With the warmer weather, we tend to eat lighter fare and fresher foods, while drinking lighter wines we can savor. I especially welcome seafood to the table - grilled fish, shrimp, mussels, oysters, scallops - which always leads me to yearn for a wine from the Loire Valley of France.
The Loire is the valley of castles by the sea, a place with beautiful rivers, rich forestry and where the purest French is spoken. It is an exciting culinary region and a vast wine region, which often can be difficult to understand because of its wines’ great diversity.
Loire is the third-largest wine region in France located along the 620-mile Loire River, the longest river in France. The terrain/soils and climate change over this vast area to produce many wines: from sparkling and white to rosés and reds. Being a cooler climate it is known for its crisp whites with high acidity, like Sancerre (sauvignon blanc).
There are four main regions in Loire: Nantis, Anjou-Saumur, Touraine and Central Vineyards.
Nantis Appellation D'origine Contrôlée (AOC)
With maritime influence from the coast, Nantis makes dry white wines, which pair beautifully with shellfish. A wine-making region since the Roman era, it continues to produce muscadet (aka Melon de Bourgogne), which is popular world-wide. This is a white-wine-only region. The best of the four muscadet-producing AOC in the Loire Valley is known as Muscadet Sevre et Maine. Muscadet ‘Sur Lie’ (on the Lees) may be designated on the label, indicating a more complex muscadet. The wine is left in the barrel all winter, developing aromas and character to a wine that usually lacks complexity. Muscadet and raw oysters are a classic combination.
Moving inland farther east, there is a slight change in climate and soils that vary from schist to tufa. The grapes are: white—chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay; and red—cabernet franc, malbec (cot) and grolleau (groslot). One of the more better-known wines, Savennières, is from chenin blanc and truly is age-worthy and becomes very complex – a must-try for wine enthusiasts. Savennières is excellent with a wide range of fresh and smoked fish, as well as with white meats.
While Saumur does some notable sparkling wines, Anjou makes petillant (gently sparkling) made from 80 percent chenin blanc, and 20 percent chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. Anjou also is a producer of rosé made with a blend of red grapes from the region.
Dessert-style wine, botrytis-affected chenin blanc, such as bonnezeaux, is well-represented in the Anjou-Saumur region. Botrytis is a process in which grapes are left on the vine past normal harvest time, resulting in fruit with high sugar content. Bonnezeaux and a classic pear tarte tartin make for a perfect summer dessert pairing.
Touraine is in the middle of the Loire Valley and shares the same grapes as Anjou-Saumur but with an additional few, such as arbois, pinot noir and pineau d’aunis. The standout wines from this region are Vouvray AOC. Vouvray is chenin blanc and vice-versa—they are synonymous with each other. Vouvray is interesting because it make wines from dry and semi-dry to semi-sweet (moelleux) and sparkling. These wines can age very well. Chinon AOC, made from cabernet franc, can be age-worthy and very tannic when young.
Central Vineyards AOC
Named ‘Central’ because it is more in the center of France, Central Vineyards soils change to clay, limestone marl and chalk with high marine fossil content. The notable wines are Pouilly-Fumé AOC, great crisp sauvignon blancs, which are sometimes overshadowed by Sancerre AOC across the river (slightly richer, more complex and racy with high acidity).
Central Loire also is where the finest lentils in France are grown. A summer meal of lentils with grilled salmon would be served well with a white or red from this region.
Pricing for most Loire wines remain reasonable, so this summer is a great time to discover fresh and fruity muscadet, versatile chenin blanc in all its styles, and crisp, grassy sauvignon blanc. Make it a summer of seafood and bring the taste of the Loire Valley to your table.
Tasting Tip: When tasting a wine, your surroundings can make all the difference. A crowded room or noise makes concentration difficult. Perfumes, cooking smells, even pets can destroy your ability to get a clear sense of a wine’s aromas. Reset your nasal passages in-between wines by smelling your own skin, which is neutral to you.
Wine Recommendation: You won’t find many Loire Valley wines in grocery stores (and the wine labels can be puzzling, to boot). Head to a local wine shop for a better selection and assistance. Anjou-Saumur and Touraine produce a wide variety of wines for everyday drinking. Whether red, white or rosé, in regards to quality, there are few better wines to buy in quantity for everyday use.
Love oysters? Try a muscadet. They are a real treat when paired together. Lobster fan? Dry or off-dry Vouvray pairs beautifully with the sweet-meat crustacean.