Wine 101: French Region Deep Dives: Saumur

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Fleur de Mer rosé, which means “Flower of the Sea,” because it’s literally grown in Provence next to the Mediterranean, which is a sea. Think turquoise waters, crystalline mountains, salty breezes – wait, are we talking about travel, wine, or both? Because all of that terroir contributes to the juicy notes of ripe strawberry, citrus, and wildflower aromas in this beautiful rosé. To experience Fleur de Mer, follow the link in the episode description to

In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into Saumur, a small winemaking region in France’s Loire Valley. Famed for its still, sparkling, and dessert wines, Saumur is a unique town with an incredibly rich winemaking history. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and this is how it breaks down: Jiff, Skippy, Peanut Butter & Co. Crunchy and smooth doesn’t matter. We don’t talk about Peter Pan.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From VinePair’s podcasting network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers, I’m the tastings director of VinePair, and how are you doing?

So I know you’ve seen them on shelves or maybe even on wine lists, wines from Saumur. I’ve mentioned them in other episodes, but it’s time to get real nice with tuffeau – I’ll explain.

OK, wine lovers, so we’re going back to the Loire Valley and we’re going to head towards not the middle of it, but there’s a point in the Loire Valley where the Atlantic influence starts to wane and continental influence starts to become prominent. And that region really is the region of Vouvray, that center point. But before we get to Vouvray, we pass through a little town called Saumur, S-A-U-M-U-R, and this is…

The reason why I wanted to do this one before is because we’re going to do Vouvray next week. I wanted to do this little AOC, this little wine appellation, because the thing is, you’re going to see a lot of it on the American market, but sometimes your eyes just kind of glaze over it because, “Look, I don’t know what that means.” What’s interesting about this little place called Saumur is that they’re really well known for sparkling wine, not traditionally, but they’re known now for sparkling wine and it’s become popular enough that over time Champagne houses are actually invested, have invested or are investing in this area for sparkling wine.

The wine region is named after a beautiful little riverside town called Saumur and surrounding this town is another town called Champigny, which we’ll talk about in a second, but just like the Loire Valley, it was known as the vacation for the filthy rich back before the French Revolution. So the Loire Valley is peppered with beautiful castles or chateaus, and Saumur has one of these castles. It also has a very famous, very large abbey— actually the largest abbey in Europe — that was actually led by a nun. One of the only ones in Europe to be led by a nun, and oddly enough, Napoleon turned it into a prison. That’s fun. It’s also famously very equestrian. So you have this bucolic, Loire riverside town with horses and an abbey and castles and wine. The thing is this whole area is on top of what is called a plateau of tuffeau, T-U-F-F-E-A-U.

And this tuffeau, which is a part of the larger northern part of, mid-to-northern part of France, it’s a geological domain that eventually goes all the way up into Champagne. It’s this limestone-clay-soft-rock vibe, and the tuffeau is this almost creamy rock that lays underneath this town. At some point, this tuffeau was quarried, and well, the documents say it was quarried to help rebuild London after the Great Fire, so what you have here is this beautiful town with all the things I just said, and in addition to that, underneath the town, are these long, carved out cellar-like, labyrinth-like tunnels that are actually perfect for aging wine. Uh-oh! But not just wine. No, this area is really interesting because it’s not only known for its wine but it’s also known for its mushroom production, which is done within these cellar-like labyrinth tunnels.

And when you visit this place, you can actually walk around, there’s almost like a… I mean, it’s really hard to explain, but you’re walking almost underground, but not really because you can see the sky and you’re just… There’s actually houses built into these tuffeau walls, it’s almost like there are two worlds. It’s wild stuff. And when you go into the wine cellars, you can look up and see roots coming down through the ceiling of the wine cellars, because the tuffeau is like the sub-substrate with clay and other soils on top of it where the vineyards are, so you could literally be in a wine cellar underneath a vineyard. That’s cool. And for a long time, the wines that were being made here in this place were still red and white wines.

Now in the Loire Valley, two varieties reign supreme: Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc. And when we get to Vouvray next week, we’re going to get real nice with Chenin Blanc, so I’m going to save a lot of that info for next week and Cab Franc’s origin story is pretty cool. I believe I told that story in the Bordeaux episode. Maybe it was the Sauvignon Blanc, I’m not really sure, but I have a… It’s a really great story. Cab Franc is this sort of orphan grape from the Basque country of Spain that makes its way down into Bordeaux at some point, but it stops along the way in the Loire Valley and stays there for a long time, actually until today. And there’s a region just neighboring Saumur called Chinon that really thrives on Cabernet Franc, and at some point, we will get to that cause we have to.

So after vines were planted, probably in antiquity here, and then the monks obviously came around and started maintaining, building vineyards like they usually do. It was in the 19th century that this, the fate of this wine region would change, and that is when the Ackerman Laurence firm came in and created the first sparkling wine in the region. This was a sort of wine merchant-winemaker partnership and knowing the popularity of Champagne these guys decided, “Let’s try this in Saumur,” because they saw that these tuffeau cellers could be perfect for not only aging just regular wine but also aging wine that has been made sparkling in the traditional method. And because of the tuffeau and because of this sort of almost not Atlantic, but still Atlantic-influenced land, and the fact that Chenin Blanc was grown here made absolute sense. Chenin Blanc, and we’ll talk about this next week, is one of the highest- acid white wines we have, and that is good for a base wine for sparkling.

So they kind of did the math, tried it out, and the first sparkling wine was made in the 19th century by the Ackerman Laurence firm in Saumur. So you have still red and white wine, primarily from the Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc varieties. We have sparkling wine coming around the 19th century based primarily on Chenin Blanc, and because of the climate here, sometimes the harvests are a little bit odd and the grapes can be infected with noble rot, otherwise known as Botrytis cinerea, which is a fungus that infects grapes, and us humans think it’s a really cool thing. We make dessert wine out of it, and I go into a little bit of that in the Bordeaux episode. So we have ourselves here a fun little bucolic wine region with different styles of wine being made from different varieties — wow, this is kind of cool.

So in the 1930s, when the French are starting their appellation system, Saumur becomes an appellation in 1936 and since then four more AOC or appellations were created within this region, and those were to address the other styles of wine in the area because the original AOC, Saumur, dealt only with the still reds and the still wines. It didn’t address the sweet wines, it didn’t address rosé or sparkling wines. The AOC Coteaux de Saumur was created for the lightly sweet, high-acid dessert wines that were made from those noble rot grapes we’re talking about. Saumur Mousseux was developed for the sparkling wines of the region. In a very kind of odd name of an AOC, Cabernet de Saumur was originally developed for the rosé category, but that is now since 2006 called just Saumur Rosé.

And last but not least. So Saumur is on the south bank of the Loire river, and just off that town is a town called Champigny and in that town is a large influential co-op and the name is going to be hard for me, Saint-Cyr-en-Bourg, I believe that’s what it’s called, but this co-op, what they did for a long time is encourage vine growers in the area of this particular Champigny area to grow specifically red wine grapes and specifically Cab Franc. Over time, this grew and grew to the point where the terroir here and the style of wine was undeniable, so the AOC was created — Saumur-Champigny. And wine lovers, if you can find still red wine from Saumur-Champigny — this is your summer-spring chilled red wine. This is the kind of wine you want to chill down a little bit for Thanksgiving. These wines are consumed young, fresh, fruity, pepper, and awesome. Ugh. They’re great.

So it’s a very unique place. You have a place that has wines that age for quite some time, the sparkling and the dessert wines, and then wine like the white and the red from Chenin Blanc and Cab Franc and sometimes it’s blended with some Cabernet Sauvignon and sometimes a little lively sort of fruity grape called Pinot Donis that is best enjoyed in its youth. But the thing is, and it can get a little bit confusing because some of these regions like Saumur and even Vouvray, which we’ll talk about next week, are not going through changes, but just have things about them that are changing, and we don’t know where they’re going to go. So for example, for us on the American market, look for young, bright Saumur-Champigny. It’s going to be there.

The thing is, the AOC Mousseux — which is the sparkling wine — you’re going to see that, and it’s not going to say “Mousseux” on the label, but what’s happening is a lot of sparkling wines from Saumur are being categorized as Crémant de Loire, which we talked about in the sparkling wines that are not Champagne episode. So it’s going to be a little bit confusing on that front, but as far as you, as someone that goes and buys wine, don’t worry about it. It won’t be that confusing because this is the kind of category that the wine shop merchants need to know about. So what’s going to happen is, you’re going to ask for the Saumur section and you’re going to see all this small little array of wines. You’re going to see some white, some red, some sparkling, maybe some dessert wines. Try all of them.

I will say they’re awesome wines. Chenin Blanc doesn’t often get oak, but they do here as a still wine. But what I find really beautiful and refreshing when it hits right? And you know what? I don’t even care if they call it Saumur Mousseux or Crémant de Loire, but sparkling rosé from Saumur that is made from Cab Franc? Man, there’s something about it that is very special in the sparkling wine category. They sometimes have a little bit of Pinot Donis in them. Sometimes, maybe they’ll have some Chenin Blanc, but they’re these beautiful, almost fat, round, juicy sparkling wines with that nice little channel of peppery note just running through it because Cab Fran is peppery. It has that pyrazine and when it’s made into a base wine and then gone through the traditional method of making sparkling wine, it gets a little fat and it’s just so cool.

So if you get a chance, I mean, you’re going to see a lot of that. You’re going to see, more than anything from Saumur more on the American market, you’re going to see sparkling wine and you’re going to see sparkling rosé. So it comes down to who you’re talking to, what they have on offer. You’re going to see some of these Saumur sparkling wines that are owned by Champagne houses, which, that’s great, but some may have other winemakers from the Saumur that are a little bit smaller, have more concentration. I will say that the Saumur-Champigny thing is a really awesome gem for us on the American market because these wines are affordable because they’re made in this cooperative method so that by the time it gets to us, they’re not crazy expensive.

So that was a lot on a little region, but it’s so special and so cool it had to be talked about because if we’re going to talk about Vouvray next week, and we’d left Saumur out, it just wouldn’t be right. So go out there, get you some Saumur sparkling. As always, if you’re digging what you’re tasting, hashtag me, tag me, whatever it is, on Instagram, @VinePairKeith, and let me see those bottles. See you next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.