Despite growing interest in the Loire Valley, this French wine region still flies under the radar. However, it’s worth consideration, especially by those keen on natural wines and breathtaking scenery. The Loire Valley boasts several unique AOC regions, which sprawl from its easternmost point of Blois (only a two-hour drive from Paris) all the way to the coast, flanking the Loire River on its journey west, where it spills into the Atlantic.
Tucked within western Touraine—the region aptly referred to as the “garden of France” due to its abundant vineyards, orchards and wild vegetation—resides historic Chinon. The town and its namesake AOC bloomed centuries ago along the banks of the Vienne and is awash in storybook charm, bucolic scenery, sweeping chateaus and, yes—delicious wines.
Terroir hard at work
In contrast with neighboring AOCs, Chinon produces primarily red wines, along with a small percentage of rosés and fewer whites (as well as, to my delight, the occasional orange wine). Only two grapes are used: Chenin Blanc—for the smattering of white wines—and Cabernet Franc for reds and rosés.
You might think that relying solely upon two grapes would result in one-dimensional wines. In reality, while sharing fruity, dry profiles, these lighter bodied wines can be strikingly diverse. Rather than stifle, the single varietal highlights the unique terroir of each vineyard. Climate, vine maturity, and soil content all become elemental in developing a grape’s character. Natural winemaking—commonplace across the Loire Valley—also allows a wine’s terroir to shine with little interference.
In Chinon, a range of terrain creates varied expressions in the Cab Franc: gravel plains and terraces along river banks yield “easy” wines with bright acidity and soft tannins. Mixtures of clay and hard Turonian limestone imbue minerality and chalkiness; sandy limestone on plateaus adds depth as well.
Winemakers further accentuate these personas by aging on the vine, in barrels, steel vats and then bottles in the ancient caves carved into hillsides. Vines with intricate root structures often produce wines that benefit from aging to develop their complexity and roundness.
Cycling excursions in the Loire
To fully appreciate the countryside, commit at least one day to traveling by bicycle. As recommended by locals, we spent a day rambling from Chinon through sleepy villages and nature paths—with wine tastings and a picnic along the way—to Candes-Saint-Martin, regarded as the most beautiful town in the region.
Rent bicycles from E-Follow, just off Chinon’s main square, where mountain bikes for €15/day, or for €30/day, upgrade to electric pedal assist bikes (worthwhile for novice or hesitant cyclists). Download the La Loire à Vélo mobile app to map suggested routes and points of interest.
When and where
To skip the crowds (and at most wineries, the need for reservations) and enjoy the pleasant tranquility of the rural villages, visit the Loire in the spring or fall during “off seasons”. Here are a handful of worthwhile spots to stop and sip:
Boasting its own hand-dug cellar and vineyards a stone’s throw from the tasting room, this family operation capitalizes on diverse terroirs to produce special labels, such as Le Clos Guillot, named after the tract where it’s grown, which was left fallow for forty years before being utilized by the winemaker in 1998.
Stroll through the centuries-old quarry turned wine cellar in wonder at the 700 oversized barrels and thousands of bottles of Chinon wines, blanketed in dust and mold, before enjoying a complimentary tasting of three area vintners who share the cellar.
Beatrice et Pascal Lambert
As one of the first producers to adopt organic and biodynamic practices, Pascal Lambert offers a range of complex natural wines, including interesting interpretations of Chenin Blanc like Ligéris Dolium, a tart, yeasty orange wine with a raisiny finish.
EnFin du Vin
Before turning back to Chinon, linger in Candes-Saint-Martin over regional selections at the thoughtfully curated retail and bar space with patio views of the Loire River.
Four generations in the making, this vintner produces lively, complex wines that age well. Try Les Picasses, a structured red grown in limestone with dark fruits, cocoa, and spices, or Le Chinon Rosé, beautifully amber thanks to long maceration, dry and fruity with balanced acidity.
La Cave Voltaire
Settle onto the patio of this well-stocked wine shop and bar, and let eccentric and knowledgeable owner Patrice recommend a bottle to pair with generous plates of local cheese and charcuterie.