Welcome to the Loire Valley, the once wondrous playground of the Kings of France.
Today the glamour, gossip and intrigue of a gaggle of royalty are replaced by steady lines of goggling visitors. The river is one of France’s prettiest, the countryside pleasant but not dramatic.
It is man’s works that drop the jaws. Castle after castle bordering or straddling the steadily flowing waters appear so regularly the visitor can scarcely remain calm.
There are 100 castles, chateaux and manors through this part of Valley; some associated with royalty others with noble families of the time, each secure in its distinctive architecture and history. Many have formal gardens, which are in themselves worth a trip. A list of their names reads like chapter headings in a volume of fantastical tales:
Amboise, Angers, Azay-le-Rideau, Blois, Brissac, Chambord, Clos Lucé, Chanteloup, Chaumont, Chenonceau, Cheverny, Chinon, Langeais, Loches, Nevers, Rivau, Saumur, Tours, Villandry ….
The Royal glass was more than half full.
The Loire Valley was the home of the French kings from the Middle Ages to the 17th century. It was also the centre of the wine trade.
In the 16th century, with vines descended from those planted by the Romans a thousand years before, it produced much of the wine for nearby Paris. It also exported many barrels through the port of Nantes. But history stops for no man, royal or not, and a couple of unfortunate happenstances brought that golden period to an end. Nantes was overtaken by the port of Bordeaux a few hundred kms further south and with the arrival of the steam train it became possible to easily bring the supposedly superior wines of the Bordelaise up to the capital.
With their wines out of favour, and the Royals relocated, some relocated from their heads, was that the end of the Valley’s fairy tale?
Not at all.
After devastating frosts in 1991, the vines have been the subject of a dedicated program of renewal, raising the standards in every vineyard.
Today, many of the castles are opened by the State or private families and millions of visitors come for the spectacles and the glasses.
A new Golden age for Loire wines.
TML was recently richly pleasured by an afternoon tasting of the latest wines the Loire has to offer. As befits a valley of smooth flowing pleasure the wines are not huge and aggressive, no monsters to be locked away for decades. These are mostly light, fresh, crisp food friendly and eminently enjoyable. The principal grapes are the whites sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc and the red cabernet franc. These are grown most of the 200 km length of the Valley.
A bright burst of the world’s best seafood wine, the white muscadet, dominates where the river joins the ocean with its bounty of fish and shellfish.
Our hosts were Benoit Roumet, Director of the Central Loire Valley Wines Committee, and Franck Moreau, Master Sommelier, the guiding palate of the mighty Merivale Group.
Franck whose job it is to be impartially knowledgeable about all the wines of the world showed a distinct passion for these bottles.
The Loire whites…
We tasted a delicious range from sparkling Crémant de Loire (a blend of chenin blanc, chardonnay and cabernet franc), which was soft with a touch of peach, gentle but nicely regal.
A Muscadet was lemony, clean and grassy with a tingle of acid. Crying out for oysters or scallops.
Then from much further upstream, the world’s most desirable sauvignon blanc, a Sancerre, with a lovely whoosh or ripe fresh fruits. Lengthy and fine.
Followed by a Pouilly Fumé, from the other side of the river, with a brisk and full floral palate. Franck tells a story: ”In Sancerre they say the kids in Pouilly have big ears because their mums lift them up to look across the river to the west to see how beautiful it is.”
Then comes a Chenin Blanc ‘Savennieres’ richly filling, described by Franck as waxy and mushroomy.
Another chenin blanc, from Roche Neuves, this one more peachy and passionfruit with a fine acid finish.
Then the star of the whites, a Vouvray, this is chenin blanc at its best. Rounded ripe fruit. “A classic” according to Franck.
… and some reds.
We move on to the reds, starting with a cabernet franc from Touraine. We detect smoky cedary notes. Lighter weight but bright and savoury.
A richer cabernet franc from Saumur. Dark and beetrooty in the glass, a bit more complex, but fresh and firm.
The cabernet franc from Chinon is more modest, dark in colour but lighter in texture.
Rosé the wine of summer
The world has gone loopy for pink wines. Every district in the world seems to be making one. But the ones from Anjou have a special place as one of the originals. La Planchière is made from cabernet franc, a delicate pink, full of fruit, but not sweet, a luscious mouthful with a gentle finish. Benoit calls it as “very friendly and fresh.”
Something sweet (ish) to finish.
To send us on our way with a sweet smile we have a final sip of a demi-sec chenin blanc from 2010.
It is floral on the nose, a swirl of sweet fruit but savoury on the finish. Its age has given it a trace of sherry character. Benoit says this style has “ a great ability to age.” Franck says he would pair it with lobster, scallops with ginger or chicken liver pate.
Let your palate travel while you stay at home
We couldn’t get to the Chateaux of the Loire Valley this year. We hope you have better luck, but we at home can track down some of the wines and dream the dream.
Take the trip yourself to http://www.loirevalleywine.com
And see the Chateaux at www.experienceloire.com