The wines of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur
By Jim Budd
This Guide was last updated on 19 April 2011
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The fairy-tale town of Chinon on the banks of the Vienne River is an ideal base for visiting the area. © Mick Rock/Cephas
Although many people think of the Loire as white wine country, a little under half of Loire wines are either red or rosé. Saumur Champigny, Bourgueil, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon form the centre of the Loire’s red wine production. Based almost exclusively on Cabernet Franc, this is the source of the Loire’s finest reds, with the possible exception of top Sancerres made from Pinot Noir. There is a range of styles from easy-drinking reds bottled early to enjoy young to much more structured wines, usually planted on the limestone hillsides, that need time and in good vintages will last twenty years or more.
There are also some very good dry and sweet whites from Saumur, the best invariably made from 100% Chenin Blanc. Not forgetting that Saumur is the largest producer of sparkling wine in France outside Champagne with Crémant de Loire now the most important appellation.
The underlying limestone rock, known locally as tuffeau, also provides the region’s characteristic honey-coloured building material and in the excavations, cellars for ageing wine as well as troglodyte dwellings on hillsides were formed. The string of lovely châteaux – both world famous and unknown – found east of Tours continues to the west. Azay-le-Rideaux, Chinon, Ussé (the sleeping beauty château) and Villandry are the best known. There are also many beautiful villages and little hamlets that nestle in the gently undulating countryside. Either of the attractive towns of Chinon or Saumur would make a good base for exploring the area. Although it is a longer drive, say, from Saumur to Azay-le-Rideaux, Saumur is also convenient for exploring Anjou.
Due to a greater maritime influence winters are noticeably warmer here than east of Tours. Often there are three or four degrees of difference. This means that spring starts up to a week earlier, giving time for Cabernet Franc to ripen properly, which is possible but more problematic east of Tours. The land is gently undulating and cut by the Loire and its tributaries – the Cher, Indre, Vienne and the Thouet. Many of the vineyards are south facing.
The vines of Bourgueil, Chinon and Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil are on three different types of soil: sand, gravel and clay-limestone. The lightest wines come from the sand, while the limestone provides the most robust. Vintage usually takes place in late September or October and, while rain at this time, can be a hazard in some years, autumns are often dry and sunny frequently saving a harvest after a disappointing July and August.
When travelling to Chinon or Bourgueil it is often easiest to head to Tours first in the centre of the Loire Valley. Tours is the main intersection of routes from the north and south of France with those running east west through the region. With the completion of A85 (Vierzon to Angers motorway) it has never been so accessible and Tours is reached by road from Paris in an about 2 hours 20 minutes via the A10 motorway. Chinon is about 50 km from Tours via the D751. Alternatively exit the A10 at Sainte-Maure-de-Touraine (Junction 25) and take the D760 and D8 to Chinon – 28 kilometres. For Saumur exit off A85 about 5km north of the town. From Paris to Saumur use the A11 and A85 – 322 km in just over 3 hours. There is a regular TGV rail service to Tours taking an hour from Paris, with another stop at Angers, which is better for Saumur. The closest large international airport is Paris. Tours has a regional airport with flights from the UK, Ireland and a few other European destinations. There is also a small airport at Angers, with BA running flights from London City airport three times a week from May 2012. Nantes, which has the Loire’s most significant airport, is about 191km from Chinon and 169 km from Saumur and with the completion of the A85 motorway, it is an option worth considering.
Tours Tourist Office,
78-82 Rue Bernard Palissy, 37042 Tours
Saumur Tourist Office,
Place de la Bilange, 49418 Saumur
Chinon Tourist Office,
Place Hofheim, 37501 Chinon
Maison du Vin de Saumur,
Quai Lucien Gautier, 49400 Saumur
Tel: 02 41 38 45 83
Syndicat des Producteurs de Saumur-Champagny
Tel: 02 41 51 16 40
Wines of the Loire information.
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