The Loire Valley: a rising star
Author: Adam Bruntlett
This November, we’re championing the oft-underrated wines of the Loire Valley. Here, our Buyer Adam Bruntlett reflects on this rising star of a region, and explains what makes it so special
While I may spend most of my time in Burgundy, the Loire Valley is perhaps where my heart lies.
In fact, my first buying trip, back in January 2011, was to the Loire. Many of my most treasured wine memories are of Loire bottles. I’ve been banging this particular drum for some time. But now, it really feels as though there is momentum.
The Loire is France’s longest river, dotted with wine regions. Here, there are varying soil types, and numerous different grape varieties grown. Each region has its own identity and history. Yet for many years, the Loire has been a victim of its own success.
Its proximity and ease of access to Paris ensured many of the wines were consumed domestically in wine bars and brasseries. Often light, crunchy and sold for a modest price, these wines were a steady source of income – which did not encourage innovation or risk-taking. The same applies to the likes of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, both of which have strong export markets in the USA and UK.
The huge shame is that many of these wines are mass-produced on a fairly industrial scale for consumption within a year or so of bottling. The vast majority of Vouvray’s production is simple sparkling wine for consumption in France and Belgium. Yet, things are changing.
The Loire Valley today
Our recent trip to the Loire this summer revealed a region full of energy and dynamism. There is a significant movement towards making wines that put terroir at the heart of everything they do.
In the past many estates would make a couple of cuvées; one easy-drinking for the Paris brasserie market, and the other using old vines – often with rather excessive oak. Now, most quality-focused producers will separate out their best parcels. They adapt the winemaking and ageing to each site, to highlight the diversity of their terroirs.
There is a real melting pot of vignerons pushing things forward. Determined young growers such as Arnaud Lambert, Stéphane Riffault and Simon Chotard have taken over their family domaines and begun taking their wines in a bold new direction.
“Outsiders” such as Anatole de la Brosse at Domaine des Closiers and Luc Briand and Bénédicte Petit at Terra Vita Vinum are bringing a fresh perspective and innovative approach, perhaps less constrained by the past than locals.
Alongside this are established top names such as Vincent Carême, Philippe Alliet and Gauthier Frères who have been making wines of real excellence for many years and continue to reach greater heights.
Sustainable winemaking in the Loire
What is also amazing is the number of vignerons who are now determined to put the environment and sustainability at the heart of everything they do. Almost everyone we work with in the Loire is either organic certified or in conversion. Several are certified as biodynamic. In an area as cool and humid as the Loire, where pressure from mildew can be huge, this is no mean feat.
It is clear that something special is happening in the Loire. It is reminiscent of Burgundy in the 1980s or 1990s, with a huge and as-yet-unrealised potential. What puts the Loire ahead of Burgundy before it exploded is the sheer quality of the work in the vineyards and winery. Young winemakers here have travelled and studied around the world. They are innovative, humble and thoughtful.
It is clear that the quality of wines in the Loire has never been higher, and this is only the beginning.
The grapes of the Loire Valley
For top-quality wines, three grape varieties are king:
Many will associate Sauvignon with aromatic, early drinking whites that are most suited to quenching thirst on hot days. However, anyone who has ever tasted the matured wines of François Cotat will appreciate the ageing capacity of this variety. Gone are any notes of gooseberry, replaced by a pleasing aniseed and fennel notes. While the Cotat style is quite esoteric, there is a small band of determined young growers who are making more ambitious, textural and age-worthy wines from single-vineyard plots.
I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy some excellent expressions of Chenin Blanc: a pair of Bonnezeaux from 1916 and 1945, a 1978 Coulée de Serrant and many vintages from Domaine Huet. One of my all-time favourite white wines is Vincent Carême’s 2008 Vouvray, Le Peu Morier. I’ve sadly long since drunk the bottles I had, but I can still remember its wonderful apple and white truffle nose, as well as the rich and almost exotic fruit which was perfectly balanced by a nagging thread of acidity.
My introduction to the ageing potential of Cabernet Franc came with a visit to Lamé Delisle Boucard. Philippe Boucard took us down into his cool cellar, cut deep into the tuffeau. Huddled around a table in a small grotto surrounded by mould-covered bottles, we went back in time through the 20th century, tasting every vintage ending in 9 back to 1919.
On another occasion, we chalked off all of the great vintages: 2009, 2005 (the one he wants to be buried with), 1989, three different 1976s, 1964, 1947, 1911.
What was striking about tasting with Philippe, was that the great vintages were all unusually warm years. The difference between then and now is that we have that kind of vintage seven times a decade, rather than once as in the past.
Until as recently as the 1990s, only around one or two vintages a decade would achieve real ripeness. Now, you have to go back to 2013 or before to find a vintage that wasn’t at least very good. With a more meticulous approach to viticulture and improved winemaking techniques, even more challenging vintages such as 2021 can now produce pleasant bottles.
Browse our full range of Loire wines here.