The vineyards of the Loire are about 2/3rds the size of Bordeaux and the sparkling wine AOCs are Anjou, Saumur, Touraine, Vouvray and Montlouis-Sur-Loire. You will find wines under the names of Mousseux (Sparkling) or Pétillant (Semi Sparkling) made by the Méthode Traditionelle and Crémant de Loire which is made under the Méthode Champenoise. Fines Bulles (fine bubbles), as the sparkling wines of the Loire Valley are known, have a very fine creamy mousse. The Loire is the second largest sparkling wine producer in France after Champagne. In fact you will find that some Crémants are made by Champagne Houses with interests in the Loire – Langlois has been owned by the Champagne house Bollinger since 1973 and Bouvet-Ladubay, is owned by Taittinger.
The history of the vineyards in the Loire stretches back to Roman times when they established vines there during their settlement of Gaul in the 1st century AD. By the 11th century the wines had a reputation across Europe for their high quality and in the Middle Ages the wines of the Loire Valley were even more prized than those from Bordeaux!
The Loire wine region runs along the River Loire and vineyards flourish on its banks and those of its tributaries – the Allier, Cher, Indre, Loir, Sèvre, Nantaise and Vienne Rivers. The climate is Continental in the East of the Loire Valley and Oceanic in the West. Wines are made from a large number of grape varieties, some well known and some particular to the region. The majority of Crémant de Loire is produced around the city of Saumur. The grapes permitted in the making of white and rosé sparkling wines are the white Chenin Blanc (the predominant grape in the Loire for sparkling wine), Sauvignon Blanc, Arbois (known locally as Menu Pineau) and Chardonnay. The reds used to make sparkling rosés are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Gamay, Malbec (Côt), Pineau d’Aunis and Grolleau.
Arbois is thought to be a native to the Loire Valley and is on the decline in plantings and importance though it is still a permitted grape variety in several AOCs including being the only grape other than Chenin Blanc permitted in Vouvray.
Pineau d’Aunis is known locally as Chenin Noir and is grown around Anjou and Touraine. A favourite of Henry Plantagenet, wine made from the grape was first exported to England in the 13th century. Today the grape is little known outside the Loire.
Originally from the Touraine area, Grolleau is primarily used for Rosé d’Anjou. It is the third most cultivated red grape variety in the Loire Valley after Cabernet Franc and Gamay, and as a vigorous and resistant variety, is still responsible for one sixth of the region’s total production.
The sparkling wines of Anjou come from vineyards that lie on two types of soils: dark schist and white soils resulting from the weathering of chalk and limestone. Anjou is an ancient province centred on the city of Angers in the lower Loire Valley that was once part of the Angevin Empire belonging to the Plantagenet Kings of England. When Henri II became King of England in the 12th century, the wines of Anjou were served in the Royal court throughout his reign alongside those of Bordeaux.
The Touraine appellation is named after the city of Tours. Both the city and viticulture in the region date back to Roman times. Legend has it that vine pruning was invented here in the 4th century, when a donkey owned by Martin of Tours (later Saint Martin) nibbled the young shoots of vines. Touraine is a confluence area where the Rivers Cher, Indre, and Vienne join the Loire and the subsoil consists of chalk limestone from the Paris basin with chalk clay or flint clay soils; the terraces along the Loire and Vienne rivers are made of sand and gravel.
Vouvray lies just east of the city of Tours and wine production in this area depends on the climate, with cooler years promoting the production of dry sec and sparkling Vouvray while warmer weather encourages the production of sweet Moelleux or Liquoreux styles produced by noble rot in a manner similar to those of Sauternes. Vouvrays from good vintages have immense ageing potential with some examples drinking well into 100 years of age – even the sparkling wines are ageable which is quite uncommon. The siliceous-clay, and limestone-clay soils lie on top of tuffeau, the limestone used to build the many châteaux of the surrounding countryside.
Saumur is the centre of sparkling wine production on the Loire and is the third largest sparkling wine appellation in France after the Champagne region and the Crémant d’Alsace AOC with more than 12 million bottles of Saumur Mousseux produced each year. Under Henry 4th, Saumur was the capital of the Huguenots and from the 12th century onwards it developed as an important wine trading centre. The Château de Saumur dominates the river and was a 13th century residence of the Dukes of Anjou. Saumur is also the spiritual home of the French cavalry having the École Nationale d’Equitation and the Cadre Noir (an equestrian display team). The vineyards lie on the on the crest of the south west edge of the Paris Basin and are planted on tuffeau. Nowadays, most of the region’s great merchant houses still have their head offices in this sector.
Last but not least is the AOC Montlouis-sur-Loire situated just across the River Loire river from Vouvray. The vineyards of Montlouis rest on a limestone plateau, the “Tuff of Touraine”, and the production area stretches over 3 communes: Saint-Martin-le-Beau, Lussault and Montlouis. The wines of Montlouis are aged in troglodyte cellars dug deep into the stone that are a feature of the Loire. In fact there is a 2000 kilometre complex nestling under the Loire vineyards and countryside which houses restaurants, hotels, shops, museums, homes . . . and wine cellars!