France’s Loire Valley is best known for its wide array of grape varieties, budget-friendly values, and diversity of wine styles. With high-quality red, white, and sparkling wines emerging from the under-the-radar region, it’s an exciting time to get into wines from the Loire Valley.
On this special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe discusses the Loire Valley and the varieties coming out of the region. Geballe is joined by Master of Wine Susan Lin, and Master Sommelier David Keck — both of whom have extensive knowledge of the region’s diverse wine production. Most recently, Lin and Keck participated in the Loire Valley Wine’s Buyer’s Selection Competition and are now sharing what to look for on American markets this winter.
Tune in to learn more about Loire Valley.
Or Check Out The Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a special episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” where I have the distinct pleasure of being joined by two people who know a whole lot more about wine than I do, which is always a pleasure for me. That would be Master of Wine Susan Lin, and Master Sommelier David Keck. Susan, first, let’s start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and what you do these days?
Susan Lin: Hi, Zach. Thank you so much for having me on. I am sure that you know way more about wine than you’re letting on. Many of our listeners, too.
Z: The host has to sandbag a little bit.
S: My name is Susan Lin, and I am a Master of Wine and was named that this year, actually. I am the head of wine expertise for the fine wine online retailer, Belmont Wine Exchange. In my individual work, I specialize in wine and music experiences, since my background is in music.
Z: That’s something that unites the two of you, isn’t it?
S: Yes, it does.
David Keck: That is true.
Z: Very cool. And how about you, David?
D: I currently live in the great metropolis of Cambridge, Vermont. Right now, I am growing hybrid varieties and producing wine, and also working with a small distributor named Vermont Wine Shepherd. But I moved back to my home state at the beginning of the pandemic from Houston, Texas, where I was a partner in a hospitality group and became a Master Sommelier in 2016 and have been working as a sommelier since 2010. But I have been in hospitality since 1998 or something like that, when I started bartending. So I grew my wine knowledge over time. I was an opera singer for about 10 years, so Susan and I had that similar musical background, which I think also kind of ties directly into my love of wine.
Z: I am not either musically talented nor experienced. So we’ll stick to wine for this conversation, and specifically the wines of the Loire Valley. I want to start with this broad question for the both of you, because to me, the Loire is a region in France that in some senses is very well known by people who are into wine. There are some very famous wines and appellations there. But it’s also a sizable region with a lot of differences in terms of the growing conditions and what is grown and made there. Starting with you, David, can you walk us from whatever direction makes the most sense? I would really start in the west, the mouth of the river and on the Atlantic. But if you want to start in the middle of the country, you take your pick. What are we talking about here as we work our way through the Loire?
D: One of the things that draws me to the Loire Valley is the diversity of soil type, grape varieties, and wine styles, starting at the coast where the Loire Valley empties into the Atlantic Ocean. We’ve got one very specific soil type, we see a little bit more hard rock sand and some volcanic rock as well. That’s planted with Melon de Bourgogne and then move inland to Chenin Blanc and some amazing Cabernet Franc and move into more sedimentary soils. Then we get into the Paris Basin, into soil types that we often associate with Burgundy with a lot of really beautiful limestone and clay. We continue moving in that direction into the land of Sauvignon Blanc and in the central vineyards. The Loire Valley is massive and the river itself is extremely long. And so when you go all the way to the headwaters of the Loire River, you’re really in the Massif Central in the middle of France. The fact that it covers so many different styles and soil types and grape varieties isn’t surprising, but it also gives us a lot to work with when we’re talking about the Loire Valley.
Z: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, I asked you to speed through a very large region with a lot of different appellations and varieties in two minutes. So please understand that there’s a lot more complexity that we’ll dive into as we go along in this podcast. Susan, I wanted to start with this broad overview, not so geographically oriented, but just in terms of production. When we talk about the Loire, are we talking about a white wine region, a red wine region? A little bit of everything? If people are out there looking for wines from the Loire Valley, what kinds of wines can they find?
S: First of all, bravo on your summary, David. That was fantastic, and it just dovetails right into the different regions of the Loire Valley, which offer such a diversity of styles and characters. I think we’re going to come back to those words many times — diversity and character — from the mouth of the river Pays Nantais, through Anjou-Saumur, Touraine, and the Centre-Loire where you find Sancerre and those types of wines that people hear about a lot. But within each region, there is diversity as well. If you take the Pays Nantais region, home to that wonderful Melon de Bourgogne, there are five appellations in that region alone. But there’s no reason for intimidation because the price points of these wines make it easy to explore different styles from different appellations and get to know them. This is not just a white wine region, this is not just a red wine region, not just the sparkling wine region. It has something for everyone. David and I are coming from a musical background, but this will resonate with anybody who appreciates music. The regions in the Loire Valley are like the musicians of a really, really great band, top chamber orchestra, a jazz ensemble, or any tight rock band. They comprise a small group of expert musicians who are at the top of their game, and they play beautifully as soloists, but also seamlessly as an ensemble. I think we can look at the Loire and its wines in that way because each of the regions offers its own shining stars. We have beautiful sparkling wines everywhere. Crémant de Loire is a spectacular sparkling possibility for anybody who’s looking for a quality sparkling wine but doesn’t want to spend all of their budget. That can be said for all the other wines, everything from everyday fun, fruity, and fresh to collectible wines for all price points and all tastes. So there really is something for everyone. It really, truly is the garden of France, as it has been called not just for its agricultural diversity but for so much more.
Z: It’s also a strikingly beautiful region. Having visited there, as I’m sure the both of you have as well, the Loire is famous for many things and one you didn’t mention is the many châteaux that line the Loire and other rivers in the area and are scattered throughout the region. Which is well worth a visit. We’ll come back to visit in a moment. Susan, I wanted to ask you a question about something you mentioned before, which is this idea of varieties or appellations within the broader Loire being like musicians in a band. Or a chamber orchestra, because we’re talking about a lot of appellations here. I think that’s a good point. Yet it is important to note that, at least in terms of prestige, there are the first chair violins of the region. For people that want to taste the classics or benchmarks, what are some appellations to be aware of in the Loire that they should be looking for? What can they expect stylistically?
S: Oh, goodness. There are several choices there because there’s so much diversity here. But if they haven’t tried a Muscadet from the Pays Nantais, they should start at the mouth of the river there by the Atlantic. There are Just beautiful wines at affordable price points. The wines that are most available are probably from the appellation Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine. You will find some wonderful wines here that will go with shellfish, they could go by themselves. They are beautiful white wines from Melon de Bourgogne. Domaine de l’Ecu is one of the pioneers of quality Muscadet winemaking. They’ve been practicing organic farming for 40 years and are biodynamic, and it’s just one of many producers that you can find. You can go to Saumur-Champigny if you want a Cabernet Franc. You might have heard of a grape variety from Bordeaux, but here it really shines as a soloist here, if you want to talk about the band, and it is just so great for any time of the year. But I think they’re perfect for the holidays, to be honest, because it’s slightly chilled at room temperature and perfect to drink with red meat or on its own. I think Cabernet Franc from the Loire can do it all and do it well. For example, Domaine Raffault is a wonderful wine from the appellation Chinon that displays that classic, slightly green-peppery nose over to the palate, mingling with earthy spice, cranberries, bright red fruit. It’s a perfect red for those chilly winter nights and can pair with a wide variety of dishes. Definitely give those a try as well. Moving on to the Upper Loire, people have probably heard of Sancerre; I’m sure they’re quite familiar with that. But how about Sancerre Rouge? Who says French Pinot Noir can only find its home in Burgundy? There are choices here and fortunately at a price point that is very easy to try and not have to use all our budget on this bottle. 100 percent Pinot Noirs have beautiful earthy flavors, red fruit, and plum. A producer like Domaine Thomas et fils is $25 or under, they are wonderful and pair perfectly with savory winter dishes such as coq au vin, lamb stew, and my personal favorite is a fried rice that I like to make at home with barbecued pork, scallions, peas, grated ginger, onions, and mushrooms. Sancerre Rouge can make the meal that much more fun. There are so many more that I could say, but I will let David talk.
Z: David, I was going to ask you to focus on a different variety that Susan didn’t mention, which is Chenin Blanc. Maybe talk a little about it, because when I was first getting started in my wine journey, Chenin Blanc from the Loire was one of the first white wines that really clicked for me, like, “I see what all the fuss is about.” So I have a personal affinity for it. Can you talk a little bit about some of the appellations in the Loire that focus on Chenin Blanc, and if there are some differences as we move through that region?
D: Absolutely. Years ago, I was running a little wine bar in Houston and I decided that I would do a Chenin-focused list and have the hashtag “Chenin Blanc Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk” at the top because I thought that was fun. Little did I know I’d open a honky-tonk later. But I love Chenin, and I think it’s one of the truly great varieties in the world for expression of terroir and sense of place. In the Loire Valley, it really is a key player in the sense that it makes truly spectacular sparkling wines. It makes beautiful, still dry white wines and sweet wines. It makes beautiful, rich, full-bodied white wines. There are amazing producers all over. If you’re looking for sparkling wines, you know there are producers of Crémant de Loire all over, and Chenin plays a strong role for a lot of them. I love Domaine du Viking, they have a really beautiful sparkling wine from the region of Vouvray, which is probably the most famous region for Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley. Whether deservedly or not, I’m not making a plug for it, but Vouvray is a wonderful place to find sparkling and dry wines. For those that are looking for a dry version of Chenin Blanc, Savennières is an appellation that is really spectacular. It has a lot of volcanic influence and a really interesting flinty character. I love Château Soucherie, that does an amazing job, and actually, Susan and I were doing the Loire Valley buyers selection competition recently, in which we tasted a whole host of Chenin Blanc, and Soucherie Patrimoine, which is their sweet wine, got top marks and is really a spectacular wine. And I bring it up mainly because when Chenin is sweet, it has so much acidity that it creates these beautifully balanced, sweet wines. I have a love affair with Chenin, and I can find Chenin for anyone.
Z: I would echo that sentiment. What’s very exciting about what you see in the Loire, not just with Chenin Blanc, is we sometimes are guilty of lumping these things together. As you look at some of these different appellations throughout that middle-ish part of the Loire, there’s really a lot of differences, whether you’re looking at Saumur further to the west or, as you said, Vouvray. There’s a lot going on there and a lot of different winemakers approaching the variety differently, whether they’re looking to make sparkling wine, a kind of lean, acid-driven, totally dry style, something a little bit off dry, or even something that’s been barrel aged and shows a little bit more weight and structure in that regard. We can have a whole podcast about Chenin Blanc, but we’ll switch gears a little bit here. Another thing that I love about the Loire — and Susan you kind of hit on this both when talking about Cabernet Franc and about Pinot Noir — is it’s this interesting place where these varieties that we associate with maybe other parts of France pop up and do really interesting things where you can see the connection to their more famous home in another part of France. But they’re also distinctly from the Loire. Susan, would you rather talk about Gamay or Malbec in the Loire?
S: Whew, that’s a tough choice.
Z: You can also talk about both. I don’t mean to make you pick.
S: Sometimes they come together as partners, which is lovely. Just to mention briefly, the Loire offers so much with rosé, and the Loire Buyers Selection that David and I participated in earlier this year just had a wealth of beautiful rosé wines from the Loire Valley at beautiful price points. These are wines that you can open every day. These are wines that you open with friends, and you want to do it frequently. And you can because they’re really affordable, they’re light not only in terms of their body but also in terms of alcohol. You don’t have to feel like you’re going to get clobbered over the head if you’ve had a bit and you can have it with food or by itself. Everything from the poolside party to the winter aperitif. There’s something for everybody there, and I think this is where Gamay and Malbec can really shine as well. Also there are so many rosé sparkling wines, and I love that David mentioned the sparkling Vouvray earlier for the Chenin Blanc grape. But there are also so many sparkling wines done in a rosé and brut in a dry style made from Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Gamay. Some of them are $15 to $20. It’s ripe, creamy, and so attractive. The texture and the red fruit flavors are crisp, and the acidity is just bright, it’s refreshing. You can drink it now and just enjoy life. Gamay and Malbec shine, even though they’re associated with other wine regions — Gamay with Beaujolais and Malbec with Argentina and Bordeaux — it’s a different expression and one that is just beautiful and easy to enjoy. You can really try it without spending $100 on a bottle of wine. You can buy several bottles and still be under $30 or $50. It’s great.
Z: Absolutely. David, I keep going to you for the white wine regions, and I don’t really know why; this was not planned. I want to talk a little more about Sauvignon Blanc and Sancerre in particular, and some of the other surrounding appellations that also specialize in Sauvignon Blanc. My perception is that despite the incredible association of quality with Sancerre, which is 100 percent deserved, Sauvignon Blanc has kind of become this grape of the world now in a way that is fine and understandable. Obviously, there are people making great Sauvignon Blanc in many parts of the world, not just in France. What is it about this part of the Loire Valley that makes the Sauvignon Blanc distinctive and makes it really worth seeking out? In a little bit of a contrast to what Susan was saying about some of these sparkling wines, you do pay a premium for Sancerre and for some of the Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley. I want to be clear on this point, it’s a deserved premium. But why do you think that is?
D: When we’re talking about top regions for any specific grape variety, they are defined by having a style that is just different from everywhere else. There is something about Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc that sets it apart from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc from Bordeaux or even from Napa and Sonoma. Each of them has its own distinct markers and stylistic elements. What sets Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc apart is that it tends not to see oak. Sometimes, it sees a little bit, but it’s not traditionally heavily oaked. So it tends to be on the crisper, more mineral-driven side of things. The other most purchased region for Sauvignon Blanc right now is New Zealand, which sees 300 days of sunlight a year — at least in Marlborough where it’s famous. In Sancerre and a lot of the Touraine where they’re growing Sauvignon Blanc, it’s planted in soil types that are very specific to that region. There is a lot of calcareous soil, a lot of limestone, and it’s produced without a lot of oak except in a few exceptional cases. It’s really driven by that cool climate. So you end up with Sauvignon Blanc that is minerally, flinty, and occasionally smoky, and has a very specific character for that region. Sancerre draws the highest dollar amount, but to be fair, that is still in the Loire Valley perspective. That’s still extremely low for a classic and great white wine region. The average bottle of Sancerre is right around $25 to $30 on the shelf. You can’t find a great bottle of Burgundy for $25 if you tried. It’s almost impossible. So it’s still amazingly reasonable. You cross the river and go to Pouilly-Fumé, one of the very famous and classic regions, made so by Didier Dagueneau for oaking Sauvignon Blanc. That can be the exception to the rule there. But you can find an amazing bottle of wine for $15.
Z: I wanted to switch gears a little bit from talking about specific appellations and come back and talk a little bit about something that Susan mentioned before, which is how these wines perform. We’re talking about a lot of different kinds of wines, different styles, varieties, etc., so it’s going to be generalizations. How do these wines perform at the table? We are recording and releasing this around the holidays, so people are thinking about their Christmas dinners, they’re thinking about maybe their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Maybe they’re just thinking about that incredibly dreary Jan. 11, whatever day of the week that is. What makes these wines shine in these various situations? David, if you want to start with the holidays, and then we’ll let Susan handle the dreary January day. Because she lives somewhere where I don’t think it’s dreary all that often. You and I, David, we live in places where it does get dreary.
D: We live in a colder climate. One of the great aspects of Loire Valley wines, overall, is their freshness and brightness and sparkling acidity, even when the wines are older. So many of these appellations produce wines that age spectacularly well; even when they get older you still have that bright sparkle in the eye of the wine from the Loire Valley. There’s humor to them and brightness. When we’re talking about holiday wines, I’m always looking for something that can pair with different cuisines, because holiday tables don’t just have one thing that you’re pairing with. You’re usually pairing with a whole spectrum of dishes, and you want something that’s refreshing and has mouth watering acidity so that you’re refreshed by your wine. Not just constantly diving deep into a glass that’s 15 percent alcohol and has a bunch of oak and heaviness to it. That’s not the Loire Valley style. They’re serious and contemplative wines, but they still have levity to them. That’s really what I’ve always been drawn to, especially writing restaurant lists and talking to people about what they should drink. If you’re having a roast or red meat for Christmas or any of the holidays this time of year, Cabernet Franc is a wonderful pairing simply because it has that richness. It has depth to it, but it also has bright acidity and will pair nicely with the other dishes that surround the roast.
Z: How about that dreary Jan. 11, Susan?
S: What about a little bit of wine to make that dreary day that much brighter? Even the San Francisco Bay Area does get some dreary days, but I’m not complaining whatsoever. It’s all about perspective. The Loire, as David put so beautifully, shows the absolute freshness, the brightness, and yet the capacity for richness. If you want a wine to enjoy immediately or something to cellar, there’s something for you. For the dreary days, you could pair Loire Valley wines with just about anything that you could come up with. Even if you’re just getting takeout and getting this awesome burrito with carne asada and just a rosé from Gamay would have this ripe red berry, beautiful freshness, and bright acidity that would bring joy to that burrito like never before.
Z: I’m usually pretty joyous when I’m having a burrito, but there can always be more joy.
S: There’s always more joy in food. Speaking of that kind of winter weather, there’s always Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Lunar New Year, and things like that. When you have a big banquet like that, especially with Asian-style gatherings where there are a ton of different dishes on the table and they’re still coming and they’re still coming, you want wines that won’t make you feel overwhelmed by the time the second dish comes in. You want wines that you can continue to enjoy throughout a long dinner. Loire Valley wines really do offer that, starting from a sparkling rosé and moving into a nice light Anjou Chenin Blanc. That could be for a nice banquet because those price points are perfect for by-the-case *celebrations. Moving into the Cabernet Franc, with its pepperiness, its brightness, the red cranberry fruit, the slight smokiness that you get, are so great with this wonderful smoky barbecue sauce that is popular in a lot of Asian cooking. It’s this really smoky, textured barbecue sauce that goes on any kind of meat. Or it could just be vegetarian, like eggplant and broccoli. You name it. That is going to be so great for a roast or anything else. You can have many different wines that can pair with everything in your meal and also not overwhelm you throughout the evening.
Z: Excellent. The two of you have mentioned a couple of times of this Loire Buyers Selection. Can you tell us a little bit about what this process was and how people can actually utilize what the two of you and others have selected?
D: During the pandemic, it was one of the first times a lot of us had actually gotten together to taste wine in person, which is a very different process than judging wines from afar or in a somewhat disconnected Zoom format. So it was a wonderful opportunity to actually spend time together in New York and taste a bunch of Loire Valley wines. We were paired off with another colleague. You can go to the LoireValleyWine.com to the Loire Buyer’s Selection and see who was tasting because they were spectacular colleagues. Susan and I were very blessed to hang out with these folks, and then we paired off and tasted through a bunch of wines. We tasted everything blind, and there were a lot of discussions to determine whether we thought the wines were classic for the region, classic for the grape variety, and whether they were wines that would play well at the table. Would they work well in a restaurant setting? Would we recommend them to a guest in a retail shop? Every wine was discussed at length. We didn’t know any of them until we found out at the end and saw some of our favorite producers — which is always nice to have a little confirmation.
Z: It’s great that people have that resource of the Loire Buyers Selection. But for people who want to explore this with their local wine shop, are there any other tips you can give people for looking for these wines more generally as we wrap things up?
S: Make it known to your local retail wine shop or anybody else that you’re looking for wines from the Loire Valley. Let people know that you’re interested in it. The more that you let people know that you want these wines, the more there will be for all of us here stateside. So let’s keep that going. Go to LoireValleyWine.com/LoireBuyersSelection, and you can actually see the lists of wines that David and I and our esteemed colleagues tasted blind. You can see the scores, and there’s information that you can download and there’s a little link that you can click on to see availability for this wine. Or you can just learn about these producers. They’re all right here on the site, and it’s so cool for me to see because it was amazing to have the reveal at the end to see what all these wines were and relive those memories through all the wines. It was an incredible experience. Definitely go check these out and mention these even to the buyers at your local grocery store, if your supermarket sells wine, or if it’s available where you live. If not, check online as well and look for Loire Valley wines. That should come up with some great lists or resources out there online; definitely make use of those. But LoireValleyWine.com has a lot of information, and I highly suggest you look there. You can get all the information you need about the different regions, wines, and producers.
Z: Fantastic. Well, David and Susan, thank you both so much for your time. I love talking about the wines from Loire Valley. As I mentioned, I’ve had a wonderful time exploring the region and many more enjoyable afternoons, evenings — even a morning or two — enjoying the wine. It’s a pleasure to get to chat more about them, and I look forward to continuing to do so and checking out some of your selections on the Loire Buyer’s Guide. Thank you both so much.
S: Thank you for having us. It’s been a real pleasure.
D: Thank you, Zach. That was a blast.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.