The Loire Valley is an outstanding wine region of rolling hills over tuffeau limestone, with 87 appellations dotted along the banks of France's longest river as it winds for a thousand kilometres from the Ardèche to the Atlantic. The third-largest wine producer in France, it is a wine drinker's paradise.
A few weeks pre-pandemic, I returned to the Loire for the first time since childhood, when my wine-loving parents would bundle us into the car and whisk us on the ferry to Roscoff. From there we would drive a few hours south to Sancerre, taking in as many châteaux and salons as possible during our two-week holiday. Earlier this year, I spent a few days between La Dive Bouteille in Saumur and some smaller fairs in Angers for a marathon week of tastings.
Serving and selling wine over the past few years, I have noticed a drift towards weightier whites and lighter reds. The Loire Valley is renowned for some of the world's greatest Sauvignon Blancs and Cabernet Francs, but beyond these two giants of the region, there are other often-overlooked grapes, each with their own inherent style.
Chenin Blanc from the Loire alone presents itself in many different forms. It is the perfect blank canvas for expressions of terroir, vintage variation and the winemaker's treatment, from the lean, crystalline wines of the northernmost Jasnières to the crisp, textured sparkling wines of Vouvray and, moving south, to the sweet botrytised wines of the Coteaux du Layon and the exceptional bone-dry whites of Savennières. Chenin Blanc's neutral acidity allows it to be rich and voluptuous without being cloying.
A recent interesting discovery has been Romorantin. An obscure grape, it is almost exclusive to the Cour-Cheverny area east of Touraine. Dry, fragrant and fruity with heaps of minerality, it has a fascinating texture, oily and waxy, that is almost sake-like.
Pineau d'Aunis is a perfect example of the bright, vibrant reds that are popular now. It offers an unmistakable nose of wild strawberry and white pepper with a backbone of structure and wonderful refreshing acidity. The name comes from the French "pin" meaning pine cone, referring to the shape of the bunches of grapes. Now primarily grown in Anjou and Touraine, it produces wines similar in weight to Pinot Noir, with stunning brick-red hues, tart red fruit, white pepper and sage.
Another underrated grape of the Loire is Grolleau. The name comes from "grolle" meaning black crow, a nod to the grape's dark, grey/blue berries. In the past it was used in the often insipid, sickly sweet styles of rosé d'Anjou, but some winemakers are now using it to make gorgeous, supple, soft reds, such as the Clau de Nell opposite. It equally plays an interesting part in some of the region's great "pétillant naturels".
The red wines I've included here are by no means cheap but offer great rewards to the inquisitive drinker.
Katie is the sommelier at Potager in Skerries
Wine of the week: Clau de Nell Grolleau 2016, 12pc, €36.50
Terroirs, 64 Wine, Ely Wine Store, The Corkscrew
Proving the depth and complexity of Grolleau, this elegant and balanced wine is perfect for rainy Sunday afternoons, served slightly chilled. From winemaker Sylvain Potin's biodynamic vineyards in Anjou, the vines are aged between 30 and 90 years old and produce low yields. Grapes are hand-harvested and aged for 18 months in oak barrels. Aromatic, full of bramble and blueberries, this wine finishes on bright, refreshing acidity and a touch of spice.
Domaine Bellivière Rouge-Gorge, 13.5pc, 2018, €39
Greenman Wines, 64 Wine and siyps.com
A deliciously refreshing Pineau d'Aunis named for the robin that appears in spring. Ethereal and silky, with aromas of sour cherry and spice. Bursting with juicy acidity, chill it just before drinking for the perfect summer wine. Great with mushrooms and poultry.
Nicolas Reau Clos des Treilles, 12.5pc, 2015, €27.95
64 Wine; Le Caveau, Kilkenny
From a jazz and blues pianist-turned-winemaker, this is one of my favourite Chenin Blancs currently available. Hailing from complex soils in Anjou, it has subtle minerality and creamy, soft fruit.
La Vigne des Sablons Vouvray 2016, 12pc, €14.99
An off-dry, more honeyed wine. Weighty and fruit-forward, with a lovely, perfectly balanced palate of peach, apricot, almond and white blossoms, given freshness by natural acidity. Perfect with poultry and desserts.
Les Dimes Vouvray 2018, 12.5pc, €15.95
A fleshy, bright, classic Chenin Blanc. Deep, ripe fruit, greengages, pear and a finish of citrus acidity. Easy drinking, it's the perfect apéritif or would make a great picnic wine for sipping outdoors.
Michelle Lawlor spent 10 years working in wine in London and Hong Kong before launching The Nude Wine Company, specialising in organic, natural and vegan wines, last year.
Each Friday evening at 8.30pm she hosts a free virtual online wine class on #NudeWineTV, streamed live on Facebook and Instagram, aimed at those who buy wine online and want to learn more. Wines are available to order on thenudewineco.ie for nationwide delivery.