Our latest expert guide, written by Rebecca Gibb MW and Beverley Blanning MW, covers the wines of the Loire Valley. Read an excerpt below, or click over to the Expert section to read the whole thing!
The Loire Valley is the third largest wine region in France, yet it is also one of the country’s least well known. It follows the broad sweep of the Loire River for nearly 1,000 kilometers, from the mountains of the Massif Central in the center of France to the wild Atlantic coast in the northwest. The Loire and its tributaries are home to more than 50 appellations. Most are populated by small family winegrowers, many of whom have been farming the same land for centuries.
More famous for its châteaux than its wine, the Loire is a region of evident history, but it is a region of experimentation and discovery as well, where respect for the past and a spirit of innovation exist side by side.
The Roman officer and historian Pliny the Elder completed his Natural History in 77 CE, reflecting the world he knew in the first century, including its vineyards and wines. In this text, he mentioned that vines were growing on the banks of the Loire, evidence that this region has a vinous history spanning at least two millennia. But it was not until the sixth century that Grégoire, the bishop of Tours, made the first reference to the vineyards in the local region of Touraine, which today includes Chinon and Vouvray. He also confirmed that vineyards were growing in the Sancerre area, writing, “In the year 582, a late frost scorched the vines.” The church was a driving force in the development of the Loire’s vineyards and wine production, as it was in other parts of France and Europe, until the French Revolution.
The Loire River and its tributaries have long provided a route to market for the region’s wines. On the western coast, close to the mouth of the river, Nantes has been an important trading hub for centuries. There is even a theory that in the 19th century, the local white wine, now known as Muscadet, acquired its name from Dutch traders looking for a neutral, high-acid white wine that they could add to the botanical noix de muscade (nutmeg) prior to distillation.
In the 15th century, the Loire, rather than Paris, was the location of the French royal court. While the monarchs shifted back to Paris in the middle of the 16th century, the Loire continued to be the summer getaway of the nobility and the wealthy, hence the region’s abundance of ornate châteaux and a love of Loire wine among the aristocracy. Charles VII (1403–1461) was one of the kings who set up court in the Loire Valley. During the Hundred Years’ War, Joan of Arc famously went to see him in Chinon to ask for an army before defeating the king of England during the siege of Orléans.
There were other prominent Loire residents who brought fame to the local wines, including François Rabelais. Born in Chinon in the late 15th century, he was most famous for his satirical work Gargantua and Pantagruel, although he also had a stint as both a religious man and a doctor. Some of his wine-related commentary includes the advice that Sauvignon Blanc is good for constipation and the saying “Always drink, never die.” Around the same time that Rabelais was upsetting the establishment with his scathing and comedic writing, the artist Leonardo da Vinci made the Loire his home. In 1516, at age 64, he crossed the Alps on a mule after being invited by François I to be his royal painter. In his luggage were several paintings, including the Mona Lisa. He died in the Loire in 1519 and is buried in the town of Amboise, in the Touraine region.
Touraine was one of the main areas to benefit from the 1577 law by the Parlement de Paris that prohibited Parisians from purchasing wines made within a 20-league (around 88-kilometer) radius of the capital, but over the centuries the Parisian market didn’t want to pay a high price for quality. As Xavier de Planhol explains in An Historical Geography of France, this eventually led to a deterioration in the quality of wines produced in areas that were easily reached by river or the canal from Paris. “By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Orléans wine was already banned from the royal table and it lost the last shreds of its reputation over the decades that followed.” The increasing urbanization of the French population called for everyday, low-priced wines. As the railways developed in the 19th century, the regions that had benefited from their waterway connections with Paris became pitted against the low-cost wine producers of the south.
It was around this time that phylloxera arrived in the Loire. It is estimated that when the louse was first identified, in 1877, half the population in the Loire depended in some form on the vine for income. At first, the local phylloxera committees were adamant that they wouldn’t use American rootstocks and would instead inject the soil with carbon disulfide, but it soon became clear that grafting was necessary. The replanting that followed marked a change in the flavors of the Loire: Sancerre switched from Pinot Noir to Sauvignon Blanc, while Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc gained popularity in Anjou-Saumur.
During World War II, the Loire Valley’s wine regions were occupied by the Germans. Saumur was a center of resistance: weapons and documents were hidden in casks that crossed the line between free and occupied France, which was situated south of the river. But many men in the region became prisoners of war, including Gaston Huet, who returned to his native Vouvray having lost one-third of his body weight. Vineyards fell into disrepair, with no one to work in them, and without fungicides or pesticides to control the spread of disease. Following the war, many young people left the countryside to work in cities, while those who stayed began bottling their own wines or organized themselves into cooperatives and started selling their wines in the bistros of Paris.
Vines were part of farmers’ income, not their sole income, until the 1960s and 1970s, when goats, cattle, and crops started giving way to vines—and a greater focus on quality winemaking. The 1980s brought major advances in the cellar, with better presses, stainless steel, and temperature control making their debut. Today, the Loire Valley’s wine industry is focused on improving the quality of the raw material: the grapes. There’s also increasing concern regarding the effects of climate change, whether frost, drought, or unpredictable weather events. This is paired with a greener approach; about 30% of Loire Valley vineyards are now either sustainably or organically farmed.
Excellent... thank you!