From its source in the Cévennes mountains, the Loire River flows through almost 625 miles of peaceful green countryside, ancient towns and magnificent châteaux before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. The Loire is the longest river in France, and the variations in soil, climate and grape varieties found along its banks are reflected in the wide range of wines grown throughout the four major wine-producing districts of the region. Running east from the Bay of Biscay in the Atlantic, these districts are Nantes, Anjou-Saumur, Touraine and The Central Vineyards.
Climatically, the Loire region exhibits a gradual shift from east to west; from the continental norms of hot summers and freezing winters of central France in Sancerre and Pouilly, which benefit the quick ripening Sauvignon Blanc, to the more temperate maritime climes of Anjou and Nantes on the Atlantic coast. The long cool summer is followed by a warm, dry autumn, a growing season that complements the softer white varieties and the reds and rosés of Anjou.
The Loire itself forms a climactic boundary between northern and southern France. It is at the northern limits of French viticulture. In fact, were it not for the Loire and its tributaries, vines probably would not grow so successfully this far north. The effect of the rivers is the same as that of the Rhine and Mosel in Germany; it raises the ambient temperatures just enough to allow the fruit to ripen. This means that vineyards are planted to take maximum effect of exposure to the sun and warmth rising off the river; the northern riverbank slopes are carpeted with grape vines.
In winemaking terms, the Loire Valley is best imagined as a long ribbon with crisp white wines on either end, and fuller flavored wines of all types in the middle. There are some 60 different appellations that make up the wines of the Loire, ranging in style from bone-dry to intensely sweet.
The history of viticulture in the Loire parallels the story of winemaking throughout France. It was the Phoenicians, then the Greeks and, finally, the Romans who brought vines to what was then Gaul. As the Romans made their imperialistic push up the Rhône, they planted vines as they went, in an effort to bring some of the comforts from home to the remote and hostile north. As they moved to occupy the whole country, the Loire Valley was included in their vineyard expansion as well.
Vines reached the Loire from two directions. From the hills of the Côte d’Or, it was a short jump to the propitious, well-exposed chalky hillsides of Sancerre, and by the fourth century, most of the central regions had been planted. Meanwhile, the grape growing taking place in Bordeaux traveled north up the Atlantic coast to the Bay of Biscay and began to progress eastward. These vineyard developments were stalled, as the collapse of the Roman Empire proved to be as chaotic in the Loire Valley as it was throughout the rest of Western Europe. However, it was the Church and particularly its monasteries that sheltered what was left of civilization and, with it, the vine.
With the increased influence of the Church, certain names became prominent in the viticulture of the Loire region. Saint Martin of Tours, a 4th century bishop, is perhaps the most known and respected. He is credited with having brought several vine cuttings from his native Hungary and with planting vines throughout most of the Touraine. There is a legend, however, that claims his donkey made an even greater contribution to viticulture. While tethered in a vineyard one day, he stripped the nearby vines of their leaves. Those vines later proved to be the most productive in the vineyard, thus beginning the now standard practice of pruning vines.
As civil authority began to gain prominence throughout France, ruling powers began to control wine production in the region. Just as the Dukes of Burgundy began to use wine as both an export and a diplomatic weapon, the rulers of Anjou and Touraine promoted their wines throughout Europe, exporting it to England and the Low Countries. Again at this time, it seemed that the Loire was divided: the wines of the east went to Burgundy and Paris, while the wines of the west looked to the ocean and beyond.
By the end of the Middle Ages, some of the more recognizable grape varieties had begun to find homes on the river. Cabernet Franc arrived from Bordeaux and became happy in Anjou and Touraine. Known at the time as Breton, it made excellent wines in these friendly climes. However, Chenin Blanc’s origins are more mysterious. A recent theory purports that it is a mutation of a native wild vine called the Pineau d’Aunis, named for a village near Saumur. A pale red berried grape, it still is used in Touraine to produce a rosé. The theory states that through selection of the lighter berries, it eventually yielded a lighter grape that was deemed Pineau de la Loire, and later, Chenin Blanc.
Sauvignon Blanc also arrived from Bordeaux, and although the vineyards of the eastern Loire favored things Burgundian, they wisely recognized that the fast-ripening grape was perfect for their hillside vineyards and short intense summers. Though widely planted during the 16th and 17th centuries, it inexplicably fell out of favor for higher yielding varieties such as the Chasselas, before regaining its place after the phylloxera plague of the late 19th century.
The other major grape variety of the Loire, the Melon de Bourgogne, is also an import. It arrived in Muscadet following a devastating frost that destroyed the existing red-wine vines in the region. Dutch merchants persuaded the local growers to plant white wine varieties that would be more suitable for brandy distillation, and the frost resistant Melon proved to be suitable for both table wine and brandy production.
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