The Loire (pronounced luh-WAHR) Valley wine region is a long, skinny stretch of land that lies along the river of the same name in France. Some of the first evidence of winemaking in France dates to the 1st century A.D. in the evidence of vines planted by the Romans in the Loire. The river meanders north-northwesterly from its head in the Alps in south-central France near Ardèche for a couple hundred miles before taking a hard left turn near Orleans, about 80 miles south of Paris. (This is about where the grape growing begins in earnest.) From there, the river heads almost due west, eventually emptying into the Bay of Biscay on France’s west coast at Saint-Nazaire.
|Here be the Loire!|
Much of the area surrounding the Loire in northern France is relatively cool. Too cool, ordinarily, to ripen many wine grapes. Luckily, the river exerts influence on the climate, raising the average temperature within a few miles on either side of its banks by a couple of critical degrees. Within this “growing zone” lie some of the most densely planted vineyards in the country. Even so, an extra cool summer can prevent the grapes from ripening fully in some vintages. In those cases, some winemakers add extra sugar to the juice before fermenting. This occasionally-necessary process, called “chapitalization,” is illegal in other parts of Gaul.
The Loire region boasts a broad spectrum of grapes. As with most French wines, the name you see on the label indicates the area in which the grapes are grown. The Upper Loire, which includes subregions such as Sancerre & Pouilly-Fumé), trades heavily in sauvignon blanc with a little pinot noir grown in certain areas. The Middle Loire wines (Vouvray, Chinon, Saumur, and Touraine are the most common regions you’ll see) are predominantly chenin blanc among the whites and cabernet franc among the reds. The Lower Loire (mostly around the town of Muscadet), near the mouth of the river, is best known for white wines made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape.
Loire wines – red, white, and rosé – are known for high acidity and relatively low alcohol content. This combination makes them excellent pairings with broad varieties of dishes and excellent “just for drinking” choices. I think I drink more wines from the Loire than any other French region – partly because of their flexibility, but also because there are some real steals because of the region’s relative anonymity. (Woohoo More for me!) Here are a few offerings from the Loire that I’ve enjoyed recently: