Château de la Loire
This webpage is about les châteaux that can be found in the Loire Valley in France. But in order to understand them fully, we will need to look both at the local geography and at the role it played in the history of France.
Firstly we must look at the differences between Vallée de la Loire, Val de Loire, and the Cháteaux de la Loire.
Let us start with the most difficult, les châteaux. The castles (or palaces) are an architectural heritage built in towns along the Loire river, the longest river in France. It is not clear that there exists a definitive list of castles.
The Vallée de la Loire (or Loire Valley) is the middle stretch of the Loire river. Because of its historical importance, the castles and vineyards along this 280 kilometre stretch have been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000.
The Val de Loire is in fact a name given to the whole valley, including the portions upstream and downstream to the section defined as a world heritage site. This includes 2 regions, Centre and Pays de la Loire, and the four French départements of Loiret, Loir-et-Cher, d'Indre-et-Loire and of Maine-et-Loire. So it groups together the old provinces of the Orléanais, Touraine and Anjou.
Everything is defined by the River Loire and its numerous affluents, the Cher, Indre and Vienne being the most important. The river is not navigable today because of sand banks and the way the depth and width of the river changes from season to season, and year to year.
Descending the river (and its affluents) you find many towns that have played important roles in French history, namely Orléans, Blois, Amboise, Tours, Saumur and Angers and, of course, the famous châteaux de la Loire, notably Sully-sur-Loire, Blois, Chaumont-sur-Loire, Amboise, Saumur, Chambord, Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau and Chinon.
The below map shows the network of rivers leading into the Loire, and also its origins in the, so called, Massif Central.
Geologically speaking the region has a history of more than 500 million years, and in that context the Loire River is relatively recent. A geologist would claim that the landscape and mineral and energy resources of a region determine its potential for agriculture and industry, and thus its ability to attract and support both the early hunter-gatherer and later agricultural and pastoral communities. In fact since ancient times the River Loire was modified and developed to both allow navigation and provide protection to riparian communities. Still today the Loire drains an area of nearly 120,000 km2, and is still today moving millions of tons of sand and clay from the Massif Central to the sea.
In fact the Massif Central was originally (about 300 million years ago) part of a chain of mountains that were probably as impressive as the Himalayas are today. It is the erosion of this mountain range, starting around 225 million years ago, that 'created' most of western Europe (leaving the granite core of the Massif Central we still see today). The Loire River also drains the south-west part of the bassin de Paris, and thus the geology of the region is a mosaic of different rock types, which is still evolving today.
So firstly we had the erosion of a massive mountain range, then the seas invaded the region depositing a sediment that in places is more than 3 km deep. The appearance of the Pyrenees and the Alps introduced another period of massive erosion and the creation of new sediment basins. This again was affected by volcanic activity in the Massif Central region around 15-20 million years ago, lifting it up by more than a 1,000 m, and introducing another period of erosion and re-sedimentation. Later still we had massive lakes being created and disappearing, followed by successive phases of glaciation that pushed down the water levels and favoured more erosion with the creation of new peaks and valleys.
It is all this early activity that created both the drainage basin for the Loire River, and the route it would finally take through both erosion and sediment movement. One very telling feature of the history of the river is that in the 1960’s it was found to extend for nearly 50 km beyond the present-day French coast. This underwater part of the river estuary is now entirely full of both river sediment (e.g. sand), and marine sediment (e.g. fine particles of calcareous and siliceous shells). With geology we often talk of millions of years, but we should not forget that only 18,000 years ago (when modern man was painting cave walls) the Atlantic was about 100 m lower than today, and the French coast extended several 10’s of km beyond what we see today. At the same time the centre of France was still home to active volcanoes, and even more recently the Loire River basin has seen numerous cycles of cultivation and reforestation which continues to change the way sediment is deposited along its route.
Today the Loire Valley has a mild climate and as part of the “Centre” region has often been referred to as the “garden of France”. The region supports a diversified agriculture (livestock feed, lettuce, leeks, cucumbers, apples, and pears) and a strong animal husbandry sector (beef, veal, poultry, rabbit and pork). The region is also a major dairy producer, e.g. milk, cheese, and butter, including cheeses made from both pasteurised and un-pasteurised cows milk and goat’s milk. There are 48 cheeses with AOC status, notably the goats cheese the Crottin de Chevignol.
It is fairly obvious that the region is also attractive to food processing companies. In fact they employ about 120,000 people in the region and represent (along with agriculture) an annual turnover in excess of €19 billion. The main agribusinesses are livestock slaughtering, poultry, and dairy products (yoghurts, dairy desserts, butter, cheese, cream, powdered milk, processed milk). The region also has a major horticulture sector with potted plants, bedding plants, cut flowers and seed production.
Along its Atlantic coastline there is a large but ageing fleet of about 400 vessels. The principal species fished are cuttlefish, sole, bass and sardines. Langoustine and shrimp also generate significant income. The Loire River is also a breeding ground, offering a large number of fish species such as zander, pike, lamprey and shad. Finally the region is also a producer of oysters and mussels.
Perhaps more importantly, the region is a major producer of wine (3rd largest producer in France). Thanks to good geological substrata (the famous terroirs), a good amount of sunshine, and low rainfall it is home to a very wide selection of wines, ranging from dry whites, through to light reds and rosés. There is an excellent introduction on the vignoble du Val-de-Loire in Wikipedia. To summarise, the Romans brought the vines into the region more than 2000 years ago. And they have never looked back. Today the valley can be divided into 4 regions, each with its characteristic grape and wines. Starting in the east we have the “Centre” with the sauvignon blanc grape and the wines Pouilly Fumé and Sancerre. Then moving west we have the “Touraine” with the cabernet blanc and chenin blanc grapes and the Bourgueil, Chinon and Vouvray wines. Then there is the “Anjou-Saumur” and with the chenin blanc grape and the Saumur wine. And finally to the west we have on the coast “Pays Nantais” with the melon de Bourgogne grape and the Muscadet wine. Here is a nice site that helps you explore the Loire Valley wines.
Today in the region the principle grapes for the reds and rosés are:
cabernet franc - a red grape used for Bourgueil, Chinon, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, and Saumur-Champigny. This grape is also used in the preparation of the rosés.
cabernet sauvignon - a red grape, also the world’s most popular grape, used in limited quantities in Bourgueil, Chinon, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil (also found in the wines of Bordeaux and more recently in the “super Tuscans” wines).
grolleau - a red grape used in blending, especially in the sparking wines and rosés.
gamay - a red grape used in Saumur and Anjou. It is also exclusively used in the light fruity wine Gamay from the Tourraine region.
pineau d'Aunis - a red grape used in blending many of the wines of the region.
pinot noir - a red grape used in Sancerre (also often found in Bourgogne).
côt - a red grape used in blending many of the wines of the region (also called Auxerrois, and Malbec in Bordeaux).
and for the whites:
chenin blanc - a white grape used in Vouvray and Saumur, as well as in the Chinon blanc. This grape is also the most important component in the local crémant. The grape is also used to produce some long-lived local sweet wines.
sauvignon (blanc) - a white grape used in Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé.
melon (de Bourgogne) - a white grape found often under the name of Muscadet. It is said that this grape was originally planted by the Dutch who needed large quantities of wine with which to make brandy.
chardonnay - a white grape used in blending (always less that 20%) for the Saumur blanc and Anjou blanc, and also found throughout the world. It is said to be the most popular white wine grape in the world.
The wines I have come across in my travels include:
Bourgueil a red wine that can have quite a variation in quality. This is an important wine for a large part of the Loire Valley, and it all depends upon the “terroir” or soil. Close to banks of the river you find alluvial soils which creates a lighter, fresher style that should be drunk within 3 to 5 years. Higher up the slopes you find a type of local sandstone called “tuffeau jaune” (a characteristic local building material) which creates a richer, spicier wine that can keep for up to 10 years. And naturally prices follow this trend, and can vary from 5€ to 40€ a bottle.
Chinon can be red (cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon), white (chenin) and rosé.
Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil is a red (cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon) and is very similar to a Bourgueil, but is usually lighter. Both Bourgueil’s and the Chinon are not often found in restaurants, and can be interesting, reasonably priced choices (particularly those from the “tuffeau”).
Saumur can be red (cabernet franc) or white (chenin). You have also the Saumur mousseau, and the better Crémant de Loire, which looks like Champagne but has a distinctly un-Champagne-like taste.
Saumur-Champigny is a red (cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon) that can keep for between 5 and 20 years. It is very fashionable and usually over-priced.
Vouvray is a white (chenin and another type of grape), but can also be found as a mousseux which may be worth a punt in a restaurant. I find this white wine a nice choice in restaurants.
Sancerre can be red (pinot noir), white (sauvignon) and rosé and is a well known wine from the region. Sancerre blanc is the one to go for, which is fruity, has good body, and a certain “minerality” and acidity. I have often found that a chilled red Sancerre can go with both fish and meat, and its great with a summer grill.
Pouilly-Fumé is a white (sauvignon) and is a well known wine from the region. As with the Sancerre white, it is a rather “green” aromatic wine and a bit sharp on the palate, but is nevertheless richer, more full-bodied than the Sancerre (which is just next door). Usually a good choice in a restaurant.
Reuilly can be red (pinot noir), white (sauvignon) and rosé (pinot gris). Because this wine comes from the same region as Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé it has to fight to find a place at the table. It can be a very good, reasonably priced choice in a restaurant (if you can find it).
Muscadet (and in particular the “sur lie” which produces wines with a bit more character) is a white (melon de Bourgogne). This “crisp” dry wine is traditionally served with seafood. I have often come across the “Gros Plant” which is a light, very tart white from the same region and very similar to the muscadet but made with the folle-blanche grape. When in the region it is almost an obligatory choice with seafood.
It is worthwhile remembering not to go for Touraine wines, which can be of varied quality, and it is very difficult to know what will be good and what will be poor (Cheverny and Valençay are said to be the exceptions).