With more than 70 different appellations, or wine regions, producing red, white, rose and sparkling, and from bone dry to sweet as pie, the Loire valley, running along the Loire river, equals a lot of wine to taste.
The trip from the Nantais on the Atlantic to the Loire's famous central regions round Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, at the valley's east, could take months if you stopped off at every vineyard, so to avoid tasting a lot of wines you don't like, buy a Guide Hachette des Vins: not every bottle in this wine drenched belt is as flavoursome.
The general rule is that the best wines come from the south facing left banks of the Loire River: the Sauvignon Blanc grapes for the Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés the valley is famous for grow on the eastern side, the best Chenin Blanc grapes for the Anjour and Saumur wines grow near these appellation's namesake towns, and the great Muscadets are made around Nantes, where conditions are warmer.
Most Loire journeys cut to the chase and skip the western Loire, tracing between Tours and Sancerre or Angers and Sancerre, following the back roads popping into boutique or family run wineries as well as big name operations.
The drive down to the Loire from northern France is a pleasure in itself, along long, straight Roman roads, between postcard perfection villages, fields of sunflowers and patchworked rows of vineyards, small and large. It's easy to lose your way, tempted by signs directing you to chateaux, churches, pretty towns and farms selling fresh produce. Candes-St-Martin is pretty, and worth mentioning if you're looking to plan your distractions.
See the Loire on foot, on your bike, or in a hot air balloon. Camp, float on the river or stay in luxury boutiques, there's almost as many transport and accommodation options as there are wines – actually that's a lie, there are loads more wines. Get off the tourist trails for the most unique and local flavours.
This is the warm end of the Loire river, the bit where it widens, heading to the sea, and the edge of French vineyard country. This is Muscadet land, or as the locals call the grapes, Melon de Bourgogne, producing a dry white, with a reputation for being a bit too easy drinking for wine buffs. Of the four appellations within the region the best wines are generally thought to come out of Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine – look especially for the vineyards with the Hermine d'Or classification.
The land here is flat, and rich, there's a lot more than wine growing here, and the vine rows of vineyards are patched together with fields growing edible produce. Fish from the river make up the table of exceptionally lush local food.
Visit Nantes for the famous cathedral with the 11th Century crypt, the botanical gardens with the 200 year old magnolia tree, the Château des ducs de Bretagne: Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, and the Jules Verne Museum.
Anjou's white grapes are predominantly Chenin Blanc, with a few rows of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and the reds mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, but a lot of people may recognise the region's name from bottles of Rose d'Anjou and Cabernet d'Anjou.
Generally Anjou's most successful wines come from vineyards closest to the Layon river, Chaume producing some of the best. Anjou's Coteaux du Layon produces sweet whites with plenty of nose to them, but for drier whites, Savennières on the right bank around Béhuard and Rochefort-sur-Loire is the best place to visit. Chateau Pierre-Bise just off the road marked D54, and Domaine des Baumard, near the church in Rochefort-sur-Loire are two of the region's best dry vineyards.
The town of Saumur is between two rivers, surrounded on all sides by vineyards, which produce the sparkling, mostly Chenin Blanc, wines the area is known for. Saumur also does a fair turn in Cabernet Franc.
Saumur is a good base to use for exploring the Loire, it's got more than its share of hotels and guest houses – or for something a bit different you can stay in one of the ancient tuffeau cave dwellings in of the Loire-side cliffs. Many of the tuffeau caves not used as dwellings are used to store wine. This is a practice that has been going on as long as there have been vines growing here, which is a long time.
Some of the leading producers in the area are Clos Rougeard, Domaine de Nerleux, Chateau du Hureau and Chateau de Villeneuve, Some of the best sparkling wines, come from Domaine des Baumard and Bouvet-Ladubay.
As well as wine, Saumur has a thing for the cavalry, both in the original sense of the word and the mechanical sense – the town has the National School of Horsemanship and an impressive tank museum, but the town's most impressive local sight is the Château de Saumur.
Tours is another convenient spot to set up your wine camp, an easy ride or drive to the east are the vineyards of Vouvray, and to the west are Chinon and Bourgueil. Vouvray's dry, minerally wines are thought by many to be the quintessential Loire tipple. The vineyards, which are on the slopes and plateaus above the town, are really, really old – some say there have been vines here since the 5th Century. It's all Chenin Blanc here, they just produce in in a whole range of ways, resulting in both sweet, dry, off dry and sparkling options. Some of the winemakers to watch are Domaine Huet and Domaine Aubuisières.
Chinon is conveniently located for a visit to the Abbey of Foutevraud where Richard Lionheart is buried. Chinon's castle, just along the river from the abbey, sits at the bottom of hills of vines, mostly Cabernet Francs, and Chinon is a good red antidote to all the Chenin Blanc bases wine produced in the area. The reds produced here are varied and age well. One of the largest producers is also one of those worth visiting, Couly-Dutheil. Bourgueil's offerings are a similar shade to Chinon's.
The other advantage of Tours as a base is that it's close to some of the Loire's best architecture, Château d'Azay-le-Rideau, Chateau de Villandry and Chateau d'Usse, and that's just on your first day. Beautiful Château de Chenonceau has an impressive cellar which turns out decent modern wines for drinking now.
The drive east between Tours and Sancerre and the Loire's Central Vineyards takes longer than a lot of drivers anticipate, and the ground covered is ground that suits a different blend of grapes than the ones to the west. Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc vines blend to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
Some people say that Sancerre produces the most perfect expressions of the Sauvignon Blanc flavour, though the styles vary the flavours converge over the words fresh, balanced and minerally.
The town sits on a hill, surveying the vineyards that run down from it in rows of red, white and rose in the fourteen communes that qualify to wear the Sancerre name. Some of the vineyards worth checking out include Domaine Vacheron, Henri Bourgeois, Vacheron, Alphonse Mellot and Vincent Pinard.
Accompany your wine with goat cheese from Chavignol.
Pouilly is across the river from Sancerre, and produces the very well recognised Pouilly-Fumé and the almost unrecognised Pouilly-sur-Loire, which is made from Chasselas grapes (?). Pouilly-Fumé, like Sancerre, is all Sauvignon Blanc, but with a smokier flavour flavour, sometimes referred to as being more pungent. The wines of Ladoucette and Chateau de Tracy are the ones to taste in this region.
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