imagine a world of castles created from gleaming white stones, halls gilded with priceless art, winding staircases leading to lavish rooms and private alcoves overlooking magnificent gardens. Some sit atop townships that have weathered centuries. Others appear to have emerged from the river as if summoned by magic, rather than built.
Below the surface, complex networks of tunnels are filled with tales of survival during countless wars. Back above ground a complex river system gives life to fields filled with fresh produce. We are in the ‘garden of France’. As your eyes travel up the surrounding slopes, the fertile plains give way to hillsides lined with vines, and a diverse and fascinating range of grape varieties slowly ripening in the cool climate of central France.
This is the Loire Valley. A fairy-tale countryside rich with beauty, history, art, and passion, providing abundant inspiration for the people making wine here.
In wine circles, the Loire Valley is perhaps best known for Sancerre, wines made from sauvignon blanc in the hilly Central Vineyards. But venture a little further west to discover the UNESCO World Heritage-listed landscape and diverse terroir of the middle and western Loire.
Around Touraine and Saumur, thousands of kilometres of caves have been cut into the chalky limestone, known as tuffeau. This stone has been used since the Gallo-Roman era to build the cities and towns, including the magnificent castles constructed for the kings of France since the late 15th century.
Now the caves provide perfect cellaring conditions for wine, with high humidity and consistent cool temperatures of 10-14C, even during summer heatwaves. In the vineyards, this unique soil is celebrated for highlighting purity and minerality in wine. It soaks up water like a sponge, making it available to the vine while encouraging the roots to push down deep into the bedrock.
White varieties are led by chenin blanc – a crisp, refreshing variety showcased in a huge range of styles, both still and sparkling. Still wines are made in dry, off-dry and sweet versions. Cabernet franc is the champion of the reds, producing medium-bodied wines with a balance of fruit and savoury tannins.
However, this is not a simple region defined by its key players. One of the big drawcards for wine-lovers and winemakers alike is the unique assortment of grape varieties permitted in the local appellations.
Thomas Ragot is the oenologist at Caves Monmousseau (monmousseau.com) in the Touraine region. He comes from a family of grape-growers and has worked in vineyards since he was 10 years old. His training took him to New Zealand and Bordeaux, but it was the range of grape varieties in the Loire Valley, he says, that enticed him to return “to the place of my birth” in 2007.
Jean-François Marchalot, winemaker at Marc Brédif (bredif.deladoucette.fr) in Vouvray concurs. “There are not many areas that allow you to make sparkling wines, dry, sweet, red wines.” Marchalot joined Marc Brédif in 1986, delighted with the diversity of grape varieties and soil types he works with – both within estate-owned vineyards and those sourced from growers, many of whom he has now been working with for three generations.
He points out that in many regions, winemakers are bound by appellation rules to work with a narrow range of grape varieties and produce only two or three wines. “Here we make really great wine that you can’t find everywhere,” he says.
Marchalot’s comment alludes to one of the most charming aspects of the area. The people are relaxed and friendly. Feel free to exercise your high school French – the locals are warm and encouraging (and will happily practise their English with you, too). The ‘caves’, or cellars doors are very similar to what we know and love in Australia, with welcoming staff, often members of the family. Many of the winemakers call themselves ‘winegrowers’; they have qualifications in winemaking but use the term that reflects the generations of family members who worked the land before them. There is a humbleness to the idea that wine is grown, not made.
Adrien Godeau, the sixth-generation winemaker of family-run Père Auguste (pereauguste.com) in Touraine, thinks one of the great strengths of the Loire Valley is that the wines are high quality but well-priced. “We make wines that you can afford to share and enjoy with your friends.”
It is a dynamic region where producers keep trying new things. At just 11 years old, Touraine-Chenonceaux is one of France’s youngest appellations. Godeau’s family is part of a group of winemakers that started working with the INAO, the governing body for all French appellations, to have the uniqueness of the wines from this region recognised with their own AOC. It took almost 30 years.
Touraine sauvignon blanc is a good value, widely made, fruity wine, but the growers realised that the sauvignon blanc higher on the slopes of the River Cher was something special. The soil is a mixture of flint and clay, while the elevation allows for better ventilation, which reduces disease and allows a long, slow ripening period for intense flavour development. The wine is then aged for at least six months on lees to develop complexity. It is a very different sauvignon blanc – dry with a lovely balance of pristine fruit and textural weight providing a fascinating match to a range of foods from simple, fresh fish to traditional creamy chicken dishes.
The Touraine-Chenonceaux red is distinctive, too, featuring malbec, known locally as Côt, in a blend with cabernet franc. Côt is an historical variety in Touraine and when planted on the slopes of the Cher River, it can achieve a richness, unexpected for such a cool climate.
Touraine is one of the few appellations in France where the taste of oak is strictly forbidden in both reds and whites. This was a decision made by the winemakers who developed the rules. Ludivine Marteau, fourth-generation winemaker at Domaine Jacky Marteau, says that this rule was made to “show the specificity of the grape variety”. Every year, every wine must be tasted by a panel to determine it meets the quality level required.
This appellation is nicknamed the ‘AOC of women’ with women making up more than 40% of the winemakers, and Marteau speaks of the way the community works together to build the profile and learn from each other.
Sparkling wine is growing in importance across the Loire Valley. As the cellarmaster at Gratien & Meyer (gratienmeyer.com) in Saumur, Florence Haynes oversees production of two million bottles a year across the sparkling appellations Saumur Mousseux and Crémant de Loire. Here they focus on local varieties such as chenin blanc, cabernet franc and grolleau alongside the traditional Champagne varieties chardonnay and pinot noir. The wines are crisp and bright with more fruitiness than Champagne and represent incredible value.
Ingrid Petrus makes wine together with her husband Damien at Domaine Damien Pinon (damienpinon.com) in Vouvray. With 32 organically managed hectares, they focus solely on chenin blanc, both still and sparkling. At first Petrus is softly spoken, but when she talks about their wines, her enthusiasm is captivating. “We have to respect the wine,” she emphasises, as she describes their approach to sparkling production. They use minimal sulphites, natural yeast for the first fermentation and natural sugar for the tirage before the second fermentation in bottle, aiming for a “tenderness of the bubbles”. The wine is then aged for at least two years on lees, twice the time required by the appellation.
There is a strong focus on sustainability across the valley, with the goal that by 2030, all growers will have at least one sustainability certification. Currently close to 65% of Loire vineyards are sustainably or organically farmed.
At Vigneau-Chevreau (vigneau-chevreau.com) in Vouvray, Christophe Vigneau has seen a significant effect of climate change over the years: increased weather events affecting yields and higher temperatures resulting in high alcohol levels and lower acidity. His family were one of the first in the region to work biodynamically in 1995. Working this way has given him “another view of the terroir”.
Each year they watch what is happening in the vineyards and adapt to conditions, rather than trying to control.
The Vigneaus have long been the caretakers for Clos de Rougemont, a vineyard first planted by Saint Martin in the 4th century with vines he brought from Hungary. They use animals to manage the vineyard and plant cover crops, allowing the site to express its history and spirit.
To reach Chinon, the road winds through a dense forest reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood. The forests are essential for protecting cabernet franc from the wind, allowing it to reach ripeness in what used to be a marginal climate for this variety. “It’s crazy to say, but global warming has helped us in Chinon,” says Matthieu Baudry of Bernard Baudry (bernardbaudry.com).
When he first started working with his father more than 20 years ago, it was difficult to ripen cabernet franc. With the effects of climate change, the grape achieves beautiful levels of ripeness. The family has been actively protecting the environment since the 1970s when Mathieu’s father, Bernard, avoided herbicides during the period of huge industrial growth.
“We like to keep our philosophy focusing on the terroir because that’s our passion, to show how the soil affects the tastes, the tannins, the balance,” says Baudry.
he vineyards have been organically farmed since 2006 and a philosophy of transparency extends to the winemaking. “It’s lazy winemaking,” Baudry says with a sparkle in his eye as he describes his gentle, hand-off approach.
Arnaud Lambert stands in a deep pit in his Saumur-Champigny vineyard at his eponymous winery (arnaud-lambert.com), crumbling the soil between his fingers. It is clay with a mix of sand and decomposing limestone. Thirty metres away, down a slight slope, the soil is heavy, with red clay going down 60cm before hitting limestone. The vineyard, planted with chenin blanc in 1957, has changed a lot since Lambert began organic practices 12 years ago, and biodynamics in 2018. Digging the pits shows how the roots are pushing down deep for nutrients. Lambert has seen the vines correct their own yield, producing the right quantity of bunches to achieve high-quality grapes.
“It’s better for the soil, plant, and also humans,” he says of his approach. He dug a lot of holes to develop his understanding of the soils. Instead of picking the vineyard all at once, the harvest is separated according to the soil – clay adds a lot of richness; sand and limestone is clean and pure. The focus on soil has changed the way he makes wine. It is gentler, less extractive, allowing the minerality to shine through.
Situated where the Loire approaches the Atlantic Ocean, the city of Nantes has undergone massive change in the 20th and 21st centuries after being partially destroyed in WWII. It is a bustling business hub, also known for art and technology. Surprising then that its most famous local wine region, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, just half an hour from the city, is made of up quiet country towns. Melon de Bourgogne is the grape variety here. It is best known for Muscadet Sur Lie, a light, dry, crisp wine with a yeasty salinity following at least six months on lees.
Despite the region achieving AOC status in 1936, it wasn’t until 2011 that the unique soil types and microclimates were recognised with the creation of the cru system. Rémi Branger of Domaine de la Pépière (domainedelapepiere.com) says summer temperatures create more richness in melon de Bourgogne than ever thought possible. With the extended time on lees, as per cru appellation rules, the wines show vibrant fruit, aromas of fresh brioche and a length and texture that impress. He describes the crus as if they are people with distinctly different personalities. It’s clear that there is still a lot more to discover.
It is the history of this region that is immediately captivating, but it is the people and their wines that leave a lasting impression; both are fused with an energy, that, like the roots of the vines, comes from a deep understanding of this place. ϖ
One of the major hubs along the Loire River, Tours is a bustling university city just over an hour from Paris on the TGV train. It is a great spot to pick up a rental car to avoid the Paris traffic. As you travel along the Loire River the picturesque villages are close together making for easy day trips from some of the larger centres of Tours, Saumur, Angers and Nantes. If cycling is more your style, La Loire à Vélo is an 800km cycle route along the Loire River, predominantly on bike trails with conveniently situated and secure accommodation options. Between June and September, the Train Vélo Loire with a dedicated cycle carriage adds extra flexibility to your route.
Where to stay
For the complete Loire experience, stay in a troglodyte, one of the traditional cave homes, carved into the limestone. Les Hautes Roches (leshautesroches.com ) in Rochecorbon (near Vouvray) offers light-filled troglodyte rooms carved into the cliff. The restaurant has held a Michelin star for more than 30 years. Swim through a cave in the underground pool at Demeure de la Vignole (demeure-vignole.com). Set on a hill in the village of Turquant, the hotel has overlooks vineyards from the Saumur-Champigny region. The pool and some of the rooms have been converted from wine cellars dating back to the 12th century.
Les Caves Touristiques (vinsvaldeloire.fr/en) is a guide to more than 350 cellars throughout the region, making it easy to plan a trip. These cellars offer a warm welcome with regular opening hours and no appointment required. The guide includes additional experiences such as art galleries and hot air balloons.Visiting at least one castle is non-negotiable. For inspiration, Caves Monmousseau (monmousseau.com/en/) is an excellent place to start. Artworks by NaDa (Nathalie Dahon) and ReNo Menat depicting the famous castles are projected throughout the galleries, accompanied by a soundtrack by Selva De Mar. Afterwards, taste through a diverse range of wines.