VINEX Region report – The Loire Valley, France
By Helen Arnold
The Loire Valley in central France is best known for its fairy tale châteaux and fortresses, its eponymous meandering river – and its world-famous wines.
The Loire Valley has been producing wines for nearly 2,000 years, but in the late 19th century was decimated by the phylloxera aphid, which saw the country’s total production plummet in 1885 from 80m hectolitres down to only 25m. The solution was to graft French varietals onto naturally resistant American rootstocks, an arduous and costly job which was not completed until after the First World War.
However, making the best of a bad situation, Loire Valley growers took the opportunity to plant varietals which were far better suited to the region’s particular soils and climate including melon de Bourgogne in the Pays Nantais, Cabernet Franc and Chenin blanc in Anjou, Saumur and Touraine and Sauvignon Blanc in Centre-Loire and Touraine.
After the creation of the French AOC system ((Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées) in 1936, Quincy, Sancerre, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine, Muscadet Coteaux de la Loire, Cabernet d’Anjou, Rosé d’Anjou, Saumur and Vouvray were among the first vineyard areas to be awarded AOC status.
In the following decades, technological advances including improved vineyard management and root stock selection led to continued improvements and uniformity in wine quality, while the introduction of pesticides helped ensure there was sufficient yield to break into new overseas markets.
In 1991 the Loire Valley was hit by widespread frosts, which resulted in the wines struggling to reach even average quality and losing a lot of market share in the process. But this marked the beginning of a resurgence in quality for the wines, as new techniques were introduced to control yields including fertilisers, manager plans, pruning, de-budding and green harvests.
Since the 1990’s the Loire Valley has taken a more environmentally responsible approach to winemaking, intervening only when strictly necessary. By last year, almost a third of the Loire’s vineyards were either sustainably or organically farmed, and the figure is ever increasing.
The Loire river has a significant moderating effect on the vineyards and helps create a number of different microclimates which go towards the wide diversity of the region’s wines.
In the vineyards of Nantes, the maritime influences temper seasonal variations, with mild autumns and winters but hot and often very humid summer months.
The Anjou vineyards so benefit from an oceanic climate with mild winters, hot summers, plenty of sun and small variations in the temperature.
In Saumur the hills provide an effective windbreak from the gusts blowing from the west, with a semi-oceanic climate and more pronounced seasonal variations. The vineyards of Touraine, meanwhile, sit at the crossroads of both the oceanic and continental influences.
Key producing regions of the Loire
Today, the Loire is France’s third largest AOP wine growing area, sprawling horizontally across the country from Nantais in the west to Centre Loire in the East. Often divided into three parts, the Upper Loire includes the Sauvignon-blanc dominated areas of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, while the Middle Loire is dominated by Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc production in regions around Touraine, Saumur, Chinon and Vouvray. The Lower Loire that leads to the mouth of the river's entrance to the Atlantic winds its way through the Muscadet region which is dominated by wines of the Melon de Bourgogne grape
With 31 appellations spread over 43,000 ha, the Loire Valley accounts for nearly 10%, or 3.73 d’hl, of France’s total wine production and 12.9% of the country’s AOP wines. With around 3,700 winemakers, the region, known as the garden of France for the wealth of its agricultural produce, has 54,000 hectares of vineyard plantings accounting for 8.6% of the country’s total. Of this, 47,400 hectares are dedicated to AOP wines.
Over a third of the Loire’s production is from the Maine-et Loire region, while 22% comes from the Loire Atlantique, 15% from d’Indre-et-Loire, and the remaining 29% from other departments.
White wine comprises 45% of the Loire Valley’s total production, with rosé accounting for nearly a quarter (23.3%) red for 19.2% and sparkling 12.5%.
Of the Loire’s AOP wines, the biggest single producing region is Cabernet d’Anjou, which makes up 13.5% of production, followed by Muscadet Sevre-et Main with 11.3%, Touraine 9.9%, Crémant de Loire 6.8%, Sancerre 6.7%, Vouvray 5%, Saumur 4.8%, Rosé d’Anjou 4.6%, Muscadet AC 4.6%, Chinon 4.2% and the remaining 28.7% others.
The bulk of the Loire’s total production is consumed domestically (80%), while the remaining 20%, which in 2019 comprised 527,000 hl, is exported worldwide. Of this, over half (57.2%) is destined for Europe, while the rest is shipped to many other global markets.
White wines comprised over half (57%) of all Loire Valley exports last year, and 66% of the value, while reds made up a quarter of the volume of overseas shipments and 19% of the value. Sparkling wine, meanwhile, accounted for 18% of all Loire exports in volume terms, and 16% of the value.
In 2018, the Loire exported €2.85m worth of wine, higher than the five-year average of €2.56m.
The US remains the Loire’s biggest foreign market, accounting for nearly a third (31%) of the value of all shipments, and it is also the fastest growing. It is followed by the UK with a 14.8% share, Germany with 13.3%, Belgium with 7.7% and Canada with 7.3%. The other countries making up the top ten biggest overseas markets include Spain, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden and Australia.
The US is also the biggest foreign market in volume terms, accounting for nearly a quarter of all shipments, followed by the UK with 17. % share, Germany (15.4%), Belgium (11%) and Canada (6.5%). According to Interloire, the US, Canada, Australia, Germany and the UK hold the most potential for future growth.
The UK market has seen a particular surge in sales of Loire wines in the past year, driven by growing demand for the region’s sparkling wines and lighter reds, with both categories posting strong growth in 2019.
In sparkling wine, which includes Crémant de Loire and Saumur sparkling, UK sales jumped by 40% in volume and 37% in value last year, while exports of red AOP wines to the UK were also up, increasing by 23% in volume and 15% in value.
“We’re thrilled to see our wines growing in popularity in the UK,” said Pierre- Jean Sauvion, president of the communication commission at Loire Valley Wines. “The UK remains a key export market for Loire Valley Wines and we continue to work to provide a range of quality wines which fit the tastes of UK consumers. This is demonstrated by the increase in popularity of our wines last year particularly with wines such as our Crémant de Loire and Touraine wines.”
The three key white wine varietals produced in the Loire include Melon de Bourgogne, which accounts for nearly a third of all white varietals (30%), Sauvignon Blanc (28%), Chenin Blanc (27%), and Chardonnay (8%) with other varieties including include Folle Blanche, Chasselas, Romorantin, Sauvignon Gris and Tressalier.
The most widely planted red grape in the Loire is Cabernet Franc, accounting for over half of all red varietals (56%), followed by Gamay (18%), Pinot Noir (8%), Grolleau (7%), Divers 96%0 and Cabernet Sauvignon (5%).
The Loire is arguably France’s most diverse region producing wines in every style, which is down to the variety of different soils types and exposures, as well as varying geographical features and locations. This influences what grape varietals are grown and the growers’ choice of agricultural practice.
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