The Grapes of the Loire Valley
The Loire Valley is home to many of the most famous grapes in the world: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and many of the wine world's favorite international varieties find a happy home in the Loire.
But the Loire really stand out among great wine regions for the staggering number of local grape varieties used to make stunning wines. From Muscadet to Chinon, and from Pouilly-Sur-Loire to Vouvray, there are quite a few surprises to be found above and beyond the big names.
As the next installment of our Guide to the Loire, today we’re going to explore the wild, wonderful world of Loire wine grapes today. Thanks for coming for the ride!
Red Grapes of the Loire
The Loire is an enormous region. It stretches from the Atlantic Coast and cities like Nantes halfway across L’Hexagone, and encompasses dozens of AOCs. No wonder there's so much variety!
Cab Franc, the undisputed king of Loire reds, goes into some of the Loire's most famous red wines, including Chinon, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Saumur (and Saumur-Champigny), and Anjou. While the grape has gained some fame as a blending grape in Bordeaux, in the Loire it nearly always makes single-varietal wines that burst at the seams with Cabernet Franc’s trademark flavors of cherries, cedar, earth and herbs. It can be serious and savory (as in Bernard Baudry’s Chinon cuvées) or lush, playful and cheeky (as in Château Yvonne’s Saumur-Champigny “La Folie”). But it always offers a ton of value.
Cabernet Franc’s origins (like most grapes’ tbh) is murky. It’s an ancient and important grape in Bordeaux and you can find people who claim the variety came to the Loire from there. But the most recent DNA studies show Cab Franc came from Spanish Basque Country by way of the Nantes region. This explains Cab Franc's common Loire Valley synonym, “Breton” — at the time, Nantes was part of Brittany, so the locals referred to the grape Breton.
Significant producers of Cabernet Franc are legion. In Chinon, where the wines are known for robust notes of ripe cherry and tobacco leaf, we love the wines of Bernard Baudry, Joguet, Couly-Dutheil, Olga Raffault, Philippe Alliet and more.
In Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, top producers, including Yanick Amirault, make crisp wines with the fresh acidity and joyful fruit that practically define Loire-Valley wines. But look out also for terroir-focused wines from great sites that are more medium- than light-bodied, and show lovely complexity with spice and earthy flavors.
And then (of course) there’s Clos Rougeard, the cult estate that not only put Saumur-Champigny on the collector’s map, but even Cabernet Franc itself for many wine drinkers.
Probably best known as the variety used in the production of Beaujolais, Gamay is also used as both a blending grape and in mono varietal wines in the Loire Valley. In the medieval period, it was banished from Burgundy by the ruling duke, who wanted Pinot Noir to be the supreme red grape variety (Gamay is significantly more productive than the fickle Pinot Noir). Today, Gamay is blended with Pinot Noir in some delicious, fresh and juicy wines in regions including Touraine, Coteaux du Giennois or Coteaux d’Ancenis.
In 2009, Gamay was the 7th most planted red variety in France, and in the Loire it is especially prevalent in the region of Touraine, where it makes up more than 60% of the red grape harvest. Although it is often a supporting grape in blends, Touraine Gamay must be at least 85% Gamay.
In addition to being used in red wines, Gamay can also be used in rosés. And Touraine primeur — which is a wine released shortly after harvest/bottling, akin to Beaujolais nouveau — is exclusively made from Gamay. Unfortunately, we rarely see Touraine Gamay in America. But if you’re travelling in France after the harvest keep an eye out!
Grolleau is a really fun grape that can produce dark-hued wines of light to medium body and low alcohol --and it is found only in the Loire Valley.
It’s allowed as a blending grape in Anjou (where it can make up no more than 10% of the blend) and is commonly included in the Rosé de Loire or Rosé d’Anjou appellations. One of our favorite Loire rosés is from Chenin Blanc master Thibaud Boudignon, whose pale pink delight is mostly Cab Franc, but with incredible acidity, color and freshness from the 10-15% Grolleau he uses.
Although you don't see the name on too many labels, Grolleau is actually the Loire’s third most planted red grape (after Cabernet Franc and Gamay). Historically much was made into off-dry rosés. As the preference for dry styles has increased, the area planted to this grape has diminished, which we think is a real shame! Grolleau can make lively, juicy and herbaceous still red wines; some of our favorites are from natural producers like Toby et Julie Bainbridge and La Grange aux Belles, as well as the trailblazing Pierre et Catherine Breton.
Although ‘Pineau’ is produced just like ‘Pinot,’ don’t get them confused — they aren’t even family! The only relation is that both grapes were named after the shape of their bunches, which to some medieval ampelographer resembled a pine cone.
Pineau d’Aunis is an ancient variety of the Loire Valley — it was known and loved by the Plantagenets, the royal house of medieval England. Over the centuries, the acreage dedicated to it has shrunk thanks to a series of misfortunes ranging from phylloxera to the construction of the Paris-Bordeaux railroad, which resulted in the destruction of many vineyards. There’s estimated to be less than 500 hectares devoted to Pineau d’Aunis vines at present.
Pineau d’Aunis produces pale red wines, rife with punchy flavors of wild berries and intriguing, savory aromas of smoke and white pepper. They seem to be variously delicate and intense at different turns.
Pineau d’Aunis is used as a blending grape in many different AOCs, including Crémant de Loire, Rosé de Loire and Touraine, but it is often found as a single varietal wine, sometimes with the Coteaux du Vendômois AOC designation and sometimes as a simple Vin de France.
In the Coteaux du Loir appellation — named for the Loir River, a tributary of the Loire — at least 65% of the blend must be Pineau d’Aunis, though some wines are mono varietal. We particularly love Pascal Janvier’s Cuvée des Rosiers, a favorite from Kermit Lynch, that is light enough to serve chilled in the summer. It’s full of fresh fruit, subtle herbs and just enough of that savory character to ensure that you’ll still be intrigued by the wine when you get to the bottom of the bottle.
What’s known as Malbec in the rest of the world is known in the Loire as Côt. And considering that the Loire is the grape's ancestral homeland, perhaps we should all be calling it that!
Malbec is famous around the wine world for making plush, supple and sometimes jammy red wines, most notably (these days) in Argentina.
But in the Loire Valley Côt/Malbec makes more svelte, energetic and juicier wines: it's a version of Malbec that’s shed some baby fat. We are particularly enamored with Grange Tiphaine's Vieilles Vignes bottling, made from 120-ish year old vines. It's structured, high-acid and darkly mineral. A very special treat if you can get your hands on a bottle.
Even if you can't find one of the collectibles, any Côt from a good producer will be a classic Loire wine: fresh and fun with tasty fruit, a sense of terroir -- all at a great value!
Pinot Noir is a grape that doesn’t need much of an introduction — it’s known the world over.
It’s much less commonly found in the Loire than in Burgundy, to the west, but there are plenty of well-known examples. Pinot Noir is the red grape of Sancerre. As we discussed in our Sancerre post, it was actually one of Sancerre’s predominant grapes before Sauvignon Blanc began to take over there. It is also used to make really stunning rosé wines which manage to preserve Pinot character, local terroir variations and also the classic Loire Valley fresh and fun vibe.
And to be clear, it isn’t just Sancerre. Neighboring Menetou-Salon, for instance, with its similar soil types and AOC regulations, makes delicious red and rosé Pinot Noirs wines.
Loire Pinots tend to be lighter-bodied and lower in alcohol than Burgundy’s, though some Sancerre producers’ red wines are every bit as age-worthy: Domaine Vacheron’s La Belle Dame and Vincent Pinard’s red cuvées are two leading examples that you can sometimes find in America.
Internationally, Cabernet Sauvignon’s fame overshadows its parents -- Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Yes, that’s right: Cabernet Sauvignon is the offspring of Cabernet Franc and the white grape, Sauvignon Blanc.
But in the Loire Valley, it plays only a supporting role in a few appellations, typically as a blending grape. But it’s not nothing! There are over 1200 hectares planted to Cabernet Sauvignon in the Loire — putting it in fourth place in terms of red grapes, far behind Grolleau but with much more acreage than either Pineau d'Aunis or even Pinot Noir.
In locales like Anjou, it is often planted as a direct competitor to Cabernet Franc, especially in the warmer western part of the region, where warmer, darker soils ensure that the grapes can fully ripen.
White Grapes of the Loire
Many wine fanatics consider Chenin Blanc the most noble white grape.
It’s a more versatile grape than any other, except perhaps Riesling. It can be turned into wines that are dry and racy, sweet and luscious, and everywhere in between.
It is also naturally a high-acid grape that, even when it’s making rich and ripe wines, expresses the freshness that makes Loire wines so compelling.
The acidity also seems to help Chenin to be such a superlative grape for expressing specific terroirs. It’s at least as good as Chardonnay -- Burgundy’s famous white grape of terroir.
And it’s not just that different appellations (for example, Vouvray and Savennières) make wildly different wines from the same grape even though they aren’t that far apart.
It’s more that even within a single appellation like Vouvray, different sites make fascinatingly distinct wines. You can check out Huet’s famous lineup of three different Vouvray vineyards, Clos du Bourg, Le Mont, and Le Haut Lieu, to see just how fine-grained Chenin Blanc’s expression of terroir can be.
Depending on its growing conditions (and especially on that terroir), Chenin can be reminiscent of orchard fruit, pineapple, citrus, smoke, flint and crushed stone. It is native to the Loire Valley, most likely from Anjou, and was first recorded in the 15th century. The grape is utilized in several Loire Valley AOCs: in and around Maine-et-Loire, around Angers, Indre-et-Loire, Tours and Loir-et-Cher; it’s hemmed in by Sauvignon Blanc-dominated vineyards to the East and Melon de Bourgogne vineyards in the West.
The grape is perhaps most famously used in the production of Vouvray wine, the styles of which range from succulently sweet (“moelleux”) to completely dry (“sec”), with “demi-sec” wines (literally, "half-dry") lying somewhere in between.
There are special bottles of dessert wine from Vouvray (and a few neighboring villages) made with grapes afflicted with noble rot, or botrytis. Domaine Huet’s Cuvée Constance is the most famous, though throughout history, the late-harvest, botrytized wines of Quarts de Chaume Grand cru (a Grand Cru!) and Coteaux du Layon have been prized for their unctuous sweetness. These sweet wines have prominent notes of lychee, candied ginger, lemon and lime curd and honey, as well as mineral facets.
There are plenty of dry wines made from Chenin Blanc, perhaps most notably in Savennières, where fine, age-worthy and well-structured wines are produced by vignerons like Nicolas Joly (whose biodynamic estate, Coulée de Serrant, enjoys its own AOC), Domaine du Closel, Domaine aux Moines, and newcomers like Thibaud Boudignon.
There are also excellent dry wines to be found in Saumur (see the wines of Guiberteau, Château Yvonne and of course Clos Rougeard), Anjou (see the aforementioned Boudignon, and natural producers like Richard Leroy, Les Vignes Herbel and Stephane Bernardeau). Other names to be on the lookout for include classics like François Chidaine and Jacky Blot, as well as newcomers like Xavier Weisskopf.
Chenin Blanc is also used in the production of Crémant de Loire. In some parts of the Loire, the grape is called Pineau de la Loire.
Sauvignon Blanc, one of the world’s best known grape varieties, most likely originated in the Loire Valley. Despite its huge popularity in Bordeaux (not to mention faraway places like New Zealand or California) the Loire is still where we think it is at its purest, most transparent.
DNA analysis has proven it to be an offspring of Savagnin, as well as a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon (as discussed above, a result of a crossing SB and Cabernet Franc).
Sauvignon Blanc is famous for offering bright fruit with a green flavor profile: grass, green tea, lime and gooseberries are classic notes. But it has a wide range of expressions. It can veer towards the tropical in warmer vintages (we often detect notes of guava or passionfruit). And, depending on the soils in which it’s grown, it can be intensely minerally. Like Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, it’s a grape that finds refinement when its yields are limited.
Its most famous home is the appellation of Sancerre, an assortment of villages with a mix of stony soils. Read our complete guide to Sancerre here. Sancerre has great terroir and many of France’s top producers -- and yet it’s far from the Loire’s only source for truly great Sauvignon Blanc.
In neighboring Pouilly-Fumé, producers like Didier Dagueneau have helped to elevate the grape’s status, often with slightly richer, flintier wines than those found in Sancerre. Dagueneau’s wines command high prices, but producers like Domaine Deschamps offer lush wines with a subtle herbaceous quality, as well as ripe tropical fruit.
The outlying appellations of Menetou-Salon, Quincy, Reuilly and Coteaux du Giennois are less well-known than Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, but they offer excellent values and some very good wines. From Menetou-Salon, Paul-Henri Pellé’s wines are some of our favorite Sauvignon Blancs, full stop. But as discussed in our guide to the Central Loire, each of these appellations offers a fascinating mix of terroirs and producers.
Melon de Bourgogne
Melon de Bourgogne, as the name suggests, once found a home in Burgundy (aka "Bourgogne"). But Burgundy’s dukes banished it in the medieval period, in an attempt to better control the wine market and ensure that only the more expensive and prestigious Chardonnay could be grown and sold.
But all was not lost for this freshest of grapes: it found a home on France’s Atlantic Coast, in the appellation of Muscadet, where it is seriously influenced by the maritime climate. One of the hallmarks of Muscadet wines is long aging on the wines’ lees (the spent yeast particles) that lend richness and texture, as well as a subtle salinity, to the naturally high-toned wine.
Melon (as insiders like to call it) has never gained the same sort of fanatical following for its terroir transparency as, say, Chenin Blanc. And yet… in the right hands it can be incredibly expressive! You can read much more about the grape’s various expressions throughout the Loire’s Atlantic Coast in our Guide to the Pays Nantais here.
Chardonnay, the international king of white grapes, is relegated to the status of a blending grape in the Loire, where it can be found as a complement to Chenin Blanc in appellations like Crémant de Loire or Anjou Blanc or as an accompaniment to Sacy (aka Tressalier) in Saint- Pourçain blanc.
Can it make good wine in the Loire? Sure! We even see examples in New York, from time to time. But it doesn’t have the history of decades or even centuries of Loire Valley vignerons working to align it with their terroir in order to express something truly exceptional. For that, you need to look to Chenin, Sauvignon Blanc, or some of the other grapes discussed here.
In the Southwest, in the provinces of Cognac and Armagnac where it is distilled into those famous spirits, Gros Plant is known as Folle Blanche. In the Loire, this grape is mostly grown in and around the AOC of Muscadet, where it makes inexpensive, bright wine under the appellation of Gros Plant du Pays Nantais.
Also known as Arbois or Orbois in parts of the Loire (though it has nothing to do with the village of Arbois in the Jura), this is a grape that has steadily declined in popularity over the past century. It’s generally low in acidity, so it is typically used as a blending grape in places like Touraine, Cheverny or Valençay, where it is typically blended with Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc.
We’ve noticed some natural producers, like Les Capriades and Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue Boeuf, making varietal Menu Pineau wines. But they are rare as the acreage planted to the grape is so limited. These wines tend to have flavors of minerals, spices and apples.
A grape with many names, Chasselas is found all over France (and neighboring Switzerland, and Austria, and Spain, and really all over Europe, though it once enjoyed some fame in Egypt and Turkey). In the Loire, it’s relatively uncommon, though it is used in the production of Pouilly-sur-Loire, in the same area as Pouilly-Fumé.
It is a grape of high vigor, and if its yields are not limited, its wines can be somewhat insipid (same with those made by an inferior winemaker). But there are truly fine examples from winemakers like Deschamps, who treat the wine with the same respect as their renowned and aromatic Pouilly-Fumés. Such wines are light and fresh and great with food, but work from their bright entry to their mineral finish to convey a special sense of the Loire. Given the low prices Pouilly-sur-Loire can command such examples of Chassels make for incredible values.
Congratulations if you've made it this far in our overview of Loire Valley Grapes -- you're now a certified Loire Valley wine geek!