The Loire, in France, holds a special place in my heart, being the first wine region I visited, far too long ago at the tender age of five, on a family trip to the city of Tours to visit my mother’s childhood pen-friend. Though not yet a fan of Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet Franc, and with a limited experience of even Muscadet at that stage, I was absolutely wowed by the scale of the immense, soft chalky cliffs of the nearby wine region of Vouvray. Made from a local limestone known as tuffeau, they historically provided cave dwellings for les troglodytes amongst the local poorer citizens, and beautifully cool, consistent wine cellaring of almost unparalleled quality ever since.
Over the years I have enjoyed more than my share of great Chenin Blanc, a white grape variety which is the only obviously comparable variety to Riesling in its ability to retain its acidity and produce pitch-perfect wines, often capable of lasting for decades, from the rapier-fresh and bone-dry to the intensely sweet. Likewise it is a variety where the character of the wine is almost always determined by the grape variety and appellation itself rather than any new oak influence.
We’ve had several of the legendary Moelleux sweet wines from the superb vintages of 1985 and 1995 of Domaine Huet in past wine auctions, but I will always remember in particular a dry (or Sec) 1935 from the Domaine I tasted in the mid-2000s. The fact that it came from a vintage not even recorded by the late Michael Broadbent MW in his iconic book Vintage Wine due to its mediocrity, and was nonetheless still drinkable more than seven decades later, blew my mind (those chalky wine cellars doubtless helped!)
Our June Fine and Rare Wine Auction features a treasure trove of wines from the Loire, all from one collector who visited the region every year to attend the annual Les Tuffolies Vouvray wine fair and came back to the UK with a groaning car boot full of wine styles and vintages that had grabbed him, often purchased directly from the producers (notably Daniel Jarry), before storing them in his underground World War II air-raid shelter in Hampshire for future enjoyment.
Lucky Whisky.Auction customers are able to bid on these fascinating pieces of vinous history in the June 2023 Fine & Rare Wine Auction.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the appellations and styles to look out for, and to help you to read a Loire wine label.
Vouvray is an appellation of around 2000 hectares, to the east of the city of Tours, created in 1936. Almost entirely Chenin Blanc, its cool continental and maritime climate influences make it one of the last regions in France to be harvested, sometimes as late as November. Vouvray has varying sweetness levels.
Vouvray Sec wines have less than four grams per litre of residual sugar.
The term Doux refers to wines made from multiple picking trips throughout the vineyard of often nobly rotten fruit. Vouvray Doux wines have a minimum of 45 grams per litre of residual sugar, but can contain considerably more, depending on vintage.
Always ‘at least’ semi-sweet, Coteaux du Layon can also be intensely sweet, and occasionally the labels feature the term ‘Sélection de Grains Nobles’ (as in Alsace), to provide a strong indication of the prevalence of botrytis. From the Anjou region, located along the river Layon (a tributary of the Loire) the best vineyards are generally located on the north bank with total vineyard area slightly less than Vouvray, with around 1400 hectares in all. There are six Coteaux du Layon Villages designations (e.g. Rablay) with the name appended.
Bonnezeaux is a 100 hectare sweet wine appellation created in 1951 within Coteaux du Layon.
Savennieres is a 140 hectare appellation created in 1952 from three communes south of Angers on the right bank of the Loire. Savennières is generally a dry wine, but demi sec and Moelleux versions (bottled with between 18 to 45 grams per litre of residual sugar) are also occasionally produced.
Coulée de Serrant
Coulee de Serrant is a seven hectare vineyard area within the Savènnieres appellation, originally planted in 1130 by Cistercian monks and today consisting of vines aged from 35 to 80 years old. Exclusively owned by the Joly family.
Quarts de Chaumes
An appellation controlee (AC) created in 1954, Quarts de Chaume lies in a small part of a single commune, Rochefort sur Loire, on the right bank of the Layon, comprising of an area of a meagre 30 hectares. The name derives from a tradition dating back to the middle ages, when farmers were required to pay one quarter of their harvests to the local Lord, or Seigneur. The sugar content of the bunches is concentrated on the vine either due to the presence of ‘noble rot’ (whereby microscopic holes caused by benevolent fungus allow water to evaporate through the skins resulting in a richer juice) or simply be dehydration or raisining (AKA ‘passerillage’ for the French speakers out there).
Jasnières is a small, white wine appellation in the Loire with around 70 hectares of Chenin Blanc vines under cultivation.
The Loire, of course, isn’t just about Chenin. Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé provide the pure, gooseberry deliciousness of some of the cleanest, freshest Sauvignon Blanc on the planet. Most is enjoyed best in its youth (lacking Chenin Blanc’s ultimate structure to age), with large plates of seafood, though some barrel-fermented versions can, on occasion, age magnificently. That, as they say, is for another magazine article. (And don’t get me started on great Muscadet, and the vibrant, mid-weight deliciousness of Loire reds!)