Guide to Anjou-Saumur
The next stop in our wine voyage down the Loire River is Anjou-Saumur, the area around the French city of Angers. Anjou-Saumur is one half of the area often called the “Middle Loire” (the Touraine being the other).
This is the last stop before we hit the Atlantic region of the Pays Nantais, and Anjou-Saumur is where you can really feel things start to shift.
The Maritime influence begins in earnest in Anjou and Saumur. The climate is milder and temperature shifts are a little more moderate than in the purely continental regions inland. Of course, it’s not quite the fully maritime climate of the Pays Nantais.
We see a similar shift in the soils. There are still many limestone rich sites. But this corner of France is where the famous expanse of limestone running from the white cliffs Cliffs of Dover through Champagne, Chablis and the Loire comes to an end, and we start seeing metamorphic soils, especially schist.
Anjou-Saumur’s Grape Varieties
Anjou and Saumur’s most famous grapes are Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc. All its most famous appellations work with those grapes and all its most famous wines are made with one or the other.
But there are other grapes grown within the region and you will sometimes come across delicious wines made with a whole range of the grapes we see across the Loire Valley, including Gamay, Pineau d’Aunis, Grolleau, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Anjou-Saumur’s Wines and Food Pairings
As we see in so much of the Loire Valley, Anjou and Saumur specialize in making wines that have a straightforward deliciousness and don’t require much fussing to enjoy. Aromatic, pretty wines with incredible freshness from their delicate structures.
They are the sorts of wines you want to [have at a bistro] or neighborhood pub while you eat simple, good food. Chill down an aromatic and textured Cabernet Franc from Saumur with duck confit and you’ll find that the tannins and acidity cut through the fat and refresh every bite. Or get a glass of Anjou Blanc with your tuna tartare and you’ll have the zippy freshness to work with the protein and bright fruit to complement the salt and umami flavors.
That’s not to say there aren’t some very serious wines in Anjou and Saumur. There are! Chenin Blancs, both sweet and dry, that will age for decades and elevate the most complex gastronomic feast; Cabernet Franc wines that collectors store for decades and only bring out for people they truly love (or want to impress!).
But the vast majority of the bottles we see from Anjou and Saumur in America are the kind of joyful wines we want to share with friends -- or just enjoy a glass of while we binge watch a new show on Netflix.
Zooming in on Anjou’s Soils
In the vineyards of Anjou we see two distinct types of soil that mirror the transitional terroirs of Anjou-Saumur in general. “Anjou Blanc,” where limestone makes the soils white and the wines vibrant and lighter, and “Anjou Noir,” where schiste makes the soils darker and the wines richer, fuller bodies -- more bass than treble.
The vineyards around the city of Angers are full of vines, and many of these vineyards belong to appellations with the name “Anjou” in them: Anjou Coteaux de la Loire, Anjou Mousseux, Anjou Villages Brissac, Anjou Gamay and the like.
Unfortunately, we don’t see a lot of those wines in America, but the ones that make it here tend to be great value, approachable and fun wines. They are quintessential Loire wines. If you see them, try them!
In better news, we do see plenty of Anjou wines from these appellations:
- Anjou Blanc makes dry and off-dry Chenin Blanc from both black and white soils -- and some wines straddle the two.
- Anjou Rouge makes straightforward Cabernet wines with a touch of earthiness. Anjou Villages and Anjou Villages-Brissac cover special parcels in the region but are unfortunately rarely seen in the U.S.
Saumur Goes Solo
Today Saumur is best known for red wines, but it used to be more famous for sparkling wines -- which can be delicious and still make it to American shores and stores. Sparkling Saumur makes sense, given how much chalky limestone soil we find in the area -- soils similar to those that give Champagne their balance of racy backbone and balancing deep flavors.
Of course, those soils do wonders for all of Saumurs wines! Red Saumur is made with Cabernet Franc (Cabernet Sauvignon and Pineau d’Aunis can be used as supporting grapes, but we don’t see them very often). The combination of grape and terroir make wines that are best-known for being fragrant with berries and flowers.
The wines are generally on the lighter side of medium bodied and taste of fresh fruit with a subtle, savory-umami side. As well as being bright, they have fine tannins. This structure makes Saumur a wine you can pair with almost anything you’re going to order at your neighborhood restaurant, but it’s especially good with roast chicken.
There is white wine in Saumur, Saumur Blanc, made from Chenin Blanc. We don’t see very much in America, but it can be truly great. It is a dry white and the minerally soils give the wine a special vibrancy and backbone that balances the bright fruit perfectly.
You can pair them as you would a crisp Chardonnay. If you need a brunch wine to go with smoked salmon and have a Saumur Blanc to hand, open it up!
Saumur-Champigny is a special appellation that covers the eight villages surrounding the town of Saumur itself. These are generally considered among Saumur’s finest sites. The appellation only applies to red wines.
The vineyards that can add the name Saumur to their name are on chalky tuffeau subsoils and many of the wines are bracingly fresh with a fine, chalky backbone. You could treat these very much like you would a Saumur Rouge, although they tend to age a little better.
But a new style of deeper, more concentrated Saumur-Champigny has become very popular among collectors the world over. These wines are made to age much longer. They emphasize Cabernet Franc’s deeper and more savory flavors and show the limestone minerality in a different light from the traditional fresh and easy-drinking style.
These winemakers do two (main) things differently to make Saumur Champigny into an age-worthy wine. First, they farm with a view to getting much more concentrated fruit by growing fewer grape bunches per vine. Having fewer bunches per vine lets the vine put all of its energy and nutrients into the bunches it does have -- making them rich with all the goodness Saumur-Champigny has to offer.
The second difference is that these winemakers tend to age their wines with much more exposure to oak -- including, often, new oak. Coming into contact with the oak gives the wine some oaky richness. But the real advantage of this sort of aging is that, because the wood breathes (unlike stainless steel) it allows the wine to develop in contact with oxygen. This gives it deeper flavors and sets it up for a much longer aging potential in the bottle.
These denser wines are still fresh and vibrant, but have much more bass than treble. And they require either a long decant or a few years of age to show their best. They are still mostly medium bodied, but generally on the heavier side of medium. Cabernet Franc is, of course, a key grape in Bordeaux, and the best examples of these styles of Saumur-Champigny are often compared to traditional Bordeaux. And you can certainly pair them with foods the way you would Bordeaux: roast lamb is delicious with a chewier Cabernet Franc!
How can you tell one style from the other??
Well, one guess is the price: the more ambitious and denser Saumur-Champigny wines cost more to make (all that oak is expensive) and they generally cost more to buy, too. But the best thing to do, as always, is to ask your waiter or retailer!
Savennières, southwest of Angers, is famous for its intensely flavorful, long-lived and, often, profoundly complex, Chenin Blanc. It’s been around for centuries -- like many of France’s greatest regions it was probably first planted by Romans. Since then its reputation has risen and fallen but it is definitely on the upswing today.
The one thing you’ll probably hear most often when people discuss Savennières is that it’s a “winter white,” because it’s rich and deep and goes with the kind of foods we eat in the winter time that call for white wine -- rich fish dishes, roast winter vegetables and foul, even pork.
The other thing you’ll probably hear is that Savennières is one of the great wines of France -- great, in particular, for its ability to offer “a satisfyingly weighty texture as well as a lightness that comes from the grape’s naturally high acidity” (in the words of the NY Times’ Eric Asimov).
Both points are related -- and true!
Savennières, unlike its Chenin-neighbor, [Vouvray], is far enough west that the soils have turned from limestone to schist and sandstone (with volcanic rocks in the mix too). This gives it a different mineral note and structure -- it resonates at a lower frequency.
Savennières also tend to get ripe. The vineyards rise up from the river and get lots of sunlight. The result is wines with plenty of acidity, but tons of stuffing. While some are made to be enjoyed young, most Savennières are best with some bottle age. And the finest sites make wines that age for, well, ages.
Local traditions make the most of this terroir. The growers mostly let the fruit hang long enough to become fully ripe. Historically, Savenierres was a sweet wine, but today almost all you’ll see is dry. But the possibility remains: the proximity to the river can encourage botrytis (the noble rot that makes Sauternes and German TBAs so unctuous) and if you hunt you will, from time to time, find a sweet or demi-sec example.
La Roches aux Moines and Coulée de Serrant
Two of the most important vineyards in Savennières have their own appellations, the Coulée de Serrant and La Roches aux Moines. La Roches aux Moines (“the rock of the monks” in English) is an old site -- possibly first planted by (as the name implies) monks. It’s on the cutting edge, as one of the only appellations in the world that prohibits chemical herbicides. In fact, most of the local producers practice organic or biodynamic farming -- and virtually every grower imported into America does.
The Coulée de Serrant vineyard is next to La Roches aux Moines and may have been founded at the same time by the same monks. But today it stands apart. It’s owned by a single family, the Jolys, and is often described as one of France’s great white wines. Nicolas Joly, the senior Joly at the estate, converted the domaine to biodynamics in the 1980s -- long before it was a thing. Since then, he’s been one of natural wines’ great ambassadors. Today his daughter, Virginie, has taken the lead at the domaine, but the dedication to minimizing interventions and maximizing terroir expression remain the same.
Anjou’s historic fame rested on sweet wines, which have been favorites of royals and other high status folks for centuries. The Chenin Blanc grown in the best sweet wine appellations balances breadth (from the dark schist) and elegance (from sandstones) in the way only great wines can balance opposites.
Grape Growing and Winemaking
The grapes are often marked by a “noble rot” (known as botrytis) which concentrates the berries. That makes the wine sweeter and gives it a richness and honeyed tones that add a mind-bending complexity.
Just like Sauternes, Anjou’s greatest sweet wines are harvested in multiple passes so that the grape pickers can select only the most perfectly ripe fruit. This is the same “one trick” that makes Sauternes one of the most expensive wines in the world, but for now the Loire’s great sweet whites are a relative steal.
Service and Pairing
These are dessert wines with a lot of sugar, and they can be enjoyed as dessert, in and of themselves. Chill the bottle down (like all sweet wines it should be a little warmer than fridge temperature to show best, say 47-50F). When you open the bottle, have a taste and consider decanting it -- giving these wines air will help to let all their myriad flavors shine.
These are wines worthy of contemplation on their own. But they are also magical with food. For all their sugar, they also have refined acidities that preserve their telltale-Loire freshness and help to enliven and show depth in their accompaniments. Refined dessert dishes, from fruit tarts to milder blue cheese-based desserts, go from great to transcendent when paired with wines like these.
Although less common a practice in America, you can also serve these wines as an aperitif, at the start of a meal. Bouley Bakery in New York City, for instance, offered a pairing of sweet Anjou wine with foie gras for many years. In France you will even find these wines paired with fish dishes. Don’t be afraid to experiment. The worst thing you will have to do is save the rest of your glass for dessert!
Here are the most important sweet wine appellations in Anjou:
- Coteaux du Layon: The most frequently seen of these wines, the appellation covers the vineyards on the hills beside the Layon, a tributary of the Loire. You will sometimes see the name of a village added to “Coteaux du Layon.”
- Bonnezeaux: a tiny parcel on the same tributary with exceptionally profound wines that often are marked by the noble rot, botrytis.
- Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru: This is the first site in the Loire Valley designated as Grand Cru and one of France’s best sites. It is powerful but always fresh and fantastic with food, from rich savory dishes to brightly flavored desserts..
- Quarts de Chaume: very long lived and develops over time from a mix of fresh floral and fruit flavors to add layers of dried fruit, honey and spice.
Crémant de Loire
Crémant de Loire is an appellation that covers sparkling wines made in a big chunk of the Middle Loire, including Anjou. Crémants are made using the same, painstaking, technique as Champagne (called Methode Traditionelle in French) but cost a fraction of the price.
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