When Nicole and I planned our trip, a major goal was to learn about France and it's wines. These past two weeks we did both, focusing on the Loire Valley wine region where we stayed. We tasted 81 wines, ate incredible food, and had so much fun together. Here's how we did it.
A Very Quick Background Of The Loire Valley Wine Region | What Worked Well During Our Tour Of The Loire Valley | Chinon/Bourgueil/Suamar Daytrip | Vouvray / Cheverny Daytrip | Sancerre Daytrip | Finally...What To Know If You Want To Order Loire Valley Wines At A Restaurant
A Very Quick Background Of The Loire Valley Wine Region
- The Loire is a major river in France. Embarrassingly, I didn't learn this until we landed in France. Now I know!
- The Loire Valley is made up of 87 smaller wine appellations, commonly referred to as A.O.C.'s (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlé, examples are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, two of the more well known), that surround the Loire river. French producers label wines according to appellation, so a bottle would say "Sancerre," not "Loire Valley." The only way to know if the wine you are drinking is from the Loire is to cross-reference the appellation name on the bottle with a list of Loire Valley appellations.
- The Loire Valley is big. It stretches more than 470 miles along the Loire river, with more than 185,000 acres of vineyards and more than 4,000 wine producers. So, even though we didn't see all of it, we drove a lot!
- To impress people with your knowledge of the Loire Valley, geographically, it is important to know the following three sub-regions wine experts commonly refer to: 1. The Lower Loire (depicted by the blue line on the map below) -- known for simple, bright, and acidic white wines; 2. The Middle Loire (the orange line) -- known for white and sparkling wines made from the Chenin Blanc grape, and lighter reds made from Cabernet Franc, and; 3. The Upper Lower (green line) -- a small area, primarily known for the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume AOC's which both put out killer Sauvignon Blanc whites.
Sidenote: For anyone interested in learning more about the wines of the Loire Valley, or any other wine region, IMHO, the Wine Folly is, hands down, the best, most consistently good publication out there. Just Google "[wine region] wine folly" and you will most likely find a well-written, to the point article with helpful maps and illustrations.
What Worked Well During Our Tour Of The Loire Valley
After two weeks spent extensively exploring the Loire Valley, we definitely have recommendations to pass on to anyone interested in visiting.
As stated above, the Loire Valley is big. It would be almost impossible to stay in one place and tour the entire area. One needs to either (1) change accommodations as they travel through the Loire or (2) pick one spot and make day trips to the appellations within driving distance. We chose the latter.
We wouldn't say that Combleux, where we stayed, is a must-stay area. We loved it, but, with a population around 450 people, it would be too small for many people's tastes. Nonetheless, we were very happy with our approach of staying in one place and taking daytrips to other areas inasmuch as it allowed us to really get a feel for that area.
The only downside to our "homebase" approach was that we did not make to all the areas in the Lower Loire, but instead focused extensively on the Middle and Upper Loire within a few hour's drive of where we were staying.
Beyond that, for anyone interested in wine touring the Loire Valley, we highly recommend the following:
First, the Rue de Vignerons app is a great way for English speakers to book winery tours. As stated above, there are over 4,000 wine producers in the Loire Valley. Not only can you not hit them all, you can't even hit a reasonable sample.
Moreover, most French producers require advanced reservations for tastings and don't have a website where reservations can be booked. This wouldn't be a huge problem if we spoke French. We don't. So the app saved us. Nicole, who handled the bookings, says that it is a newer app and there are still some bugs to work out. But it provides a variety of wineries offering tastings and tours, whether or not English is spoken at the winery, and the cost of the tasting or tour. The app is in English but many of the winery reviews are written in French, so copy and paste to Google Translate.
Overall, we didn't go wrong one time with the eight winery tastings and tours we booked through the Rue de Vignerons app. However, in our experience, at some of the wineries that advertised English as being spoken, the wine pourer spoke very little English. This wasn't a problem for us, as we tried to practice French, and used Google Translate to ask questions, but we would definitely recommend approaching the tastings with an open mind. :)
Second, the Maison des Vins are the best way to sample a lot of wines. As stated above, we tried 81 Loire Valley wines during our two weeks there. Over one-third of those tastings were at Maison des Vins (House of Wines), which are local stores devoted to the wines of the region. Google "maison des vins [wine appellation you are planning to visit]" and, in the Loire Valley, there is maybe a fifty/fifty chance there will be a Maison des Vins nearby. Although, the quality of the Maison des Vins varied, in general, we really enjoyed our visits. In particular, as explained below, the Maison des Vins in Bourgeil and Cheverny were highlights.
Third, look for nearby wine festivals. Ooh la la! We were lucky enough to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Pouilly-Fume becoming an official AOC at a celebration (or fête) in the town of Pouilly-sur-Loire. It was awesome! Outside of Paris, France is jam-packed with small towns. Most all of them host local celebrations throughout the year. To find out what nearby celebrations might be happening during your visit Google "[any town near where you are staying] fete" or visit the website of the nearby town's tourist board which often feature event schedules.
At the Pouilly-Fume 80th anniversary celebration, for $5, Nicole and I each received a wine glass and wristband that allowed us unlimited samples of over 40 local wines. So much fun!
Sidenote: We've always had fun experiences offering wine to others. During a break to have oysters at the Pouilly-Fume celebration, I interrupted the retired couple next to us at our picnic table ("perdon, vin?" offering our wine bottle) to see if they wanted a pour of our wine. As a result, through a conversation in rough English, we learned about their daughter who married a man in Quebec, the trip they took to New York years ago, and their impression of Donald Trump (he spends a lot of time on his hair). As the couple got up to leave, the man looked down at his watch, smiled and said, "Two years from today...we meet in New York!"
Fourth, visit the supermarkets. Because Nicole and I cooked most of our meals at our Airbnb, we spent a lot of time in the supermarkets of the Loire. (During one stop, Nicole and I spent five minutes debating various laundry detergents, only to find out that, according to Google Translate, we were in the fabric softener section). Unsurprisingly, Loire supermarkets sell a lot of Loire Valley wines which is yet one more way to get to know these wines.
From Combleux, we took day trips to the following areas. With the exception of Sancerre, we wouldn't necessarily say that any of these places are must-visit, other areas could be just as fun, but this provides a good sample of our day-to-day experiences touring the Loire.
In Chinon, we visited Domaine Pierre Sourdais for our first stop. Although it was a pleasant three wine tasting, of all our wine stops, we had the most trouble here with the language barrier.
Next, we visited Bourgueil's Maison des Vin. This was a highlight where we sampled eight wines with no obligation to purchase anything (although we did buy a bottle). We could have sampled more, but we thought eight seemed like enough! :)
Then, it was on to Domaine Audebert & Fils. This was a fun tasting because, among other things, the winery, with approximately 100 acres of vineyards in various nearby areas, makes fourteen different styles of wine under various labels, and does it well. Recommended!
Also, after tasting Domaine Audebert & Fils, Cafe de la Promenade, a great little restaurant with a fabulous back patio, is just down the street for lunch.
We finished the day in Saumur at its Maison des Vins. Of all the maisons we visited, this was one of our least favorite. We may have just been unlucky with an unfriendly worker, but the maison, located in a bustling commercial center, seemed too busy and impersonal to be much fun.
Vouvray / Cheverny Daytrip
We started at Domaine Thierry Cosme. So much fun. Upon our arrival, we immediately hopped into the winemaker's SUV and he drove us around some of his vineyards. Then we took another short drive to his underground storage caves and wine making facility. After that, we sat down and sampled some of the wines which were great.
After that, we headed to Vouvray's maison-like Cave des Producteurs for a complimentary tasting of four wines. We could have had more but we were in a rush, running late to our next stop.
One of fun things about driving around wine touring is that you get to see so much of France along the way.
Along with Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre is the Loire Valley's most famous wine appellation. Known for its wines made from Sauvignon Blanc, the town itself is stunning, situated atop a hill and surrounded by vineyards.
We visited both Domaine Jean-Marc et Mattieu Crotchet and Domaine Roger et Christopher Moreux. Both tastings were excellent, fun, and friendly. On the flipside, we were disappointed with Sancerre's Maison des Vin, which is more of a tourist shop than the other maisons we visited. Although it offered a 45 minute tour-lesson on Sancerre's wine history, complete with a "4-D" wine ride, this is the type of thing Nicole and I usually skip, which we did here.
Finally...What To Know If You Want To Order Loire Valley Wines At A Restaurant
- Unlike Bordeaux or Burgundy, the Loire isn't known for big, trophy wines. So think about finding good deals, not splurging.
- Sancerre makes beautiful Sauvignon Blancs, which would be a great place to start, and probably the most likely wine you will find on a list. (Beyond that, Cheverny, Chinon, and Pouilly Fume would be some other good names to look for.)
- Lesser known for reds, these can be fun and inexpensive finds. Most reds in the Loire Valley are made exclusively from Cabernet Franc. However, we found these wines to be much lighter, and more flavorful, than other Cabernet Francs we've tried in the past. (They reminded me of Beaujolais) Bourgueil is one name to look for.
- If all else fails, tell the sommelier about this blog post you read and ask if he or she has any Loire Valley wines on the list. This might surprise the sommelier, but the Loire Valley is one of France's larger wine making regions, so there is a reasonable chance there will be something on the list. We always have fun challenging sommeliers in unexpected ways.