Imagine an alternate universe in which you were forced to drink wine from only one region for the rest of your life. Which one would you choose? To be sure, there’s no right answer, but you’d be wise to pick France’s Loire Valley.
The Loire is widely regarded as the most diverse wine-producing area in France, and possibly the entire world—a distinction it owes, at least in part, to its unique geography.
Boasting a kaleidoscopic array of climates, terroirs, soil types and native grape varieties, the vineyards of the Loire unfurl over 300 miles along the banks of France’s longest river, stretching from Pouilly-Fumé, right in the center of the country, all the way to Nantes, its final pit stop before spilling out into the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to encompassing some of France’s most scenic wine country, dotted with castles and storybook villages (there’s a reason, after all, why the area is lovingly dubbed “The Garden of France”), the Loire’s main subregions—the Pays Nantais, Anjou, Saumur, Touraine and Centre-Loire—collectively produce just about every style of wine imaginable. The range of expressions on display not only encompasses dry to sweet, still to sparkling, red, white and rosé, but even incorporates multiple styles of each.
Thanks to this incredible versatility, the area has historically been cast as France’s go-to source of excellent, affordable wines for all occasions. From that perennial crowd-pleaser Sancerre to beloved bistro staples like Muscadet, Chinon and Vouvray, among countless others, the region’s roll call of classics has provided liquid sustenance for generations of drinkers both at home and abroad. As PUNCH columnist Zachary Sussman puts it in The Essential Wine Book, these touchstones of the Gallic tradition—known for their cool-climate freshness, vibrancy and built-in compatibility with food—“exemplify the core French belief in wine as a staple of daily life.”
From Bistro Classic to Natural Wine Hotbed
Its historic significance alone would be enough to secure the Loire’s essential status for wine lovers of all persuasions. Over recent years, however, the region has found fresh relevance as ground zero for natural wine. The movement may have been born in Beaujolais, but it was in the Loire that its sustainability-focused, minimal-intervention philosophy reached critical mass. Once the darlings of the progressive wine bars of Paris, the Loire’s natural winemakers have since become international icons, anchoring wine lists and shop shelves from New York to Stockholm to Tokyo.
“Today the Loire Valley is one of the biggest hotbeds of smaller producers making their mark in terms of sustainability with organic viticulture and biodynamics,” explains Susan R. Lin, Master of Wine and head of wine expertise and business development at Belmont Wine Exchange in the San Francisco Bay Area. “These kinds of grassroots efforts have a tremendous appeal to up-and-coming wine enthusiasts who want to feel connected to the personalities and stories behind their wines.”
For all its countercultural street cred, the Loire Valley never abandoned the democratic values of quality, affordability and immediate drinkability that have always defined its wines. So at a time when public taste has shifted toward the virtues of freshness, acidity, minerality and low alcohol (in other words, the exact same qualities that have long been the Loire’s cool-climate calling card), it’s no wonder that the region now finds itself in the spotlight.
Grapes Familiar and Dizzyingly Diverse
For drinkers who are just discovering the Loire Valley’s wines, the prospect of navigating such a large and complex region might initially seem daunting. Fortunately, though, with just a little bit of basic information, the Loire’s main attractions quickly click into place.
Unlike many other French wine regions, the Loire Valley’s wines are typically made not as blends but as single-variety wines. Accordingly, each of the major Loire Valley wines shines a spotlight upon the distinctive personality of its signature grape.
Leaving aside the area’s grab bag of lesser-known grapes—from grolleau and pinot d’aunis to côt (also known as Malbec), romorantin and gros plant—the region boasts four main varieties that, together, form the basic building blocks for the region’s most famous wines.
Starting in the westernmost portion of the region, the Pays Nantais, there is melon de Bourgogne, the star grape in the crisp, mineral-driven wines of Muscadet. Next is the chameleon-like chenin blanc, the versatile white grape of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine (some of its most popular examples hail from the villages of Vouvray and Savennières). Then there’s cabernet franc, which produces fresh, savory reds that combine earthiness, peppery spice and juicy red fruit, as seen in the appellations of Chinon and Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil. Completing the quartet is sauvignon blanc, the most iconic expressions of which come from the Centre-Loire villages of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Reuilly.
With such a treasure trove of options, it can be difficult to pinpoint a common stylistic thread that runs through them all. But that’s sort of the point: Its dizzying diversity is the region’s greatest strength, and what makes it a place that is compelling no matter where you are in your wine journey. Sommelier Zwann Grays, who works with a wide variety of Loire wines at the Brooklyn restaurant Olmsted, sums it up best: “Whether you’re a serious wine geek, a natural wine lover or just somebody who simply wants to drink something good, you’re going to find what you’re looking for in the Loire.”