If you’ve already read part 1 and part 2 of this three part series, you’ll know that Loire Valley is a sure bet when it comes to good quality white wine. But for me, some of the most interesting yet neglected red wines of France are also from Loire.
Cabernet Franc is the key grape variety, which you’ll also see in Saint-Émilion and in other parts of Bordeaux as part of a blend. Vitally it needs less heat to fully ripen, so it is the grape of choice for many winemakers in Loire. It is lighter and less tannic, and can actually smell of unripe Cabernet Sauvignon as it can be very herbaceous. An intriguing and attractive smell of pencil shavings is cited as a common characteristic on the nose.
The first time I came across Chinon was when I was on holiday in Loire in 2009. It was in a restaurant in the regions capital, Tours. My now fiancée wasn’t gone on it at first but then warmed to it. It was dry, light, herbaceous and served lightly chilled, but that’s the way the locals enjoy Chinon. I thought it excelled with the food we were having, the fruit and the acidity combining beautifully.
You can also get fuller, richer styles of Chinon, like those of Bourgueil (below). Whereas the lighter wines generally come from sand and gravel sites near the Loire river, the fuller styles come from limestone soils. Some will benefit from bottle aging, but a lot of those lighter styles are best enjoyed in their youth for their freshness and vibrancy.
The medium bodied wines of Bourgueil typically have more prominent tannins than those of Chinon, and fragrant aromas of raspberries and more of those signature pencil shavings. The wines from warmer and riper vintages can age particularly well and become even more funky and interesting. St Nicolas-de-Bourgueil covers a small area to the west of the region. It has lighter soils and so produces lighter wines that mature a little earlier. The difference between the two regions, and indeed Chinon, can be sussed out in blind tastings by only the sharpest of palates. Bourgueil also does some very pleasant dry rosé made from Cabernet Franc, as I discovered to my advantage on holidays.
Saumur & regional Touraine
Saumur is a south westerly extension of Touraine, with Cabernet Franc being the dominant variety, which can be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Pineau d’Aunis. Refreshing, light and fruity, it is made on soils similar to that of Chinon and Bourgueil. The region of Saumur-Champigny produces Loire’s most fashionable red, well, certainly in the eyes of Parisians. Silky, textured and fragrant, these wines are adored within France, but like many of Loire’s reds, receive little credit or recognition outside of France.
In the wider Touraine, Gamay, Côt (Malbec) and Pinot Noir are also grown. Unfortunately the chances of trying any of these wines in Ireland is remote because there simply isn’t the demand here. That’s not to say, outside of Loire, that you won’t pick up a few curiosities in the bustling restaurants of Paris or the country’s other major cities.