A journey through the Loire

The wines of the Loire Valley are bucking international trends with their single variety diversity. Shay Waterworth visits the region.

The Loire Valley is one of the oldest and most diverse wine regions in France. It’s thought that the first vines were planted by Romans in the first century AD, and fast forward 2,000 years, it is the third largest vinegrowing region of France with some 50 AOPs. Today the Loire Valley region stretches around 280km east from the Atlantic Ocean along the Loire River, meaning there’s a breadth of styles and nuances under the Loire umbrella.

While international wine markets are tending to stagnate or even decline by volume, Loire Valley Wines are enjoying strong momentum in many countries. In 2021, the volume of Loire Valley Wines exported reached record levels, growing by 13.9%, according to Vins du Val de Loire.

“We already export more than 20% of our production. By 2030, we will gladly share 30% of our production throughout the world,” says Lionel Gosseaume, president of Inter Loire, the region’s governing body. “We owe this international recognition of the quality of our wines to the continual innovation carried out by an entire wine-growing region and a growing generation of producers.”

What sets Loire wines apart from other regions is that they’re largely made from single varieties. Melon de Bourgogne or Folle Blanche in Nantes; Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Gamay in Anjou, Saumur and Touraine; and Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir in Touraine.

Cabernet Franc

During a trip to the region in October 2023, Drinks International visited producers of Melon de Bourgogne, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc in various locations along the valley. First on the agenda was Saumur-Champigny in the heart of the Saumur AOP to meet producers working with Cabernet Franc – Loire’s original red variety, introduced in the 11th century. The consensus among several local winemakers was a shift away from the traditional full-bodied style in order to engage more with the next generation of consumers. Given the continued growth of rosé, Cabernet Franc is being used more and more in Loire to meet this demand, further emphasising the need for producers to adapt to a more easygoing style, while still maintaining complexity.

Chenin Blanc

Another focal variety of the trip was Chenin Blanc. This white variety comes in abundance in the Saumur region and benefits from the Cretaceous limestone which is prevalent in the region. Philippe Porché, founder of Domaine de Rocheville, which produces a range of 100% Chenin Blanc wines, sees a big future for the variety.

“Chenin Blanc is growing in reputation. Its best-known attribute is its minerality and this is a style popular with younger consumers,” says Porché, who bought his first plot in 2004 before building his own winery a decade later.

“The next generation of drinkers want complexity, but also freshness and that’s what Chenin offers. It also transfers to sparkling wines like Crémant, which is currently growing fast.”

Further west on the north side of the Loire River is Savennières, with Chenin Blanc wines belonging to the Anjou-Saumur subregion. While the original AOC for Savennières was created in 1952, it was revised in 1996 to include sweet wines, which is what the region is arguably most famous for today.

Evelyne de Pontbriand, of Domaine du Closel and president of the Academie du Chenin, which she co-created to promote Chenin Blanc, gave a tour of the Savennières landscape.

“The style has changed drastically in the past 10 years with malolactic fermentation coming in,” says De Pontbriand. “But Chenin is such a distinct variety that is beginning to gain the recognition it deserves.”

The first Chenin Blanc International Congress organised by de Pontbriand was held in Angers in 2019, and now all of the AOCs in the region are working together to promote Chenin – although at the time of writing they don’t have a name for their new group.

Melon de Bourgogne

The third and final grape variety on the agenda was Melon de Bourgogne, which is prevalent in the Muscadet region. Jérôme Houssin from Domaine des Tilleuls, a fifth-generation winemaking estate in the very centre of the Muscadet region, tells Drinks International: “The region had a very good reputation, particularly in the UK, before the 1991 harvest suffered a big frost. The appellation then increased the production area to boost volume, but this led to a reduction in quality and reputation. The challenge for us now is to reverse this and restore the international respect for Muscadet.”

Muscadets are the only wines in the world made from Melon de Bourgogne, giving the region an immediate point of difference, and it’s believed that the crystalline rocks south east of Nantes give the grapes more finesse than those grown in areas of sedimentary rock.

Climate challenge

As with every other wine region around the world, climate change is beginning to shake up traditional harvest times and the profile of grapes. This is no different for Loire, which experienced both extremes.

In the Muscadet region, scorching heat led some estates to harvest at night, which could have triggered premature fermentation. However, the intense sun is said to have given the Melon de Bourgogne grapes their distinctive freshness, closely associated with the Loire Valley.

This year’s Cabernet Franc is said to have bloomed in quality but was a variety affected more than most by the adverse weather conditions, resulting in a lower yield.

Reflecting on the challenges of the harvest, Gosseaume of Inter Loire says: “Despite it proving to be a particularly stressful season for winegrowers, the vintage is showing promise in terms of quality for most of the regions. Bearing in mind the disparate weather conditions, the agility and technical prowess demonstrated by the winegrowers during harvesting were particularly vital this year. The care taken in the winemaking process is now a determining factor in ensuring a high-quality vintage to meet our consumers’ new expectations.”

Given the history of the Loire Valley, it’s no surprise that its winemakers have adapted successfully to the adverse climate. The vast differences in styles across the valley mean there are some which will benefit or suffer more than others, but within each sub-region the one thing they all have in common is a determination to push the reputation of Loire wines in the same direction.