Ah the French...so romantic! Our next instalment is part 1/3 on the #Loire Valley in France. The Loire Valley (Le-wah) is a region of vineyards that follow the path of France's longest river, the Loire. The Loire region is known as Le Jardin de la France 'the Garden of France'. Both viticulture and agriculture flourish here, dotted by hundreds of castles and chateaux, gardens, vineyards and expanses of croplands. In 2000, the centre of the Loire region was honoured by UNESCO and awarded World Heritage status......it truly is a wonder! The Loire River begins its journey from Cévennes, near the foot of Mont Gerbier in the Massif Central mountain range (a group of extinct volcanoes), travelling north, it swings to the west at Orléans and journeys out to the coast.
The region is France's fourth most popular tourist destination. It is France's largest white wine region, the second largest sparkling producer, and the fourth largest overall producer of AOC wines!
As early as the 1st Century AD, the Romans brought the vine to this area. As the Roman Empire began to decline, other powers moved in to take over. The Loire became a dividing point during the Middle Ages between the Latin-influenced South, and the Celtic-Germanic influence to the North. In 1152, a key event took place that would have its influence for 300yrs! The marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to the Count of Anjou, Henry Plantagenet. With combined enormous wealth and influence, Henry Plantagenet would later rule as the Duke of Normandy, and then as King Henry II of England. Their combined holdings included Aquitaine, Gascony, and the rich, fertile Loire Valley. This marriage allowed the British to have a powerful presence in the area with trade and Naval might, The wines of the Loire were served at the English King's table. In 1429 in the town of Chinon, Joan of Arc persuaded the future King Charles VII to accept the French Crown, defy the English, and establish the foundations of an independent French nation. This further cemented the Loire as the cradle of modern France.
As with many other French wine regions, the monks of various orders had their impact promoting wine culture and quality. The Loire was no different. The area's natural beauty was a drawcard for the wealthy and became a playground. Nobility and royalty flocked to the area drawn in by forests teeming with game and wildlife. Building summer retreats. castles, estates, chateaux and hunting lodges, the area was a glistening centrepiece during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The Dutch became key players in the wine industry, influencing locals to plant more white varieties (Muscadet and Folle Blanche) so they could create their favourite beverage; brandewijn (literally 'burnt wine'), a product distilled from grapes and sold to northern European markets. This French 'brandy wine' was popular for the next two centuries. When commerce traded on waterways, the Loire was important with 50 boats daily travelling the river past Orléans to the coast with many of them carrying wine. In the past, the Loire was connected to the Seine, France's other great river.
French Revolution - Modern Times:
During the French Revolution (1789) and the Naploeonic Wars (early 1800s) enormous challenges faced the region. The expansion of the French National Railway introduced competition from Bordeaux and Bourgogne (Burgundy). The region was hit by Phylloxera in the 1880s and was one of the last to recover. With the introduction of the Appellation d'Origine Controllée (AOC) system in 1935, the Loire region experienced a resurgence as a fine wine producing region because of the large number of AOCs it received. Today there are approx 70 different AOCs, encompassing 125 000 acres/50 000 ha of vineyards.
The Loire River stretches for almost 1000 klms from it's headwaters in central France, to it's delta on the Atlantic Ocean through the Bay of Biscal. The region takes its name from the river, with most vineyards flanking its banks or tributaries. The river gets its name from the Latin 'Liger' meaning silt/sediment. Sandbars are common.
The region has two key influences-the river and the gulf stream.
The Loire River helps to warm the vineyards. The effects cannot be overstated! The river helps to warm the vineyards that flank it as much as 2-4 celsius!The tributaries assist in creating favourable mesoclimates suitable for ripening grapes. The Gulf Stream:
The Gulf Stream also has considerable influence channelling soft breezes from the coast as far inland as Orléans softening a potentially harsh climate. The region experiences a variety of climate threats depending on the region. These include; rain, cold, frosts, storms, cloudy weather, snow storms, ice. The region divides into 3 distinct climate zones, geography and soil types. Let's look at each region in turn.
Pays Nantais/Lower Loire:
The lower Loire has a distinct maritime climate.
Winters are cold and damp with the biggest threats coming from frosts and snow storms.
Springs are cool and damp with increasing sunshine.
Summers are warm and mild with plenty of sunshine. Humidity can be an issue, causing rot and mildew outbreaks.
Autumns tend to be warm and mild with the threat of occasional rainstorms, posing a threat at Harvest.
The topography is a predominantly flat coastal plain with little features. Its main features are the two rivers that dissect the area; the Sévre and the Maine. A hotbed of volcanic activity, the soils were created millions of years ago. -top soils are dominated by Gneiss, a porous rock which provides critical drainage. -sub-soil is mostly crystalline rock; high in mineral content. -both these soil types provide critical drainage in an area with high levels of water.
Without these soils, due to the high water/moisture content of the area, vines would be high yielding with little extract in the wines.
Due to its mostly moderate climate, the Loire is host to a large number of grape varieties that can be grown.
Muscadet aka Melon de Bougogne-principle grape
Chenin Blanc aka Pineau de la Loire and Gros Pinot
Folle Blanche aka Gros Plant
Pinot Gris aka Malvoisie
There are many AOCs of the Pays Nantais region, but for our purposes we'll focus on the ones that gain the most attention; these being the Muscadet AOCs. Much of the following zone's wines are consumed locally (sur place) but with a large following in Paris bistros and restaurants. Breaking with French wine tradition, the AOCs are named after the grape-Muscadet (Melon de Bourgogne). The wines are typically easy-drinking and inexpensive, with aromas of grapefruit and pepper. They are round in texture and nutty due to the process of sur-lie ageing. Sur-lie is the process of ageing the wine on dead yeast cells. This has the effect of rounding out the texture of the wine and importing a nutty quality.
Muscadet AOC:This is a regional AOC covering the entire Pays Nantais region, and is responsible for 20% of production. Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire AOC:This is the smallest of the regional AOCs, with most production north of Nantes. The wines have pronounced minerality. Muscadet Cōtes de Grandlieu AOC:This AOC is located SW of Nantes along the Lake Grand Lieu. The wines are fresh and fruity. Muscadet Sèvre et Maine AOC:This region is responsible for 75% of all Muscadet bottled. Its name is derived from the two rivers that run through it: La Sèvre Nantaise and La Petite Maine. Muscadet Sèvre et Maine has three crus of unique qualities:
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Clisson has granite soils with galets which impart a dried fruit character to the wines, and the most concentrated flavour profile. Its wines must be aged a minimum of 24 months sur-lie.
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Gorges has clay soils rich in quartz and a coarsely-grained green volcanic rock called gabbros. The wines are marked by both minerality and a distinct touch of smoke. The wines must be aged a minimum 24 months sur-lie but sometimes lasting 40 months.
Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Le Pallet has soils of gneiss and gabbros which deliver a pronounced floral element to the wines. They must age 17 months minimum sur-lie.
So there it is, an introduction to the Loire Valley and the Pays Nantais region. In part 2 we'll look at the Middle Loire; Anjou-Samur and Touraine.
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