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Teach Yourself

Learn the Loire Valley in 12 Bottles

Your guided tour to this important French region — for under $250

Vicki Denig By February 16, 2022
Chateau de l'Islette in the Loire Valley
Chateau de l'Islette in the Loire Valley, France. Photo by Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock.

Home to hundreds of wineries, centuries-old history, and vineyards as far as the eye can see, it’s no surprise that the Loire Valley has become a go-to region for consumers and industry pros alike. Located due west of Paris, in the heart of France, this vast and versatile region is not just the cradle of the French language, but also the birthplace of some of the world’s greatest wine varieties and styles.

Understand the Loire Valley, and you understand not only a significant region, but also have a basis for understanding many other wine styles elsewhere.

Quick Facts

  • Location: Central France. The biggest city is Tours
  • Size: 136,000 acres planted over 290 square miles.
  • Main grape varieties: Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc.

Subregions of the Loire Valley

Upper Loire 

Love a thirst-quenching glass of Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé (pronounced poo-ee foo-may)? Then the wines of the Upper Loire are already on your radar. This easternmost subregion of the Loire Valley is centered around its two most famous appellations, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, and is known for its signature silex soils — shallow, well-drained soils of sandstone and limestone — which impart flinty/smoky notes to the area’s wines. Sauvignon Blanc reigns supreme here, though small amounts of red wine are produced from the Pinot Noir grape.

Touraine/Vouvray/Chinon

Often referred to as the Middle Loire, in conjunction with Anjou and Saumur, Touraine, Vouvray, and Chinon are where the majority of the region’s production takes place. Here, white wines are crafted from Sauvignon Blanc, Touraine, and Chenin Blanc, Vouvray; the region’s Chenin has the unique ability to produce both still and sparkling wines across the entire dryness to sweetness spectrum. 

Cabernet Franc is the key red variety here, and some of the world’s most highly regarded expressions are produced in the heart of Chinon. Small amounts of Gamay, Pinot Noir, and Malbec are also cultivated. Contrary to the silex soils of the Upper Loire, this area of the Loire is known for its unique tuffeau soils, a unique form of limestone that offers impeccable drainage. 

Anjou-Saumur

Just west of Chinon begins the Anjou and Saumur areas of the Middle Loire, centered around the village of Angers. Although the two are frequently linked, the areas are actually quite different. While Saumur’s soils are dominated by limestone, Anjou’s are mostly granite, slate, and schist. However, in both regions, Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc continue to be the main grape varieties, with small amounts of Gamay and Cabernet Sauvignon peppered in. Much of the Loire Valley’s sparkling wine is produced in Anjou and Saumur, and the region’s most renowned dessert wine appellations of Coteaux du Layon, Savennières, and Quarts de Chaume also call the area home. 

Pays Nantais

Spanning from the city of Nantes to the Atlantic Ocean, the Pays Nantais is the Loire Valley’s westernmost subregion. Frequently referred to as Muscadet country, this white wine-heavy region is known for its crisp, saline-tinged bottles of Muscadet, produced from the Melon de Bourgogne grape variety. Three sub-appellations for Muscadet wines exist in the Pays Nantais: Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet-Côtes de Grandlieu, and Muscadet-Coteaux de la Loire. Muscadet wines are frequently aged sur-lie, meaning that the wines spend time on their lees before bottling, which adds texture and weight to the final cuvées. 

Now taste the Loire Valley for yourself:

Upper Loire

bottle of Domaine Régis Minet Pouilly-Fumé Vieilles Vignes 2020

Domaine Régis Minet Pouilly-Fumé Vieilles Vignes 2020 (~$27)

Based in the heart of Pouilly-Fumé, Regis Minet’s domaine comprises 50 acres of vines rooted in Kimmeridgian lime soils. This varietal Sauvignon Blanc is bright, golden-hued, and laden with flavors of ripe orchard fruits, citrus, and crushed oyster shells — a perfect match for goat cheese, quiches, or fresh seafood.

bottle of Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2020

Domaine Vacheron Sancerre 2020 (~$45)

Considered as one of the most legendary estates in Sancerre, Domaine Vacheron now owns 112 acres in the Upper Loire, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc, 84 acres, and Pinot Noir, 28 acres. Their flagship cuvée is produced from organic/biodynamic fruit and shows flavors of white peach, crushed rocks, coarse sea salt, and a hint of smoke. 

bottle of Gerard Boulay Chavignol Sancerre

Gerard Boulay Chavignol Sancerre (~$35)

The Boulay family’s viticultural roots in the Loire Valley run deep. Based in the village of Sancerre since 1380, this grape-growing family knows a thing or two about the region and its unique soils — and their Chavignol Sancerre is a great gateway to their lineup of wines. Herbaceous notes of ripe grapefruit, gooseberry, and wet stones lead to a crisp, palate-cleansing finish. 

Touraine/Vouvray/Chinon

bottle of Gaspard Touraine Gamay

Gaspard Touraine Gamay (~$19)

Over the past few years, Gaspard wines have taken the country by storm, and it’s no surprise why. Founded by the team at Jenny & Francois, this house lineup of wines is crafted using fruit from a variety of sustainable and organically-farmed vineyard plots across the Loire Valley. This juicy and easy-drinking Gamay pops with earthy flavors of cherry, violets, and potting soil. 

bottle of Champalou Vouvray 2020

Champalou Vouvray 2020 (~$23)

Vouvray’s styles of Chenin span a variety of textures, flavors, and dryness/sweetness levels. For a crowd-pleasing, acid-laden introduction to the region, look no further than this bottle from Champalou. Known as Pineau de la Loire locally, this Chenin Blanc oozes with flavors of apricot, canned peaches, and juicy pineapple. 

bottle of Olga Raffault Chinon 2018

Olga Raffault Chinon 2018 (~$20)

Beloved by Cabernet Franc novices and long-standing Loire aficionados alike, Olga Raffault’s high-quality, budget-friendly wines promise to please a variety of palate preferences. This entry-level cuvée from the estate shows bright flavors of tangy cranberries, red cherries, earth, and dried herbs. Serve chilled with a variety of meats, cheeses, and finger foods. 

Anjou/Saumur

bottle of Château de Brézé Crémant de Loire

Château de Brézé Crémant de Loire (~$24)

Château de Brézé’s sparkling wine is crafted by talented winemaker Arnaud Lambert. The crisp, Chenin-dominant bottle of bubbles jumps with flavors of pear, stone fruit, honey, and toast. Twenty-four months of sur-lie aging adds a creamy texture and weight to the wine, which still manages to finish refreshing and light on its feet. 

bottle of Mary Taylor Anjou Blanc

Mary Taylor Anjou Blanc (~$16)

After working for two decades in Europe — and learning the ins and outs of its best wine regions — Mary Taylor created her eponymous wine brand to showcase delicious, budget-friendly wines from France and Spain’s most popular growing regions. Bottles are easy to read and are labeled transparently, with the name of each grower and region depicted front and center. This refreshing Anjou Blanc comes from Pascal Biottou and is loaded with flavors of juicy stone fruits, lemon curd, and wet slate.

bottle of Domaine Guiberteau Saumur Rouge

Domaine Guiberteau Saumur Rouge 2017 (~$37)

Spearheaded by Romain Guiberteau, this eponymous Saumur-based estate is one of the biggest pioneers of the New Loire movement, less oak, more hands-off mentality, organic farming. After learning the winemaking ropes at Clos Rougeard, Guiberteau founded his namesake domaine and now farms of the region’s most sought-after sites. This juicy red jumps with flavors of black cherry, raspberry coulis, red flowers, and a hint of bell pepper. This is varietal Cabernet Franc in one of its finest forms.

Pays Nantais

bottle of Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet Sevre et Maine La Pépie 2020

Domaine de la Pepiere Muscadet Sevre et Maine La Pépie 2020 (~$18)

For affordable, organic Muscadet that doesn’t sacrifice quality, look no further than Domaine de la Pepiere. Fruit for this entry-level wine comes from a 30-acre, 25-year-old vineyard rooted in stony soils. Expect flavors of citrus, crushed seashells, and wet stones to lead to a cleansing, palate-coating finish. 

bottle of Domaine de l’Ecu Classic Muscadet 2019

Domaine de l’Ecu Classic Muscadet 2019 (~$19)

Domaine de l’Ecu was an early pioneer of organic and biodynamic farming within the Muscadet region, and has since paved the way for many newer domaines. Their entry-level Muscadet is far from ordinary. Flavors of lemon juice, sea salt, green apple skin, and flint lead to a refreshing and textured finish. Serve with raw bar favorites for an out-of-this-world pairing experience. 

bottle of Domaine de Bellevue Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine 2020

Domaine de Bellevue Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine 2020 (~$26)

Crafted by the hands of Jérôme Bretaudeau, this racy yet textured Muscadet promises a seriously thirst-quenching tasting experience. Fruit comes from multiple hillside plots rooted in silt, sand, and gabbro soils, all of which are farmed organically and biodynamically. After native yeast fermentation, the wine rests for eight months on its fine lees in a combination of stainless steel and concrete tanks. Acid-driven flavors of lemon, lime, and tart apple lead to a briny, saline-tinged finish.