Loire Valley: Central & Upper Loire
- By Nabilah Rawji
- 15 Feb 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
Tracing the Loire River from its most famous appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé towards its origins in the Cevanne Range of the Rhône-Alps is to observe the region’s many transitions and collisions in geology, climate, and culture that offer insight into the Loire Valley’s Rubik’s cube of grapes and wine styles.
We start our exploration in the heart of the Central Vineyards and the spiritual home of Sauvignon Blanc – Sancerre. Located on the left bank of the Loire, Sancerre is wedged between Pouilly-Fumé across the river and Menetou-Salon on its southeastern border.
Benedictine monks were a heavy socio-political influence on Central Loire as large parts of the valley were historically under the control of the Duchy de Burgundy. Trade between the two regions has been strong, with the forests of Allier and Nevers providing high quality oak to Burgundy. Pinot Noir’s status as the principal red grape of Sancerre and the tradition of single vineyard sites is assuredly a reflection of the Burgundian connection.
The Paris Basin underlies Sancerre. Two fault lines in the region have exposed three key layers of soil that lend Sancerre its characteristic minerality: Terres Blanches, Silex, and Caillottes. This is the same limestone formation that crops up in Champagne.
The peak of Sancerre defines the skyline of Sancerre itself and the region is otherwise a series of rolling hills. Two of Sancerre’s most famous villages are Bué and Chavignol which are home to the iconic vineyards of Chêne-Marchand and Les Monts Damnés respectively.
Looking across the river, the flint in the soil gives Pouilly-Fumé its characteristic smoky, gun-flint notes. Though Pouilly-Fumé stands toe to toe with Sancerre for quality, it is roughly half the size and produces about 40% the volume of wine.
Non-neutral oak use is uncommon, however there are some producers including Didier Dageneau and Lucien Crochet who incorporate light use of oak to great success. There are many other producers who use larger neutral oak with barrel sizes more typically approaching 600L. Sancerre does make use of machine harvesting and other modern winemaking conveniences, but the region also has a wealth of excellent producers farming biodynamically, hand-picking, and producing micro-site-specific bottlings. Look for wines by Domaine Vacheron, Nicolas Reverdy, Claude Riffault, and Alphonse Mellot.
As the hills soften towards Menetou-Salon, alluvial sandy soils become more prominent. The influence of the Atlantic ocean fades but there are pockets of warmer, drier areas. Reuilly and Quincy sit southwest of Sancerre on the Cher tributary. Thanks to the warmer, drier microclimate and sandier soils, expressions of Sauvignon Blanc from here are fleshier and rounder with a riper fruit character.
Gamay has encroached as far north as Coteaux-du-Giennois, but its presence in the Loire is better understood further south in Saint-Pourçain where the limestone clay soils of the Paris Basin mingle with those of the Massif Central and in Châteaumeillant, located squarely atop the Massif Central with sandstone, marl soils.
South of Saint Pourçain, the viticulture feels more connected to Beaujolais, Burgundy, and the Rhône. The Côte-Roannaise is only 70km southwest of Beaujolais and 50km east of Condrieu. A series of extinct volcanoes that form the Puy-de-Dôme and Puy de Sancy influence the soils of the Côtes d’Auvergne and the more eastern Gamay-driven AOPs of the Côte-Roannaise and the Côte-du-Forez. Here, as in Beaujolais, the Gamay grape thrives on a mix of schist, granite, gneiss, basalt, and quartz. It is interesting to note that this is one of the only places outside of Oregon where you can find Pinot Noir grown on basaltic soils, though rarely encountered as a varietal wine; the appellations here do not permit varietal Pinot Noir.
The area around Auvergne is also known for producing digestifs that rely heavily on verbena and juniper. Verveine du Velay and Verveine Artisanale are two of the more common bottlings. Gentian-based digestifs like Aveze are also common to the region and make use of the root of the plant rather than the blue flowers.
Warming climate patterns and a growing desire for unique wines is driving a new interest in the wines of the Upper Loire. The information covered here is not an exhaustive look at the region but should provide a thorough jumping off point for further exploration into many more unique varietals of wine, smaller appellations, and the pioneering producers of the Central and Upper Loire Valley.