France’s Loire Valley is a mosiac of sweeping green vineyards, tumbling rustic villages, lazy river bends and fairytale castles. Just a few hours from London, this famed area offers a world of picturesque towns, from Crissay-sur-Manse to Chinon, stunning vistas, delectable gastronomy, and world-class local wine to savour. It’s little wonder when deciding which of these castles and towns should be protected UNESCO opted to label the entire valley as a World Heritage Site.
Luckily for Londoners, the Loire is right on our doorstep and its wines fill our restaurants and bars – perfect for sipping on warm afternoons when the city throws open its doors and relocates to the sun-drenched pavements. Of course seeing the Valley in person is a delight not to be missed, from exploring its Chateaux to enjoying the region’s wines, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into with the Loire Valley.
A week in the Loire is best centred around the region’s heartland, Touraine, or the more lively towns of Angers, Saumur, Tours and Nantes with stops to some of the smaller villages – in fact the Loire Valley proudly proclaims to have eight of the ten most beautiful villages in France.
From Touraine you can see the beautiful Chateaux of Villandry, Langeais and Amboise, as well as the celebrated wine-producing towns of Vouvray and Chinon. Long known as “the garden of France”, this area also takes in three of the Loire’s prettiest tributaries: the Cher, Indre and Vienne.
Famous castles are in abundance in the Loire, many of which trace their histories back across the last thousand years. These majestic monuments, an ensemble unlike any other on the planet, owe their picturesque nature to the end of the wars with England, once the British crown lost all its land in France strong defences and siege-ready castles were replaced with pleasure gardens and beautiful architecture. While Henry VIII was busy with Hampton Court, François I was building his beloved Loire Valley.
For city-breaks and incredible cuisine, Tours itself is a charming city full of narrow streets and restaurants spilling out onto the pavements. Visit at the end of May to see the city invaded with 150 wine makers as well as renowned chefs to delight visitors with the area's famous gastronomy at the festival VitiLoire.
Upriver along the Loire, Saumur offers rugged country roads to drive down in search of the next vineyard. Here you can explore domaines, and sample wines as well as see the fascinating cave systems left from palaces and castles long-gone, which now serve as wine cellars.
Finally a city break in Nantes, at the mouth of the Loire, will open your eyes to the maritime history of the river and its focal point as a trading route for France. Enriched with its own beauty, Nantes is also a mecca for seafood and crisp white Muscadet.
Wines to explore
The Loire Valley’s wine-making regions are divided between Pays Nantais, Anjou, Saumur and Touraine. Within these are a plethora of appellations, some which will be familiar such as Chinon and Muscadet while others remain as hidden gems to discover, including the wonderful wines of Bonnezeaux and Savennières.
Working from the coast inwards, the Pays Nantais is the first area, benefiting from the crisp seaside air. Muscadet makes up the largest white wine appellation in France and the wines are typically dry, perfect for seaside sipping. The light wines here have long been made exclusively from the Melon de Bourgogne grape.
Moving up river, you’ll find Anjou, famous for growing Chenin Blanc and producing some of the world’s best sweeter wines. When all the elements come together, from nature’s weather in producing thoroughly ripe grapes to the appearance of the magic mould noble rot, appellations such as Coteaux de l'Aubance, Coteaux du Layon and, especially, the particularly well-favoured enclaves Chaume, Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux within it, can produce great, honeyed, long-living sweet white wines to rival some of the best in the world.
In Anjou you’ll also find Savennières, the small but world-famous dry white Chenin Blanc appellation. Anjou isn’t all about white wine however, as there are also excellent red Anjou wines, the off-dry Rosé d'Anjou and Rosé de Loire.
Saumur moves us closer inland, with its breathtaking famous castle and miles of underground tunnels and caves. The small area produces a Saumur-Champigny, one of the Loire Valley's great Cabernet Franc red wines, but it is best known for its usually dry and racy Chenin Blanc-based sparkling wines, such as Crémant de Loire whose tiny bubbles demonstrate considerable winemaking skill.
Further up the river Touraine boasts not only the informal title of ‘Garden of France’ but also many famous appellations, including Vouvray, made from Chenin Blanc and Chinon and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil, made from Cabernet Franc. These are two of the Loire's most famous reds, alongside Saumur-Champigny. Here you'll also discover Touraine Sauvignon Blanc, a refreshing and dry white wine with crisp acidity.