THE LOIRE, cherished more within France than outside it, includes vineyards the length of the eponymous river, from Nantes on the squally Atlantic coast to aristocratic Sancerre in the interior, hundreds of kilometres to the east. A meandering, multifaceted region, the wines are nonetheless worth grouping together as they share a distinct family resemblance, being generally nimble, invigorating and humming with fresh acidity.
Production is mostly white and comprises, broadly: dry, briny Muscadet towards the west; minerally, citrussy Sauvignon Blanc in the east; and firm, apple-scented Chenin Blanc in the middle – always delicious, but presenting in a wide range of sweetness levels. Herbacious, fragrant reds are made, as well, usually from the criminally-underrated Cabernet Franc grape. Gamay, Pinot Noir and others are employed too.
The valley has a semi-continental climate, with a short growing season. In wine terms it is considered ‘cool climate’; temperature control, synonymous with refrigeration in many other regions, involves actually warming the autumnal must (pressed grape juice) here, to help start or complete fermentation.
Chaptalization – the addiction of (grape-derived) sugar to fermenting juice to bolster body and alcohol in the finished wine – is allowed, and can help wine growers compensate for the underripeness of the grapes in many years. Extended skin contact time is de rigueur for reds, too, so as to leech as much pigment and tannin into what are not naturally deeply-coloured reds.
As well as eighty-odd appellations, there are two generic names that can be used across the whole of the region: Crémant de Loire names any sparkling wine made by the relatively laborious, expensive Champagne method, while the evocatively-named IGP du Jardin de la France (‘France’s Garden’) refers to any wine produced in the region that steps outside appellation regulations.
The Loire is very vintage dependent, but the number of styles it produces means it is a very versatile, nimble area: more sweet wine tends to be made in a good year; much production gets shunted into sparkling in a bad one.
Something for everyone!
THREE TO TRY
Cher et Tendre Vouvray Sec 2011
A supple and rich Chenin Blanc from one of the Loire’s top appellations. Piquant aromas of citrus and acacia blossom, with an intensely-flavoured palate of quince, green apple and hay. Round mouthfeel, with pleasant weight and a hint of barley sugar sweetness on the finish. Excellent varietal and regional typicity.
Les Grands Presbytères Vieilles Vignes Muscadet Sèvre & Maine Sur Lie 2010
A premium, old-vine Muscadet that works a charm as an aperitif or partner for shellfish dishes. Delicately-aromatic white with an intriguing nose of green apple, yeast and citrus. The light-bodied, supremely-balanced wash shows stony-minerally aspects, with hints of brine and citrus too. Dry and elegant, with an appetising finish.
Domaine Michel Girard Sancerre 2012
Textbook Sancerre that shows tremendous elegance and breeding, with fine aromas, a sleek body and great overall polish. Very pure Sauvignon style with fragrant aromas of gooseberries and citrus and a waft of stony minerality. Full and round in the mouth it has a real abundance of fruit supported by elegant acidity. Clean, zingy and precise.