Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along?
For most wine drinkers the Loire Valley starts and stops with the Sauvignon Blanc grown in the central vineyards around the small towns of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, but this large region deserves far more recognition.
The Loire is France’s longest river at 1012km and wines are produced along the majority of its length. It is the third largest producer of appellation wine in France (and the largest producer of white) and there are currently just over 57,000 hectares planted. There are 51 appellations and 4 IGPs and a remarkable 25% of the vineyard carries organic or sustainable certification. In a region that covers such a large area, and which grows 24 different varieties, generalisations are dangerous, but Loire wine does have a common thread and that is a freshness and lightness of touch. It is possible to find most styles of wine here, including some very successful sparkling, a couple of the world’s classic sweet wines, light through to quite full reds, whites from pale and neutral through to deep coloured and full bodied and a level of rosé production second only to Provence.
For ease the Loire is generally divided into three zones, The Pays Nantais with Muscadet specializing in light white wine at the mouth of the river, Anjou and Touraine (The Middle Loire) making reds and rosé from Cabernet Franc (and to a lesser extent Gamay), whites from Chenin Blanc and some decent sparkling from Chenin and Chardonnay and finally the Upper Loire making whites from Sauvignon Blanc and reds from Pinot Noir in the Central Vineyards and reds and rosés from Gamay in St.Pourçain, the Côtes Roannaise and the Côtes du Forez, all of which are in the Auvergne and closer to Lyon than Sancerre!
This is historically a region of small farmers and there are still 6,200 vineyard owners today, although recent years has seen a slow consolidation amongst these. 250 merchants and 16 cooperatives make a sizeable proportion of the wine, but there are also nearly 900 domaines in operation. The area has also been at the forefront of Biodynamics in France and more recently, ‘natural’ wines.
This northerly wine region stands as a beneficiary (at least for now) of a warming climate and as fashions move more towards wines with more elegance and freshness and those with sustainable credentials, the Loire is well positioned to become a far more dominant player.
There have been vineyards in the Loire since the 1st century and they were relatively significant around Tours by the 6th century. Fast forward 500 years and the land around Nantes (now home to Muscadet) produced a wine highly regarded in Brittany, whilst Sancerre wine (at the time mostly red, with the whites made from Chasselas) was also being exported to Flanders. The river played a key role in commercial success at this time, as it made transporting wine easy and Loire wines, especially those of Anjou were, by the 12th century, a status symbol in Holland and in England, as well as in nearby Paris. At this time, Anjou, along with Poitou and St.Pourçain, were considered the world’s finest wines (no doubt helped by Henry II having been Count of Anjou before taking the English throne in 1154). The French Royal associations with the Loire helped the wine trade throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but these golden times came to a standstill with the French revolution and subsequent war of the Vendée. The rise of railways bought competition from the south of the country and then phylloxera struck the vineyards in the 1870s. At this point, much of the replanting was with hybrid grape varieties, planted for their disease resistance more than their quality, although Muscadet continued to be made with Melon de Bourgogne and Cabernet France was widely replanted. With the introduction of appellations in 1936, several of the Loire’s best known names received a boost and the latter half of the 20th century saw the remarkable rise of Sancerre (now mostly planted with Sauvignon Blanc) and Pouilly-Fumé, which to this day remain benchmark wines in most markets.
The Loire Valley produces around 27 million cases of wine each year, with nearly 80% sold domestically. Paris remains a key market and the wines are a staple on any Parisian Bistro list. The main export markets are the USA (with 25% of exports), the UK (18%), Germany (15%) and Belgium (11%). The most significant appellations for export are Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Muscadet, Saumur and Crémant. In the 1980s, Muscadet was the main export to the UK and one of the best-selling wines in this country, however the wine was often very bland and following the frost of 1991, prices rose just as the Australian wine tsunami hit our shores and imports of this much maligned wine collapsed. Although some serious quality Muscadet is now made, it barely gets noticed in the UK now. The UK has once again seen considerable growth in imports from the Loire over the past decade, with reds and rosés now seeing significant growth.
This northern region has greater vintage variation than many and great skill is needed to make good wine whatever nature throws at you here. For many years, whites were made with protective handling (no Oxygen allowed near the must), no malolactic conversion and any ageing in stainless steel, with Muscadet sur Lie seeing extensive lees contact in tank. This led to fruity, crisp and clean wines, perhaps a little lacking in character. Reds were made with little extraction, from fruit that was often barely ripe and again ageing in neutral vessel, making light slightly crunchy wines often with a hint of leafiness. The last 30 years has seen much more experimentation (not least in a thriving natural wine movement), with many whites now seeing some Barrel ageing, malolactic being used in some whites and many sauvignons benefiting from pre fermentation skin contact. The better reds are now being made from lower yielding vines with more extraction and oak ageing. A warming climate has also aided the reds in taking on some weight.
Climatic generalizations are impossible over such a long river, but all the vineyards are far enough north that spring frost is a significant hazard as is the onset of autumn before full ripeness is reached. Privileged sites are needed for late ripening Cabernet. The western vineyards of the pays Nantais are near the sea and have a moderate maritime climate with significant rainfall, whilst just 30km inland at Anjou, rainfall is much lower. Around Tours, the temperature is slightly lower on average, but can get higher by day and still further upstream at Sancerre and Pouilly, the climate is continental with warm, often dry summers and cold winters.
There are twenty-four varieties grown in the Loire, a greater diversity than any other French wine region. A handful of these are exclusive to this region, but mostly remain largely unknown, although interest is slowly growing for some such as Pineau d’Aunis. Half a dozen varieties are the most important and listed below.
Cabernet Franc (56% of the red vineyard area) – Grown here since the 11th Century and until quite recently, the only place you were likely to find it as a single varietal. Here it tends to have more redcurrant than blackcurrant flavour and can have an appealing crunchy note with hints of pencil shaving, but when not fully ripe this can become a green leafy character. It is also widely used as a base in Crémant wines and for rosé. The best reds tend to come from Chinon, Bourgueil, Saumur-Champigny, Anjou and Touraine-Mesland.
Gamay (18%) – Produces lighter fruity reds that can be a touch earthy. Often blended with Cabernet or Malbec in Touraine to make a fruity, gentle red. The main variety in the little seen appellations of St.Pourçain, Côtes Roannaise and Côtes du Forez.
Pinot Noir (8%) – Burgundian import that has found favour in Touraine and especially in Sancerre and Menetou-Salon. When the yields are controlled and in warmer vintages it can make superb wine, but they tend to be quite pricey.
Grolleau (7%) – Heavy cropping vine that makes thin and acidic pale wine of little merit. It is mostly used in basic Touraine and thankfully the vineyard area is decreasing every year.
Other notable plantings exist of Cabernet Sauvignon (mostly found in Anjou, Saumur and Chinon), Pineau d’Aunis ( grown mostly around Tours and north of Angers, this makes an appealing light red with a distinct peppery character and is often used in rosé) and Côt (Malbec) which is widely planted in Touraine and brings structure to many blends..
Melon de Bourgogne -(30% of the white vineyard area) Although originally from Burgundy, Melon is now found almost exclusively in the pays Nantais at the mouth of the Loire and specifically in the wines of Muscadet. An offspring of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, it is a neutral tasting variety that has reasonable acidity and can crop heavily. It takes very well to lees ageing which can add some character.
Sauvignon Blanc (28%) – The dominant variety in the central vineyards that finds its apogee in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé whites. On the calcareous soils in these appellations it can reach heights seldom seen elsewhere in the world, however much of the wine made is on heavier clay soils and heavily cropped, giving a fruit and pleasant style, often lacking real energy. Touraine, Cheverny, Quincy and Reuilly offer better value examples that can be very fine indeed.
Chenin Blanc (27%) – Sometimes called Pineau de Loire, Chenin has been grown here for at least 1000 years and is capable of making world class wines, both sweet and dry as well as being a base for large quantities of sparkling wine. Widely planted throughout Anjou-Saumur and Touraine, the greatest wines come from Savennières, Vouvray), Anjou, Côteaux du Layon, Montlouis and Quarts de Chaume.
Other notable plantings exist of Chardonnay (mostly for sparkling but also used in Cheverny and Anjou), Folle Blanche (decreasing as it is replaced by Melon), Chasselas (once dominant, now a footnote in Pouilly) and Romorantin, a tart dull grape now confined to Cour-Cheverny.
Critics, collectors and merchants alike obsess about vintage, but with the increased investment in vineyards, technology and selection, amongst the Cru Classés at any rate, there is seldom a poor vintage now, whereas forty years ago there were vintages where barely a decent wine was made. This is not to say there are not vintages with distinct characters to them, just that consumers would do well to drink more from the ‘lesser’ vintages. At the lower end of the scale, the quality of winemaking has meant that decent wines are made virtually every year, even if they are often not age-worthy or especially complex. Below is a brief summary of the last 37 vintages.
1982 – Iconic and hot vintage, the wines were luscious, and relatively low in acidity. Many are fading, but the best are still superb. Best in the Northern communes. Sauternes poor.
1983 – A fine vintage overshadowed by the ‘82s. Margaux was the best commune. Top growths still drinking very well. Right bank variable. Sauternes excellent.
1984 – Poor in the Médoc, worse on the right bank. Should have been drunk long ago.
1985 – Warm summer led to very ripe fruit and lowish acidity. Arguably better balanced than th ‘82s, these drank so well young (like ‘53), that many thought they would not age well, however they can still be majestic now. Great St. Émilion. Sauternes was weak.
1986 – Hot, but very dry leading to small berries and tannic wines. Many only started to soften after 20 years in bottle. Lesser growths dried out before the tannins softened, but top wines are now superb. Good Sauternes, but without the acid for long life.
1987 – Wet early and late. Light wines with little structure, all past their best.
1988 – The first of a great triumvirate. Thick skinned grapes and lowish sugars led to wines of great structure and classical austerity in youth. With age these have blossomed beautifully. Pomerol a bit weak. Sauternes superb.
1989 – Hot and dry. Plenty of tannin, but also alcohol and lowish acidity. In some ways like 1982, but better vinified. Burly, but not without charm when young, these are perfect now. First rate Sauternes.
1990 – Magnificent and arguably the best vintage to date since 1961. Perfect season and great in all areas.
1991 – Severe frost in late April defined this vintage. Not much wine was made, though it was charming young.
1992 – The wettest year in half a century produced mean, dilute wines.
1993 – Another wet year produced another poor crop.
1994 – Wet again. Better than the previous 3 harvests and over-hyped en primeur because of desperation of the trade. None have stood the test of time well.
1995 – A very hot and dry summer produced many fine wines, the best in St. Estèphe and in the right bank. Fine Sauternes also.
1996 – Cool but sunny autumn led to wines that were beautifully ripe, but had very high acidities. The wines are developing very slowly thanks to that acid, but are very fine in the north of the Médoc and Graves. The right bank was adequate. Sauternes very good.
1997 – Very uneven weather throughout the season. Best reds are in the right bank and St Estèphe. With careful selection, this was by no means a poor vintage, but the wines tended to lack a little structure and many are now tired. Some excellent Sauternes made.
1998 – Hot and dry through to harvest when rain fell. Thick skins led to tannic and often austere Cabernet wines, but paradoxically also a bit dilute from the rains. A few great wines were made, but many are tannic and hollow. Merlot was mostly harvested before the rain and this is an excellent right bank vintage. Good Sauternes.
1999 – Good weather but high yields led to a lack of concentration in many wines. The balance was better than ‘98 and many of these are charming to drink now, especially from Margaux. Pomerol can be very good, but St. Émilion suffered from hail and many are weak. Sauternes were excellent.
2000 – Hot and dry, this was an excellent year, although uneven as some wines show signs of over maturity. The right bank made fine wines in a rich and generous style. Poor for Sauternes.
2001 – Suffered in comparison to 2000, yet depending on the style of wine you like, in some cases the wines are better. They certainly have better acid balance and tannins with more bite. An elegant vintage that has gained appreciation after being initially ignored. The right bank wines have much better freshness than the slightly bloated 2000’s, again depending on taste. Great in Sauternes – best since 1990.
2002 – Cool summer, but dry autumn. Late harvest of a small crop. ‘Classically’ styled wines of subtle fruit and much structure. The right bank had a meagre crop of fairly weak wines. Sauternes had some charm.
2003 – A year of extreme heat, although rain also fell. Berries began to raisin and some grapes reached over 15 degrees of potential alcohol. This is a unique year and quite uneven. There are some pleasant surprises – Montrose springs to mind – but also many that are hot, over alcoholic and with harsh tannins. Generally the right bank fared less well. Some hail this vintage as great, for others it is very poor, it depends on what you want Bordeaux to be. Sauternes were unbelievably rich, but lacking acidity.
2004 – Generally cool summer, but September was hot. Dryer than average. Huge crop, but generally this is a very good vintage overshadowed by the following year. Drinking well now. Sauternes only good at the best estates.
2005 – Climatically it was perfection. Good acidity, ripe tannins and very high sugars. This is an exceptional vintage throughout the region, including Sauternes.
2006 – Fluctuated between very hot and cold. Wet in late September which foiled what may have been a great year. Some very good wines made from Cabernet and where rigorous sorting could be practiced, but this is a frustrating year of what ifs? The right bank fared less well and few wines are memorable. Sauternes flabby.
2007 – Cool with wet spells, although rainfall was average overall. Ripeness was elusive and the harvest protracted. The resulting wines are charming, but lack stuffing and structure and are for earlier consumption. Sauternes was very good, as were the dry whites of Graves.
2008 – A damp year with small yields. Harvest was very late, but the resultant wines were elegant, with ripe fruit and firm structure. A good year, if not great. Sauternes decent.
2009 – Warm and sunny, the grapes had high sugars and low acidity. This is somewhat like 1989 and, other than the very high alcohols making some right bank wines a touch unbalanced, this is a very fine vintage indeed. Sauternes are superb – Yquem a potential legend.
2010 – A second hot and sunny vintage, however the grapes were very different to 2009, having lower pH, similarly high sugars and very abundant tannins. Less consistent than 2009 and not as voluptuous, it will be fascinating to see if the best turn out better, after the prodigious tannins have softened. Again, the right bank saw excessive alcohols, which are a matter of taste. Epic dry whites and Sauternes was, for the second year running, superb.
2011 – A more normal summer, warm and wet in September. Coming after the previous two vintages, this was bound to be overlooked, but the wines are actually very good, with an appealing freshness lacking in 2009 and 2010 and with good balance. Very good dry whites.
2012 – Hot in summer, but wet autumn led to a late and dilute harvest. Merlot fared better. By no means terrible, but these are wines for younger drinking.
2013 – Poor, with wet weather and rot causing harvesting of unripe grapes. Light and uninteresting.
2014 – Cool summer saved by a warm dry September. Relatively high acid wines that lack tannic structure, they are nonetheless fragrant and appealing and those who could select ruthlessly made very good wines.
2015 – Hot and dry early, cooler with some rain in late summer. Early harvest of ripe high quality fruit. A very good, potentially excellent vintage – time will tell
2016 – Cool and wet spring followed by a hot and dry summer and warm autumn. Very deep coloured wines have been made, with great depth of fruit but also appealing freshness. Less homogenous than 2015, the peaks are likely to be higher.
2017 – Frost cut the crop considerably. The vintage produced some good to very good wines on the left bank, less so on the right. Very good for dry whites and good Sauternes from the best, poor from those without resources.
2018 – A year that threw hail, mildew extreme heat and drought at producers, but the best have made some dense, tannic and memorable wines. Average Sauternes that lack real botrytis character.