How to Find the Best Wines From the Loire Valley

Dive into the land of bright, fruity Sauvignon Blanc, red fruit-forward Cabernet Franc, and more.

Saumur castle in the Loire Valley at sunset
Photo: HUANG Zheng / Shutterstock

All paths lead to wine in the UNESCO Heritage-protected Loire Valley. Whether it's through royal Châteaux, picturesque chalky-limestone villages, or a deep oenological interest that prompts a visit to the region, travelers will invariably come across what many industry pros have long considered the home of the greatest diversity of wines produced in France.

The Loire Valley is the third largest AOC wine-growing region, the biggest producer of white wine, and the second biggest producer of sparkling wines in the country. Nicknamed the "Garden of France" for its lush rolling hills and orchards, it houses 56,900 hectares — more than 143,000 —acres)of planted vineyards. A patchwork of microclimates, soils, and varied geographies has shaped the region's reputation for distinctive wines.

Much of the winemaking activity is concentrated in four subregions with more than 51 appellations and sub appellations surrounding the Loire River and its tributaries, flowing from the east around Sancerre to the west toward Muscadet on the Atlantic coast — the mouth of the river. As Jon Bonné, wine journalist and author of the forthcoming "The New French Wine: Redefining the World's Greatest Wine Culture" notes, this particularity means that the Loire doesn't function as one wine region, but many. "All along the river you have nearly the full diversity of French wine," he adds.

It's all easy to experience as a visitor thanks to the Route du Vin, which are wine roads that stretch 500 miles long and bring wine lovers up close to more than 400 wine cellars open to the public. These include those at the forefront of France's natural wine movement, as well as historic standouts like the troglodytic caves that served as domestic dwellings until the 20th century.

Today, there are more than 3,600 winemakers in the region honoring 2,000 years of winemaking tradition. To help you understand which varietals have come to define the red, white, rosé, and sparkling produced here, we've put together this guide as a starting point. May it inspire many new drinking experiences in your future.

Which Grapes Are Used to Make Loire Valley Wines?

There are approximately 24 varietals throughout the Loire Valley, including classic grapes such as pineau d'aunis that are being revived. Four dominate: Melon de Bourgogne, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Cabernet Franc.

Of those core grapes, chances are good you're most familiar with Sauvignon Blanc and its bright, fruity balance, given how broadly the variety has spread to other wine regions, like South Africa and New Zealand. Depending on the area and soil in which the grape was cultivated, particularly in the easternmost areas of Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire (more below), its aromatic characteristics will vary and may be more complex. Overall, you can expect Sauvignon Blanc from the Centre Loire to deliver dry, crisp wines with high acidity, and grassy, green fruit notes.

Sauvignon Blanc might be the most popular varietal native to the Loire on a worldwide scale, but Melon de Bourgogne, so named for its birthplace in Burgundy, is among the most important single grape variety to the region. Specific to the Muscadet subregion, this reliable, frost-resistant, and high-yielding grape is known for its neutral character which allows for a range of styles. Once the basis for humble, overlooked wines, Muscadet has undergone a renaissance in recent years thanks to what Bonné calls, "better farming, exceptional winemaking and diligent research to precisely delineate the region's geology."That, and smaller production from lower-yield vineyards run by individual growers, more so than négociants, who once controlled the Muscadet trade.

With high acidity, Chenin Blanc is the most versatile of the region's white varieties, producing excellent wines in a range of styles — dry, sweet, still and sparkling. That is especially true in Vouvray, located on the northern bank of the Loire River in the Touraine subregion, which excels at all expressions, including long-aged sweet wines (but is perhaps best known stateside for Vouvray Sec, its delicate dry wines with honey notes). Chenins from Savennières, a small area in the Anjou subregion, produce what many wine professionals today consider the most interesting mineral, age-worthy wines worth your attention.

Finally, when it comes to the dominant red grape variety, it's all about the Cabernet Franc, introduced in the Loire Valley back in the 11th century. The parent grape to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc is known for yielding medium-bodied wines with complex notes of red fruit and bell pepper, a flavor attributed to naturally occurring compounds called pyrazines, as well as a tart finish. More and more, winemakers are focusing on a specific terroir, higher quality, and lower yields for Cabernet Franc, evolving the wines from their reputation as easy-going staples on simple bistro menus, to being far more complex and distinctive, meriting the attention of the most discerning wine consumers.

Key Wine Regions of the Loire Valley

Pays Nantais

This is the westernmost area of the Loire Valley that clings to the Atlantic coast, and is closest to the city of Nantes. When wine lovers talk about dry and mineral Loire Valley wines, they're often talking about the four Muscadet appellations in the area, the only wines in the world produced from Melon de Bourgogne grapes.


If there is any area of the Loire Valley that is driving a full on revolution in wine, it's in this subregion. Pascaline Lepeltier, a Loire Valley native, Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Master Sommelier and Beverage Director at the restaurant Chambers in New York City, says that Anjou was always an amazing terroir but suffered from a few key issues: "overproduction after the war and the poor economic decision to go high yield and chaptalization (a process which adds sugar to unfermented grapes to increase the alcohol content post-fermentation)," she explains. "That left the land reasonably priced and allowed for outsiders to buy land in the 1980s & 1990s and produce wines in a different way–like biodynamics and organics, then natural. They were committed, free-spirited, and paved the way for the current generations." Still quite affordable for young winemakers, the Anjou continues to operate as the de facto laboratory for experimental wines. Here, the range of soils (granite, sandstone, schist, volcanic rocks, among others) and diverse microclimates have allowed for a diversity of wines and styles.

Around Angers, you'll find mineral but fuller-bodied Chenin Blancs and a multitude of Cabernets Francs, in addition to Grolleau reds. Some of the most ambitious work among natural and biodynamic winemakers in elevating Cab Franc is happening in and around the small town of Saumur. It's also around Saumur that most of the Crémant de Loire, or sparkling wine using traditional Champenois methods, is produced from Chenin Blanc or Cabernet Franc for rosé sparkling.


This subregion surrounding the city of Tours was the original breeding ground for natural wine with a host of pioneering winemakers emerging with their "radical" methods in the late 1970s. Today, you'll still find a mix of Cabernet Franc (and Gamay) reds from prestigious appellations such as Bourgueil and Chinon. Don't miss out on still and sparkling whites, (largely Chenin Blanc) from Vouvray, its most famous appellation.

Centre-Loire (also referred to as Upper Loire)

This is the shining birthplace of Sauvignon Blanc, the third most planted grape variety in the world, made famous by the dry whites produced from the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé appellations. You'll also find cherry-dominant Pinot Noir in Sancerre. Beyond the famous two, the Centre-Loire is home to other important appellations such as Menetou-Salon, located southwest of Sancerre, which yields elegant whites (most of the planted vines), reds, and rosés that are distinctive for their freshness and texture. But with export rates hovering around 14 to 15%, you'll have to make a trip to the region to experience them.

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