Known for epic castles, fresh produce, and a 628 mile-long eponymous river, the Loire Valley is hands-down one of the most exciting wine-producing regions in all of France.
Beloved by sommeliers and newcomers alike, this northwestern viticultural zone is home to some of the world’s most versatile producers and cherished varieties, though knowing the difference amongst the grapes is key. Check out the Loire Valley varieties you need to know below (and perhaps discover a new favorite variety along the way!)
Sauvignon Blanc – This globally beloved grape is known for its crisp acid and fruit-forward nature, as well as its ability to thrive in a plethora of soil types. In the Loire Valley, Sauvignon Blanc is cultivated across the entire appellation, though its production is mostly centered around the Middle Loire (specifically Touraine) and Upper Loire. The grape’s best expressions come from the eastern appellations of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé, where silex-heavy soils add a signature flinty touch to these terroir-reflective bottles.
Chenin Blanc – This Loire sweetheart variety is predominantly cultivated across the Middle Loire (Anjou-Saumur and Vouvray) and is one of the most versatile varieties in the Valley. Chenin Blanc is used to produce wines across the tasting spectrum, which range from bone dry to sticky sweet. Chenin Blanc is also the backbone to many Loire Valley sparkling wines, which are known as Crémant de Loire. These varying levels of effervescence and sweetness make Chenin a top go-to pick for a plethora of food and wine pairings.
Melon de Bourgogne – Fun fact: This Loire Valley variety rarely goes by its technical name. Wines produced from Melon de Bourgogne are generally referred to by the region in which they’re produced: Muscadet. These saline-tinged bottles of white are some of the best options for sipping alongside raw bar favorites and fresh seafood. Melon-based wines tend to show savory flavors of oyster shell, gunflint, and sea spray.
Folle Blanche – Similar to Melon de Bourgogne, Folle Blanche also finds the majority of its roots in the Pays Nantais, otherwise known as the Lower Loire. This variety heavily takes on the characteristics of the salty Atlantic air that blows within its clusters, making it ideal for sipping with fresh shellfish. Folle Blanche is also a key player in the region’s sparkling Crémant de Loire production, however, unlike Chenin-based sparklers, these wines tend to have more of a rustic, salty, and yeast-driven mouthfeel.
Romorantin – Although once widely cultivated across the Loire Valley, this sibling of Chardonnay now finds nearly all of its roots in the Cour-Cheverny appellation of the Upper Loire. Romorantin produces concentrated, mineral-driven whites that are reminiscent of the wines of Chablis.
Aside from these five varieties, Arbois, Pinot Gris, Tressailier, and a handful of other white varieties are cultivated across the Loire Valley, though are found in much smaller quantities.
Cabernet Franc (Breton) – Referred to as Breton in the local dialect, Cabernet Franc is by far the most important red variety to the Loire Valley. The grape is predominantly cultivated in the Middle Loire and produces peppery, earth-driven wines that are perfect for sipping with a slight chill. Best of all, Cabernet Franc produced at the hands of the right vignerons (Clos Rougeard, Clau de Nell, Chateau Yvonne, to name a few) can be laid down for decades in the cellar. Drink some now, revisit some later. It’s the best of both worlds.
Pinot Noir – Although less cultivated than Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir plays a big role in the Loire Valley’s red winemaking scene. Most Pinot Noir is cultivated in Sancerre and the Upper Loire, where it is used to make earth-driven reds and crisp, easy-drinking rosés. Unlike the Pinot Noirs of the Cote d’Or, Loire Valley Pinots take on a less complex flavor profile and are generally produced to be consumed in their youth. (They’re also much more affordable!)
Gamay – Don’t get it twisted — Loire Valley Gamay and Gamay from Beaujolais are two totally different beasts. Gamay cultivated in the Loire tends to be lighter-bodied, more peppery, and tangier than its Beaujolais-based cousins. Contrary to the ageworthy wines produced in the 10 crus of Beaujolais, Loire Valley Gamay is also (for the most part) meant to be consumed in its youth.
Grolleau – Love light-bodied reds? Then Grolleau is the grape for you. This Loire Valley variety gets its name from the French word for crow (grolle), as Grolleau berries tend to be very dark-hued on the vine. However, in the glass, Grolleau-based wines are light in color, low in alcohol, high in acidity, and even higher in crushability. Throw a chill on it and drink up!
Cot (Malbec) – Although Malbec tends to be more associated with Argentina in the present day, this jet-black grape actually finds its roots in the South West region of France. However, unlike the inky Malbecs of the south, Loire Valley Malbec, known locally as Cot, tends to produce medium-bodied, earthy, and floral-driven wines.
Pinot d’Aunis – If you love Gamay, then you’re almost certain to love Pinot d’Aunis. Wines produced from this high-acid variety are known for their signature flavors of tart strawberries, cherries, and white pepper. For the ultimate ‘chillable’ red, look no further than this variety.
In addition to these popular red grapes, small amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Meunier, and other red varieties can be found across the Loire Valley, but are not nearly as common. Cheers!