The archetypal image of the charming French bistro would be incomplete without its signature chalkboard advertising wines by the carafe. And by the same token, no self-respecting French wine list would be complete without a healthy representation of beloved staples from France’s Loire Valley. Across the generations, the region’s enduring classics—from whites like Sancerre, Muscadet and Vouvray to cabernet franc–based reds such as Chinon and Saumur—have transcended fluctuations in fashion to stake their claim as essential pillars of the French “table wine” tradition.
To the current crop of industry insiders and thought leaders, however, this timeless quality only begins to account for the powerful draw the region continues to exert upon contemporary drinkers. In fact, the reasons to love the Loire today are as numerous as its dazzling roster of styles, grapes and subregions. If you talk to the experts, however, a few key themes perpetually recur—not least of all this astonishing variety of expressions.
According to Susan R Lin, Master of Wine and head of wine expertise and business development at the Bay Area’s Belmont Wine Exchange, the unifying theme that defines the Loire as a whole is this unequaled diversity. An accomplished classical musician herself, Lin likens this quality to the interaction between the components of a chamber music group. “The Loire, to me, is like a small group of musicians who are at the top of their game, who play beautifully as soloists but also seamlessly as an ensemble,” she explains.
In her view, this metaphor operates on multiple fronts. Not only are there the different regions of the Loire, but the comparison also manifests across the many grape varieties that call the region home, each contributing its own array of signature styles, from “fresh, fruity and approachable wines to collector-caliber expressions” that can stand toe-to-toe with any of the world’s best. “Each of these regions, varieties and styles has its own sense of uniqueness and place from a rich cultural history,” she says. “And yet as a whole they create a unique harmony, and it’s this diversity that makes the Loire Valley so special.”
Veteran French wine importer Michael Corso, of Corso Selections, echoes that sentiment. “The Loire gives you everything,” he says. “Dry, off-dry and fully sweet whites, extremely good sparkling wines, great rosés and truly terrific reds—it does it all.” He’s also quick to point out two other key reasons for the area’s surging popularity among wine professionals: its affordability and its compatibility with a wide variety of cuisines.
Calling them “some of the world’s most refreshing food wines,” Corso claims that over the course of his long career, he’s “probably learned the most about matching wine with food through working with the wines of the Loire.” That includes familiar combinations, such as Muscadet with shellfish, but less-expected pairings as well. In particular, he champions pairing the region’s off-dry (or “demi-sec”) interpretations of chenin blanc (such as those, most famously, from the appellations of Vouvray or Anjou) with the heat of certain spices that can be difficult to harmonize with other styles: “There’s always been a bit of a prejudice in the U.S. that has equated dry wines with quality and residually sweet wines as cheap, but nothing works better than demi-sec wines with rich sauces or spicier cuisines.”
With such a rich stylistic arsenal to deploy, it’s only logical that the Loire would become a sommelier secret weapon. Over recent years, this celebrated diversity has assumed an even more radical form. Having emerged as the natural wine movement’s spiritual headquarters back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the Loire introduced a whole generation of wine professionals to the minimal-interventionist school of winemaking.
“For me and many of my friends in the industry, the Loire gave us something to cut our teeth on when we were first getting into natural wine,” says sommelier Zwann Grays, of Brooklyn’s acclaimed Olmsted. “Everyone was drinking these amazing natural wines from the Loire Valley and certain producers’ names just started to enter my radar. In a way, that’s where it all started.”
In her current capacity at Olmsted, Grays works with a wide roster of Loire producers, most of whom veer toward the natural and low-intervention side of the spectrum. What’s more, she credits her early experience with natural wines from the region with inspiring her to explore expressions from all over the globe. “The popularity of those producers from the Loire led me to discover natural wine as a movement and paved the way for the discovery of other pockets of the world where natural wine is happening as well,” she explains. “But the Loire is still going strong, and it has as much as ever to offer natural wine lovers.”
Above all, it’s this sense of perpetual reinvention that fuels the Loire’s relevance to audiences today, making it essential to today’s industry in-crowd. To Grays, however, for all of its modern street cred, the region possesses one enduring quality that, in her view, will always define it: a deep spirit of friendship, community and celebration.
“Like anywhere else, the spirit of the place is reflected in the style of the wines from the Loire,” Grays says. “There’s an easygoing-ness about Loire Valley wines. They invite you to eat, drink and be merry.”
- I think of the Loire as the morning farmers market of wine regions. You can shop around and get everything you need for the day, the weekend or the entire week.
- The terroir of the Loire is reflected not only in the regions and the grapes, which are many, but also in the mentality and lifestyle of the people who are living in this place. Part of understanding what these wines are all about is remembering that they’re built for gathering and for friendship.
- When in doubt, go with the Loire. Honestly, that’s it—you will always be pleasantly surprised.
The Loire is all about diversity, which I like to break down into three different prongs:
- First, there’s diversity in categories, from fresh, fruity and approachable to serious, complex and age-worthy.
- Second, there’s diversity in price points. You can offer cases of Muscadet or Anjou chenin blanc by the glass at a bar or restaurant, but the region also offers up collectible wines from cult producers like Didier Dagueneau or Clos Rougeard.
- Finally, I really enjoy the versatility of styles within that range of prices. What makes the Loire so unique is that it offers so many choices for wines that offer great pleasure as stand-alone aperitifs or paired with food.
–Marcel Martin, Les Bernières, AOC Chinon
–Domaine de la Chauvinière, AOC Muscadet Sèvre et Maine
–Domaine de Cormiers, Fines Bulles, AOC Vouvray
–Henri Bourgeouis, La Côte des Monts Damnés Sauvignon Blanc, AOC Sancerre
- I have a personal history with Loire wines because a bottle of Vouvray was the first wine I ever bought in my life. I drank it while I was in college on a first date. We never went out again, but I still have that empty bottle of 1969 Château Moncontour Vouvray Demi-Sec, and I’ve always had a fondness for Vouvray.
- From my earliest days in the wine business, Loire wines were always described as charming, and they are. They’re just so delightful and engaging. They say, “Come drink me,” and there’s a certain freshness about them that is extremely attractive.
- Across the board, the Loire offers tremendous value. The entire region delivers incredibly high and consistent quality at extremely reasonable prices.
–Domaine Roger & Christophe Moreux, Les Bouffants, AOC Sancerre
–Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, Cuvée Silex, AOC Vouvray Sec
–Jean-Michel Gautier, AOC Vouvray Brut
–Domaine des Quatre Routes, Henri Poiron, AOC Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie