you may well now land in a new appellation of Muscadet, finding a new wave of growers who are striving for a vinous ‘point of difference’. They have soils varying from gneiss to granite via argilo-calcareous clay to sand (and in fact there are areas of pre-phylloxera vines still holding out against the louse…), so each corner can have a terroir tag attached to it. Starting with Muscadet and the Melon de Bourgogne grape, the question is can one get away from ‘every day’ Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, and its half decent sibling, “Sur Lie”? Well, within the Nantais they have chosen Gorges (14 producers) for starters and Goulaine (16 producers), Château-Thébaud and various other specific locations to start things off. They are ageing their wines for longer to add substance, sometimes for 24+ months in tank or barrel. You’d never have found that in the past. The question remains, are they characterful enough in this age of ‘upfront’ fruit so typified by Sauvignon Blanc? The answer is a cautious ‘yes’, although not everywhere yet. Certainly a gravitas, a depth and length not dissimilar to Chardonnay exists, Muscadet with more depth and flavour therefore is possible; the concentration in some wines is quite Burgundian – but without the price tag.
Chenin Blanc has always been a little bit of a marmite grape for me. Lovely when made well, it’s so versatile it can come as dry, sweet (think Coteaux du Layon) and sparkling Crémant de Loire/Saumur brut/Vouvray brut. Often however there’s a whiff of sulphur or that off-putting ‘wet dog’ smell about it. To my mind the Queen of Chenin is a Vouvray. ‘Off-dry’ (so drier than a medium style), our Château de Gaudrelle specialises in Vouvray that has charm and character to balance the weight. Now owned by Eric Pasquier, the property is completely organic, transitioning to completely biodynamic soon, and Eric insists on horses doing the heavy work in the vineyards so that soil compaction is kept to a minimum. For a dry style you need to be west of Saumur and the vineyards of Savennières. Look for a Chenin here with plenty of presence, such as that made by Stéphane and Séverine Branchereau at Domaine des Forges.
Saumur-Champigny is a hot-spot for lovely, leafy Cabernet Franc, making reds a little more subtle and elegant than you’ll find in the other centre of Loire red production, Chinon, which is further east. Sitting above the south bank of the river, Philippe and Agathe Vatan at Château du Hureau seem to get a real purity of fruit, all raspberry and redcurrant character, into their wines. The soils here are shallow limestone, quite porous and called ‘Tuffe’ by the locals. The Vatans have used it as the name of one of their Hureau wines. The other, named Lisagathe, is often ranked as one of the leading Cabernet Franc wines of the Loire Valley.
There’s some light Pinot Noir reds to chance across, as well as light Gamay, made in nearly the only location outside Beaujolais. Historically the Loire has produced some of the finest, long-ageing sweet wines in the world from the vineyards south of Angers, namely Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru. Coteaux de Layon is your entry point here (Domaine des Forges make a lovely, balanced example) which is a steal considering the effort that goes into the late harvested, often botrytis influenced grapes – so little juice but such a memorable taste.
Finally you may wind up in the Touraine region. Tasting at the delightful Domaine de Beausejour with Philippe Trotignon, you’ll be struck by how good his Sauvignon is. Following a ‘lutte raisonée’ regime (which allows one year in three to be organic), Philippe grows grapes mainly in the area around Noyers – deeper, sandy soils which give his wines plenty of zip and freshness. He then blends in wine from his other, more clay-based vineyards near Saint-Romain to get more depth and character.
Let’s look forward then to our release from the strictures of the pandemic, hop across the Channel and I’ll encourage you to immerse yourself in a myriad of regions as you travel down the Loire! Happy hunting!