It’s hard to believe that a mere two-hour drive from the lights of Paris lies the serene and bucolic Loire Valley. Once the opulent residence of kings and queens, this idyllic landscape thrives today as a beautiful escape for tourists to appreciate the magnificent chateaus and acclaimed vineyards.
Chateaus of the Loire Valley, with their crenellated towers, cupolas, and extravagant decor, expound the history of the region, as they were originally fortresses built during the Hundred Years’ War between the English and the French and later remodelled into pleasure palaces for the nobility.
The excavation of stone for these grand palaces has dotted the valley with caves that today are used to store and age its wine. In these caves, you can sample the vintages and appreciate the terroir of this region that makes it ideal for oenotourism.
The most celebrated of all Sauvignon blancs, the appellations of Sancerre surround the villages of Bué and Chavignol in the easternmost region of the Loire Valley. This crisp white wine, known for its minerality thanks to the white chalk terroir, has an intense nose of citrus that can perfectly complement fresh goat cheese or seafood. These hillside vineyards were originally known for Pinot noir and Gamay grapes. But after a phylloxera epidemic hit the Sancerre region in the late 19th century, different vines had to be planted, and Sancerre as we know it was created.
Chenin blanc grapes take centre stage in Vouvray, one of the larger territories in Loire that produces about three million gallons of wine annually. Of that production, 52 percent is sparkling wine and 48 percent is still, with sweetness ranging from sec (dry), to moelleux (medium-sweet), to doux (sweet). Sparkling Vouvray is the perfect complement to sushi, medium-sweet goes well with spicy dishes like Indian food, and sweet Vouvray is the perfect end to a meal with tarte Tatin or creme brulee.
Unlike most French whites, which are meant to be enjoyed on the young side, Vouvray wines can be stored and enjoyed decades later, especially the sweet varieties. Production of the different varieties of Vouvray depends on the climate, with cooler years lending themselves to dry and sparkling wines and warmer years producing sweeter wines.
This small appellation of Chenin blanc wines is more austere and complex than its Sancerre cousin. With the small number of producers and a mere 358 acres of vines, it’s sometimes hard to find, but definitely worth the search. With a nose of pineapple, pears, and minerals, the complexities of Savennières pair wonderfully with a wide range of dishes such as curries or rich sauces.
Although the region has room for twice the vines, Anjou winemakers discovered centuries ago that the best grapes came from the exposed hillsides with soil composed of sandstone schist. Nicolas Joly, the most prominent Savennieres producer, suggests opening your bottle up to to breathe 48 hours before enjoying, but a mere decanting will enhance your bottle.
Although the Loire Valley is known for its whites, the Cabernet Franc from Chinon is superlative. These deep and complex reds from the Touraine region have a nose of fruit and dark berry and pair well with everything from beef and white meats to more piquant fare.
In 1429, Joan of Arc came to Chinon to inspire the Dauphin Charles VII to reclaim his kingdom. Today you can follow her footsteps and taste Cabernet Franc in the many wine cellars across the valley (caves touristiques) that offer tastings and a chance to talk wine with some of the most important producers in the region.
King Henry II gave Chenonceau to his mistress (and former governess) Diane de Poitiers, who built the gardens, the fountain, and the bridge across the river Cher so she could hunt on the other side. The upkeep for the property was so extravagant, Henry had to tax the chiming of bells across the country. Upon his death, his widow Catherine de Medici took over the property and was known for her lavish parties.
Nicknamed the “Chateau des Dames” for its legacy of female masters, today Chenonceau is the most popular of the Loire Valley chateaus and is known for its impressive art collection, including works by Van Dyck, Rubens, and Les Trois Grâces by Jean-Baptiste van Loo.
This chateau is a must see, not for its owner, but for its most significant houseguest. Bought by the mother of King Francis I around the turn of the 16th century to become the summer house of the King, this red brick and stone chateau housed the Renaissance painter and engineer Leonardo da Vinci for the last three years of his life.
To commemorate the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci’s arrival, Clos Lucé has unveiled an immersive experience where you can see how the artist would have lived and worked on the grounds, including some of his most famous experiments, such as the paddle boat, machine gun and helicopter.
The grandiose Chambord Chateau, the largest and most visited of the Loire Valley castles, was originally built as a hunting lodge for King Francis I in the early 16th century, who only spent a total of about eight weeks there. The pinnacle of French Renaissance architecture, today it is revered for its important history. Chambord was pillaged during the French Revolution in 1791 and housed artwork from the Louvre during World War II.
Step inside to see the grand double spiral staircase (said to be designed by Da Vinci) and the decor in the few of the 440 rooms on display, but the real stunning feature at Chambord is the grounds, with 13,000 acres teeming with wildlife, an area bigger than central Paris!
The last of the grand Renaissance chateaus to be built, Villandry was luckily saved from disassembly for stone by Dr. Joachim Carvallo in the early 1900s. Not only did he restore the interior with his Spanish influence, but he painstakingly restored and expanded the famous Renaissance gardens to their verdant splendour.
Touring the intricate and geometric gardens, separated by meticulously sculpted box hedges, is almost overwhelming, with the flora’s lavish colour, detail, and symbolism of love, music, pleasure, and water. Make sure to venture inside the chateau so the grounds can be seen from above.
English Text by Laine McDonnell Translated by Rui Chen