Erik Neilson on March 5, 2017 0 Comments When it comes to wine regions that are heralded the world over for putting out some of the highest-quality products imaginable, France’s Loire Valley makes practically every shortlist. It’s the largest producing region in the country, and with a climate cooler than most other parts of France, Loire Valley wines tend to be approachable, easy drinking and full of lively acidity. The “Garden of France,” as it’s often called, the Loire Valley is a must-stop location on the list of any wine enthusiast, and if you know what to look for, you’ll find stunning value among some of the most sought-after bottles and producers in the world. The Area Itself Coming from Paris, the Loire River Valley is approximately a two-hour drive south. The Loire Valley is actually located near some of the most famous French wine producing regions, including Cognac and Burgundy. It’s also just south of Normandy, where cider production reigns supreme. A huge region, the area that can be classified as the Loire Valley when it comes to wine labels is approximately 185 miles in length, encompassing cities such as Chinon, Angers and Tours. The area is so large that it is often divided into three distinct sections: Lower Loire to the East, Upper Loire to the West and Middle Loire between the two. As one might expect, each part of the Loire Valley has its own unique microclimate and soil structure, both of which play key roles in the resulting wines. The Lower Loire Valley’s oceanside front, for example, provides a much different type of soil than what is typically found on the other side of the valley. Grapes As terroir shifts from one portion of the Loire Valley to another, so too do the types of grapes that are utilized in the winemaking process. The Lower Loire Valley — also known as the Pays Nantais — is all about white wines, which is reflected in the grapes grown there. There are three main grapes grown in Pays Nantais: Melon de Bourgogne, Folle Blanche and Pinot Gris. While the latter is typically utilized as a blending grape, Melon de Bourgogne and Folle Blanche are both capable of producing bracing, sea-spray-laden wines loaded with citrus and acidity. For this and many other reasons, Pays Nantais wines are almost invariably paired with seafood. Moving west to the Middle Loire Valley of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, one stumbles upon the widest varieties of grapes grown all through the valley, and a rather fair division between white grapes and red grapes. For whites, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay are dominant, while red wines are mainly produced via Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. Other grapes such as Gamay and Pinot Noir also flourish in the region, adding the depth and versatility of Loire Valley wines. Last is the Upper Loire Valley, also referred to as Centre. The smallest of the three producing sub-regions, Upper Loire grapes include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Chasselas for whites, as well as the two main red grapes Pinot Noir and Gamay. The Sauvignon Blanc produced in the Upper Loire Valley is particularly of note, carrying with it zippy notes of lemongrass and a chalky minerality. Appellations It’s difficult to discuss the wines of the Loire Valley without mentioning just how different grapes and the wines they create from one appellation can be from another. Though not far from one another, for example, Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre can be a much different wine than Sauvignon Blanc from Reuilly. This is dependent upon not only the differences between soils and climates, but also between winemakers and their techniques. Knowing how to decode a wine label can be helpful in this regard. For those who are looking for a benchmark Cabernet Franc, labels listing appellations of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur will be quite pleased. Looking for a crisp Melon de Bourgogne? Look no further than Muscadet for the best you’ll find. The more you learn about how appellation can affect wine in the Valley, the easier it will be to navigate future purchases. Bottles to Try Knowing where to start when branching out into Loire Valley wines can be a challenge given the sheer amount of options available. That being said, here are a handful of bottles that serve as excellent entry points, all of which are characterized by the nuances found only in wines produced in the Loire Valley region. Domaine de la Chaise Sauvignon Blanc For Sancerre lovers who would prefer to keep the price tag as low as possible, look to the excellent Domaine de la Chaise Sauvignon Blanc as a suitable alternative. Full and alive with notes of fresh fruit and a distinctive minerality, this flinty white is an ideal choice for sipping on the deck on a fall evening or kicking off a lengthy meal. The 2015 vintage is drinking quite well currently, and bottles shouldn’t be very difficult to find. La Varenne Chinon Tradition This beautiful wine from Chinon is comprised of 100% de-stemmed Cabernet Franc grown in sandy limestone soil. The result? A lively, savory wine full of aromas and flavors reminiscent of olives, dark fruit and brambly smoke. It’s one of the best values in a red wine the Loire Valley has to offer, and while it currently drinks well, this wine can be aged for at least the next five years with no ill effect. Domaine Thomas & Fils, Sancerre Rouge Terres Blanches Anyone unfamiliar with red Sancerre wines need look no further than Domaine Thomas & Fils, Sancerre Rouge Terres Blanches — preferably the 2015 vintage. This wine is comprised of 100% Pinot Noir grapes and is bursting at the seams with flavors of plum and deep, savory red fruit. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better wine for pairing with a hearty lamb stew, as its acidity will help cut the richness of the food, while its flavors and aroma will provide a solid backbone for the unctuous lamb. There’s an endless array of grapes and styles to explore in the Loire Valley of France, many of which may turn out to be your new favorite wine. Need help deciding where to start? Choose wines from the Lower Loire Valley and move west as your palate widens!