As a general rule, the best summer wines hail from growing regions that are cold. This makes sense, as cooler climates result in grapes that are less ripe, and therefore lighter in body and higher in acidity. One region that never seems to fail at people-pleasing is the Loire Valley in northwestern France.
One of the most interesting characteristics of the Loire region is that it runs horizontally, rather than vertically, and so the entire area is at the same latitude and climate, with each individual appellation's micro-climate based on it's proximity or distance from the sea.
Because most French wine regions run vertically, they tend to produce the same grapes down the appellation, increasing in ripeness as one travels south. In the Loire, different varieties are grown across the region, particular to the micro-climate of the area.
Closest to the Atlantic Ocean is the appellation of Muscadet. Contrary to popular belief, Muscadet is neither the name of the grape nor the village, but instead simply the name of the appellation. The principle grape grown here is Melon de Bourgogne, which produces light-bodied whites with a distinct saline influence that can only have come from the sea. Because of this, these wines are spectacular with salty snack foods, such as pretzels or chips, though they are classically paired with seafood (for obvious reasons).
Saumur, Chinon, Borgueil and St Nicholas de Bourgueil
Moving east, the next group of appellations (including Saumur, Chinon, Borgueil and St Nicholas de Bourgueil) feature the lighter-bodied, herbal Cabernet Francs. Actually one of the parent grapes of the ever-popular Cabernet Sauvignon, these wines feature similar complexity and flavor profile with less tannin and body, making them ideal food-pairing reds.
Montlouis, Vouvray, and Sauvennieres
Following a recent revival in popularity in California and South Africa, Chenin Blanc has started to become more recognized, though its ancient home is in the Loire appellations of Montlouis, Vouvray and Sauvennieres, also in the central Loire. Ranging from dry to sweet as well as simple and fruity to richly complex and age-worthy, these wines appeal to both novice drinkers and to seasoned aficionados. In addition, some of the best Chenin-based sparkling wines from the Loire Valley are produced in these areas, rivaling the cremants from Burgundy and Alsace.
Quincy, Sancerre and Pouilly Fume
In the appellations to the far east of the Loire, Sauvignon Blanc reigns supreme. Areas such as Quincy, Sancerre, and Pouilly Fume are world renowned for these light-to-medium, citrus-and-herb-heavy whites. (Touraine, which is a bit further west, nearer to Vouvray, also produced some outstanding Sauvignon Blancs, which due to their relative obscurity, tend to be excellent values as well.) Also produced in the Sancerre region are some stellar roses and limited quantities of red, made from Pinot Noir.
As with any other European wine, the old adage "if it grows together, it goes together" would suggest that any seafood (especially shellfish) would be the ideal pairing with any Loire wine due to the growing areas' proximity to the ocean and Loire river, but here is a quick cheat sheet for alternate pairings:
- Muscadet: oysters, pretzels, salads, aperitifs
- Cabernet Franc: vegetarian dishes (especially with peppers and onions), grilled meats, lamb, pork, sausage
- Chenin Blanc: spicy food (especially Asian), fish, softer cheeses (especially goat), apple-based desserts
- Sauvignon Blanc: asparagus, chicken, most cheeses, salads, soups, anything with garlic