What’s in a Loire Wine?
The Loire Valley is a complicated wine region because it actually encompasses four distinct areas that produce several wine varietals ranging in styles from sweet to dy. The most basic info to know are white wines are made from Chenin Blanc, Melon or Sauvignon Blanc and red wines are Pinot Noir or Cabernet Franc.
Challenge—the label won’t tell you what’s in the bottle unless you know what wines are produced in each sub-region.
Let’s first dive into the white wines most known from the Loire…
Chenin Blanc can be made dry, off-dry or sweet and it’s also in the sparkling wines from the Loire Valley labeled Crémant de Loire. It typically has notes of apple, peach, citrus, honeysuckle and sometimes smoky aromas (I think it often smells like steel wool). If you want to try a dry style look for wines labeled Savennières. Bottles labeled Vouvray can either be dry or sweet, and wines labeled Coteaux du Layon or Coteaux de Saumur will be sweet.
Melon or its full name Melon de Bourgogne produces a dry, light body white wine that usually has fruit aromas of green apple and pear. When made from this region it will be labeled Muscadet. This wine is often described as simple, which along with being low in alcohol, make it an easy drinking wine—maybe a lunch wine?
Sauvignon Blanc is not new to us, but again this is not what will be on the label, rather there are two popular regions from the most inland part of the Loire Valley that will appear on the label—Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé. Sancerre is a dry, light body wine that displays bright acidity and freshness. It’s typically very aromatic with notes of grapefruit, gooseberry grass and wet stones. Pouilly-Fumé will also be dry and light body, but typically a little rounder with slightly less acid and less aromatic. Another Sauvignon Blanc region is Menetou-Salon, which are usually good value wines.
Moving on to the red wines of the Loire Valley…
Cabernet Franc dominates, but there is often a little Cabernet Sauvignon added. These wines could be labeled any of the following: Anjou or Anjou Villages, Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Bourgueil or Chinon. Chinon is the most well-known and where some of the best Loire Valley Cabernet Francs are produced. Most of these are medium body wines with notes of red fruits like raspberry, cranberry and red plum, as well as violet and herbaceous qualities.
Pinot Noir is also produced in Sancerre and will be labeled as such. These are typically lighter with less intense fruit notes than Pinot Noir from other regions.
The Loire Valley also produces many styles of rosé, which are fun to explore too, but I suggest starting with the whites and reds
The old-world wines are complicated because of the labeling, but don’t let this scare you away from exploring new wines and regions. Great advice from Karen MacNeil, author of the Wine Bible, is to spend a few weeks to a couple months only drinking wine from one region until you get comfortable with the labels and become familiar with the styles of wines the region produces. We call it studying and someone has to do it!