The Loire Valley | An Oceanic Influence
Proudly regarded as The Cradle of the French, as it is believed its residence speak the purest form of French, or Garden of France due to the abundance of vineyards, fruit orchards, artichoke and asparagus fields which line the banks of the river, the Loire valley is also notable for its historic towns, architecture, and of course - wines. Inhabited since the Middle Palaeolithic period, UNESCO added the central part of the Loire River valley to its list of World Heritage Sites in 2000.
The Loire Valley is deservedly famed for its wine. Its wine districts very simply, can be divided into three zones: the Sauvignon-dominated vineyards of the Upper Loire; the Muscadet region at the mouth of the river (more than 480 km/300 miles downstream); and the vast and varied vineyards in between, producing well known sweet, as well as a host of still reds, whites and rosés from numerous grape varieties of which Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc are the most important.
With Crémant production throughout the Loire, it is the second largest sparkling wine producer in France after Champagne.
The Loire Valley includes 87 appellations under the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure (VDQS) and Vin de pays systèmes.
Upper Loire :
Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé (occasionally called Blanc Fumé de Pouilly) are the Upper Loire's, and perhaps the Loire Valley’s most recognised wines. Both are made exclusively from Sauvignon Blanc grapes into lean, green, sappy, aromatic palate-sharpeners. Indeed, while these two wine districts are separated by the river, they produce very similar wines.
Middle Loire :
Wine geography is at its most complicated along the central, westbound stretch of the Loire. Travelling upriver from the Muscadet region, one finds Anjou, the name of the region around the city of Angers, associated with the highly commercialised Rosé d'Anjou; the extraordinarily long-lived fine pink Cabernet d'Anjou; the distinctly variable, dry and medium dry, Chenin Blanc-dominated Anjou Blanc; crisp, light reds under the names Anjou Rouge and Anjou-Gamay; and, finest of all when the region is blessed with a hot summer, smooth, silky Cabernet-moulded reds under the Anjou-Villages appellation.
The grape which shines its brightest in the Middle Loire is the often underrated Chenin Blanc. In cool years it may simply produce a tart, relatively aromatic medium-dry white. However, when nature co-operates in producing thoroughly ripe grapes and, ideally, the magic mould noble rot, a host of appellations can produce great, honeyed, long-living sweet white wines to rival some of the best in the world. Such appellations include: Coteaux de l'Aubance, Coteaux du Layon, and the well-favoured enclaves Chaume, Quarts de Chaume, and Bonnezeaux. Some ultra-sweet Sélection de Grains Nobles wines are also made here.
Lower Loire / Muscadet Region:
The Muscadet region at the mouth of the Loire is quintessentially oceanic. Clouds and sea spray blow in off the Atlantic, untainted by any contact with land for thousands of miles. The relatively light, neutral wine has long been made exclusively from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, one of many progeny of the Pinot and Gouais Blanc grapes, along with Chardonnay and Gamay.
In the 17th century, villagers of Nantes were encouraged to plant the early ripening Melon de Bourgogne grape, by the Dutch wine merchants, to use in the production of their brandewijn (distilled wine with brandy added to it). Following the devastating winter frost of 1709 in many of the vineyards in the Loire-Atlantique, King Louis XIV ordered that the frost resistant Melon de Bourgogne grape be given preferential treatment in the replanting of the area.
Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, named after two small rivers which flow to the south and east of Nantes, is by far the most common form of Muscadet. Because the Melon grape is not considered flavour-packed, many local winemakers leave the fermented wine on the lees (sur lie) for several months in order to leech a bit more character into the wine.
The Loire river, (France’s longest) has a significant effect on the meso-climate of the region, adding the necessary extra few degrees of temperature that allows grapes to grow when the areas to the north and south of the Loire Valley have shown to be unfavourable to viticulture.
Influenced heavily by the Valley and the Atlantic Ocean, the whole area has a continental climate. There is always the potential hazard for the vines of a spring frost due to the very cool temperatures that sweep through the region. The rain that comes through during the harvest months can cause the grapes to be harvested under-ripe but can also aid in the development of Botrytis Cinerea (Noble Rot) for the region's dessert wines.
Due to Loire's location and marginal climate, the overall quality of a vintage has a dramatic effect on the quality of the region's wines - more than any other French wine regions. As mentioned, the cool climate is a constant stress as it can not only cause frost on the vines but can prevent grapes from ripening fully and developing the sugars that are needed to balance the naturally high acidity of the grapes. During these cool vintages the wines are all a slightly lighter colour with the Sauvignon blanc based wines presenting less fruity and more mineral notes. The Cabernet Franc based wines present with more vegetal or "weed"-like aromas. This is contrasted with the riper vintages, where the Loire Cabernet Franc develops aromas of raspberries and lead pencil shavings.
The Making of Wine:
With a long history of winemaking dating back to the 1st century, it was in the High Middle Ages when the wines of the Loire Valley were the most esteemed wines in England and France, even more prized than those from Bordeaux.
The Loire Valley has vine plantings with an average of 1,600-2,000 vines per acre (4,000-5,000 per hectare), quite high density. For some Sancerre vineyards, they have as many as 10,000 plants per hectare. The density is designed to compensate for the excessive yields that some of the grape varieties, like Chenin blanc, are prone to have, forcing the vines to compete for the same limited resources in the soil. In recent times, pruning and canopy management have started to limit yields more effectively.Winemaking in the Loire is characterised by a general avoidance of barrel ageing and malolactic fermentation. However some winemakers have begun experimenting with both. Chaptalization is permitted here and can help winemakers compensate for the under ripeness of the grapes in some years. For red wines there has been more emphasis on extending the maceration time of skin contact in order to bring out more colour and tannins into the wine. Temperature control is also an important consideration with the cold autumn weather sometimes requiring that the must be heated in order to complete fermentation fully.