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Loire Valley

The Loire Valley is a key wine region in western France. It follows the course of the Loire river on its long journey through the heart of France, from the inland hills of Auvergne to the plains on the French Atlantic coast near Nantes (Muscadet country).

Important in terms of both quantity and quality, the region generates vast quantities (around 4 million hectolitres each year) of everyday wines, as well as some of France's very finest. Diversity is another of the region's key strengths; the wine styles made here range from the light, tart Muscadet and sweet, honeyed Bonnezeaux to the sparkling whites of Vouvray and juicy, tannic reds of Chinon and Saumur. It is quite telling that this brief sketch of the region's wines does not even make reference to the two most famous Loire Valley wines of all – Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.

White wines are clearly the Loire Valley's strong suit, and account for the vast majority of production. A significant proportion of these are produced under IGP titles, most commonly the region-wide IGP Loire (formerly Vin de Pays du Jardin de la France). The key white-wine grape varieties used to make Loire Valley whites are Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne and, more popular than traditional, Chardonnay.

Loire reds are of increasingly high quality, and of increasing importance as consumer preferences continue to move toward red wines. Although they offer less stylistic diversity than the whites, a light-bodied, fruity Gamay from the Fiefs Vendeens is a nevertheless quite different from a spicy, tannic Bourgueil. The number one red-wine variety is unquestionably Cabernet Franc, the grape behind the reds of Chinon, Saumur and Bourgueil. Lighter-bodied, less "serious" wines are made from Pinot Noir, Malbec (known here as Côt) and Gamay.

With such a wide repertoire of wines stretched out over so many miles, it has become necessary to divide the Loire into a series of smaller regions. Pays Nantais, Anjou, Saumur, Touraine and the various appellations collectively referred to as "Upper Loire". Little-known (and often forgotten) are the wines from the river's uppermost stretches, in the Auvergne department. Each of these sub-regions has its own particular speciality. Pays Nantais is effectively synonymous with dry, crisp whites, as epitomised by Muscadet, while Anjou specialises in Chenin Blanc in both sweet styles (Côteaux du Layon) and dry (Savennières). Touraine continues the Chenin Blanc theme (mostly dry here though) and complements it with dry, Cabernet Franc-based reds. The Upper Loire, home of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, is undoubtedly Sauvignon Blanc country, and stands in stark contrast to the red-wine specialist regions further upriver, where Gamay and Pinot Noir are dominant.

The region's vast size makes it impossible to sum up its terroir in any succinct way. The relatively continental climate in the river's upper stretches becomes decidedly maritime as the river approaches the Atlantic coast. The soils also vary considerably as the river drops gently down through the countryside; the hard granite in the Côtes du Forez is strikingly different from the flint and limestone around Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, and even more so from the soft, crumbly tuffeau of Anjou.

Although often overshadowed by France's more prestigious regions – most obviously Bordeaux – the Loire Valley has played a vital role in French wine history for many centuries. The region's fortunes have waned in the past few decades, mostly because modern wine consumers (not to mention certain influential wine critics) show a clear preference for heavy, robust reds – the only style of wine the Loire does not produce.