TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
THE LOIRE TRAVERSES HALF OF FRANCE, FROM THE WARM SOUTH TO THE ATLANTIC COAST.
Rising from an ancient aquifer deep in the south of France is the mighty Loire River. It starts as a trickle in the shadow of the volcanic Mont Gerbier de Jonc on the edge of the Rhône Valley and from there it flows north and then west, over 1000km in total, making it this nation’s longest river.
The Loire is the lifeblood to much of France with over 20 per cent of the country dependent on its tributaries. Some of the nations grandest chateaux and monuments also dot its course, making the Loire also one of France’s most prized tourist destinations. It is a paradise renowned for its lifestyle and fine food. And unsurprisingly, in a country where wine is prized, the Loire is also home to a vast array of wines. The most prized of these are clustered in its northern sector, starting close to where it takes a dramatic turn westwards toward the Atlantic coast.
The Loire empties into the Atlantic Ocean close to the city of Nantes, near the northern edge of the Bay of Biscay. This northerly latitude makes the Loire a distinctly cool-climate wine region. So much so that the finest vineyards are located close to the river and its tributaries – it is only with the heat radiated from the river that the grapes can reach optimal ripeness. And even though they ripen, the Loire Valley produces wines with freshness, elegance and bright acidity as their hallmarks, rather than high-alcohol styles.
Only a few grape varieties call the Loire Valley home. Near Nantes the subtle and understated Muscadet makes for light-boded dry white wines which pair perfectly with the famed Belon oysters, which are harvested nearby. Further inland the red cabernet franc and white chenin blanc emerge. The reds are more reserved and acid-driven than the cabernets from Bordeaux further south; the chenin blancs are waxy and lanolin-scented, and the best of them are among France’s finest and most long-lived white wines.
As the vineyards retreat further from the coast the climate changes dramatically. Gone are the moderating effects of the ocean, replaced by a drier and more continental climate, characterised by warmer days and cooler nights. In many ways the climate is closer to Chablis than the rest of the Loire and the wines definitely show similarities. It is here that two well-known grape varieties find their home in the Loire – pinot noir and sauvignon blanc, most notably in the towns of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
The sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs from the central Loire are remarkably different from those found elsewhere around the world. And much of their unique character comes from the soils found in key vineyards characterised by chalk, limestone and flint. These free-draining soils bring purity to the wines of the central Loire.
Traditionally sauvignon blanc has been the leading light in this corner of France but in recent years the dry reds and rosés made from pinot noir are becoming increasingly sought-after. They are lightly coloured and bodied but show perfumed floral and savoury fruits driven by crisp and bright acidity from their coolclimate origins. They are generally not ageworthy styles and characterised by silky tannins but make for superb early drinking. They can, in some ways, resemble some lighter bodied new-world pinot styles.
The same cannot be said for the Loire sauvignon blancs, which are as far removed from the New Zealand style as is imaginable. While the Kiwis impress with their unbridled power of sweet fruits, Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés are pictures of subtlety. In the best of them, green apple and guava fruits with subtle nettle or hay, rich in herbal complexity, are complimented by strong stony, chalky, flinty characters; Sancerre often shows greater purity than the smokier wines from Pouilly-Fumé.
The Roger family behind Domaine du Carrou have lived in the area for close to 300 years, Dominique Roger’s father founding the domaine in 1950. Today the vineyards are farmed without herbicides and pesticides, which, combined with meticulous winemaking, has helped the estate rise to become one of the region’s leaders. The wines from the domaine are an excellent introduction to what Sancerre has to offer.