France: Wine, Dreams and History in the Loire Valley

Jul 28, 2009

Go and chill my wine so well…
Can’t you see that time is passing?
I refuse to live in the tomorrow
– Pierre de Ronsard, To His Page

In northern France, a ghostly rain called grisaille or gray drizzle falls on the moody Loire River. It is a solemn, pensive rain, wistful, nostalgic. As it falls on the surrounding vineyards, on gardens filled with roses and lilac, on the Chateaux with their stone emboldened facades, on the medieval bridges spanning the river, one might think of the rain that fell in centuries past.

Both Henry II and Richard Lionheart died at Chinon and the seminal battle of The Hundred Years War was fought here: the Siege of Orléans. Leondardo da Vinci traveled here in his last years to be of assistance to François although perhaps it was the beauty of the land that drew his spirit.

In the nineteenth century, artists, writers, poets and composers flocked to French authoress George Sand’s château in Nohant. Every day the piano rang with the melancholic preludes of Frederic Chopin or the bursting bravado of Franz Liszt while nearby Eugene Delacroix painted and Honore de Balzac sat restlessly dreaming up a new novel to add to his many dozens.

In modern times, the chateaux have become homes to such celebrities as Mick Jagger and Gerard Depardieu.

Through the centuries, the rain and the river Loire move on together. The drizzle is still light and when it passes along with the brief dream of long ago eras, the sunset breaks out and suddenly there is a peace not unlike the bliss of sipping a fresh white wine.

Long and winding (1,012 km or 627 miles) the Loire is France’s Nile or India’s Ganges. From its beginnings in the south, within the volcanic peaks of the Massif Central, it rises in Ardeche department (department) and carves through steep gorges until it reaches the pastoral, garden-like valley itself.

At one time, Viking ships stormed in from the Atlantic to raid Loire Valley villages. In later centuries, Dutch merchant ships traveled its waters. Today, wind surfers whip along on the waves while in the summer, the river is more sandbank than water.

The Loire is one of the largest wine regions in France with 185,000 acres planted under vine. Evidence suggests viticulture was introduced in the late 6th century A.D. Some argue it was St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, who first brought vines from his native Roman Pannonia (modern Hungary) in the 4th century A.D.

In the 7th Century, a party of monks brought the body of St. Benedict from Monte Cassino in Southern Italy to the Loire. Founding an Abbey in Fleury, they named their order after the reverent man. The Benedictines were known for their learning, for their illuminated manuscripts and for their wine.

During the Middle Ages, it was the Benedictines and Cistercians (named after the first abbey of Cîteaux south of Dijon in Burgundy) who cultivated the grape in the Loire (as they did throughout France). Monks (from monos - Greek for solitary man) throughout Europe had the time, talent and wherewithal to study and learn which sites were suitable for the growing of particular varieties. Unlike Burgundy, which became synonymous with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Loire is difficult to categorize. There are fifty appellations in the Loire and each produces wine both enchanting and stimulating, leaving both novice and seasoned wine drinkers with a longing to explore and re-explore the various sub-regions.

These four sub-regions, loosely grouped, moving from east to west are: the Central Vineyards, Touraine, Anjou-Saumur and the Nantais.

Imagine we are gently sailing down the Loire on a small sailboat. First, we’ll begin in the east between the two towns of Sancerre and Pouilly-Sur-Loire which face each other like Gemini twins. Surrounding these towns are the appellations (or AOC) of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
The climate here is closely linked to nearby Burgundy which would best be described as continental – severe winters and hot summer with spring frosts and summer hail, a continuous, devastating problem for the vine growers.

The main variety, Sauvignon Blanc is a grape now synonymous with the best of New Zealand whites. But here, in this pastoral cradle of villages and chalky limestone, with slopes facing south-east and south-west, these small parcels of land produce a white of incredible finesse, subtlety and character. Sancerre’s Sauvignon Blanc is herbaceous with notes of gooseberry and what has been humorously termed as ‘cat’s pee’ (despite how it sounds, it isn’t that bad). Across the river, where there is more flint present in the soil, the Sauvignons are described as being herbaceous but with an additional note of ‘gunpowder’, a minerality evoking smoke and lime. 
In Memoriam: Didier Dagueneau (1956-2008)

Most of these modern wines are fermented in stainless steel. But back in the 1980’s, a new wave of vignernons decided to age their whites in oak barrels. Didier Dagueneau of Pouilly-Fumé was the most famousvof these innovators. A bit of a cross between a wild man (he used to dog sled in the Arctic) and a Revolutionary artist, Dagueneau produced (until his death in the Dordogne region of France when his utltralight plane stalled after takeoff) wines that offered consumers a lush, full-bodied and intense Sauvignon Blanc, nothing they’d ever experienced before. This enfant terrible became a legend overnight, a man equally hated and loved by his neighbours, by fellow wine producers and critics. He rattled cages, stayed away from the mainstream, pushed his small vineyards to produce the best, creating a diverse dimension to what some might be considered a fun, summer white. We may never see his like again.

Sancerre, like its neighbour Menetou-Salon, also produces reds and roses made from Pinot Noir and Gamay. It is interesting to note that Sancerre actually started out as a red wine, a wine revered by Henri IV who believed its very power and beauty could stop all wars. In the early twentieth century, Algeria had created a bulk red wine market and in order for the appellation to stay afloat and compete, growers started switching to Sauvignon blanc. (If you have a chance, the local goat cheese of Sancerre, crottin de Chavignol
is a superb match with Sauvignon Blanc - or any goat cheese.)

As we make our way north and then east along the river, we pass historic Orléans, a witness to the final years of the Hundred Years War. It was Jeanne d’Arc who hailed from Lorraine in the east. It was she who inspired hope and rallied the wearied French soldiers to victory against the English. A visionary, her military experience and knowledge were at best rudimentary but her courageous ability to spiritually uplift her people was said to be divine. Captured by the Burgundians after a series of failed attacks, she was handed over to the English and put to trial as a witch. Charged with heresy, she was sentenced to death and burned at the stake on May 30 1431. Her statue can be found in both Chinon and Orléans and her image imprinted in stained glass in Orléans Cathedral (not to mention in the hearts and imaginations of countless French artists and writers from Ingres to Peguy to the present day).

Touraine. along with neighbouring sub-region, Anjou-Saumur could best be described as the historic heart of the Loire Valley. Here the wine diversity is as beguiling and beautiful as the numerous chateaux and cathedrals that line the river.
Balzac, a gourmand and lover of Loire Valley wines

Touraine is also the home of many famous French writers and poets including François Rabelais, Pierre de Ronsard, Honore de Balzac and Alain-Fournier. It was Balzac who wrote “without Touraine, perhaps I could no longer live”. He based one of his most famous novels, Eugenie Grandet in his native land, a story set amongst the vineyards and political world of the early 19th century.

Touraine is also the home of the most famous castles, including those at Chambord, Langeais, Richelieu, Amboise (said to be the setting for Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty) and Chenonceaux (once home of Catherine d’Medici and Henry II’s mistress, the seductive Diane de Poitiers). This is the France of the Renaissance with its bold turrets, grandiose facades of white stone, gables, high ceilings, tapestries and gardens laid out in geometric forms.

But of course, let’s not forget the wine.

The Touraine appellation, a general one, covers the entire sub-region and one can find wines largely made from Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc. The labels are easy to read as they list the variety used to make the wine.

Vouvray is always white, always Chenin Blanc (called Pineau de la Loire in the region and sometimes Steen in South Africa). There are a number of styles depending on the vintage and you can find a sparkling, still or sweet Chenin. Again, it all depends on the year. If a Noble Rot happens, vignernons will decide to make a sweet wine. (Botrytis Cinerea, is a beneficial fungus – thus a ‘noble rot’ - that attacks the grapes, covering them with a gray mold. The mold penetrates the grape’s skin using the berry’s water thus concentrating the sugar, flavour and acid to contribute to a sweeter style of wine). If the harvest is poor, you might find more sparkling wines available. (Many labels will indicate the level of sweetness of the still wines of Vouvray – Sec or Dry, Demi-Sec or Medium Dry, Moelleux or Medium Sweet and Doux or Sweet).

But Chenin, barring the climate or weather, can also be a testy grape. One bunch doesn’t determine the same level of ripeness. Sometimes you can find yourself tasting a few leafy, vegetal elements in the wine. But beyond that, Chenin is ideal for the soft tuffeau (a chalky limestone soil high in calcium) which produces an exquisite wine capable of aging many years. One can expect notes of apple-honey, lush lemon and drops of apricot.

While Vouvray (and Montlouis across the river) focus on Chenin, Chinon and Bourgueil, including Saint-Nicholas de Bourgeuil are solely red wines (the suffix ‘euil’ comes from the Gallic ialos, meaning ‘a clearing in a primeval forest’). Here Cabernet Franc is king (with a little Cabernet Sauvignon thrown in with the Chinon). Chinon is considered the softest, the most elegant but, to be honest, all wines are perfect if you find yourself in a Paris bistro in the summer. When served lightly chilled, this delicious blanket of red raspberry fruit, violets and herbs becomes a delectable cool river of pleasure on your palate. (Although some wine aficionados swear Bourgeuil is more strawberry and Chinon more raspberry…nonetheless…).

The Loire is not only famous for wines but for the production of primeurs, early veggies that appear two to three weeks before those cultivated near Paris. Leaving Touraine, the land of asperges et haricots (asparagus and beans), we enter the realm of Anjou where les oignons et les echalots (onions and shallots) grow, not to mention artichouts (artichokes) in nearby Angers.

The climate also changes the further west we sail. As Bourgueil and Chinon AOC disappear behind us in the sun, we encounter a milder, more maritime climate. Here the temperatures are less extreme in winter and summer, more humid to some degree (but not nearly as damp as Nantais).

Saumur is our first stop. Here the wines are either white (Chenin Blanc), red (Cabernet Franc as in the case of Saumur-Champigny) or rosé.

Saumur is also famous for the Loire’s top sparkling wines. They are made in the traditional method of Champagne and can be a blend of Chenin Blanc with Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc (by law seven varieties can be used in total including Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Côt [another name for Malbec], Pineau d’aunis and Grolleau – but such a blend is rare).

The vines grow on the famous tuffeau. In the time of François I, the limestone was easily quarried and used to make decoration for the Renaissance châteaux by skilled masons. Saumur is also known for its mushrooms – 75% of them are grown here (about three tonnes are picked daily around Saumur, many grown in the very damp caves that provided quarry to those very châteaux of the Loire).

Surrounding Saumur to the north, south and east, is Anjou. Here we find the fertile plains of the Loire and its tributaries which enjoys the title of ‘le jardin du France’.

In the Middle Ages, the town of Angers in Black Anjou (named for the black schist of the region) was one of the capitals of the Plantagenet empire, linking England and France. In those days, what we know of as ‘France’ consisted of land surrounding Paris. The French at that time were engaged in conflicts with the English and the Burgundians. Only until the reign of Louis XI in the 15th century did the country take the familiar shape we know today. (Louix XI once quipped he drove the English “out by force of venison pies and good wines” when really he wined, dined and paid off Edward IV - considered a feeble king - with 50,000 crowns).

The appellation of Anjou is quite broad and like Saumur, also includes red, white and rosé wines. Chenin Blanc is the predominant white and Cabernet Franc the red. Grolleau, (said to be named after a black bird), is the ‘workhorse’ grape producing thin, acidic wines of red fruit.

The roses are perhaps the most well-known. You can find a simple, medium sweet as in the case of Rosé d’Anjou, a blend of Grolleau with five other varieties, including Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon; a Rosé cabernet D’Anjou, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon; and a Rosé de Loire, a blended, light fruity wine of pronounced cherry flavours.

Before we sail on, let us not forget Coteaux du Layon and Savennières. The most seductive, delightful and affordable of sweet wines outside of Sauternes and Bordeaux are those from the former while the most exquisite, exceptional and age-worthy whites outside of Vouvray are found in the latter. Both utilize the greatness of the Chenin Blanc grape.

As we near the Atlantic, we find the climate cools, the scenery changes, the houses have a quaint maritime feel, its stone facades gently scathed by decades of salted, ocean winds and rainstorms. Here the river deepens and the sky spreads out, vast and solemn. There are fishing boats along the coast, quiet lanes in the towns.

This is the land of Brittany and Muscadet is its vineyard.

Made from the Melon de Bourgogne variety, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine (named for the small Sèvre and Maine Rivers that run through the district), ‘casts its pale golden glow over the purple of lobster and the pearl of oysters’ as one French critic put it. It is a wine ideal with seafood, perfectly matched. Hugh Johnson, British wine writer notes there is even a suggestion of seaweed in the wine but this shouldn’t deter you. The wines are tangy lemon with a yeasty background. Muscadet is made on its lees (sur lie). Before bottling, these wondrous whites stayed in contact with the yeast lees for several months before being bottled.

Muscadet is the wine to end our journey, a wine mirroring the sea itself.

Asimov, Eric, “The Pour” Didier Dagueneau Killed in Plane Crash, September 18, 2008 – New York Times
Bailey, Rosemary, Insight Guides: Loire Valley, APA Publications, Singapore, 1991.
Lynch, Kermit, Adventures on the Wine Route. Farrar Straus Geroux, New York, 1988.
Johnson, Hugh, A Life Uncorked. Weidenfeld & Niolson, London, 2005.
Johnson, Hugh and Jancis Robinson, World Atlas of Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 2001.
MacNeil, Karen, The Wine Bible. Workman Publishing Company Inc. New York, 2001
Myhill, Henry, The Loire Valley. Faber and Faber, London, 1978.
Palmer, Hugh (with James Bentley), The Most Beautiful Villages of the Loire. Thames and Hudson, London, 2001.
Robinson, Jancis, The Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2003.
Seward, Desmond, Monks and Wine. Mitchell Beazley, London, 1979.
Styles, Oliver, Didier Daueneau – Decanter Interview, January 21, 2008 – Decanter Archive


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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