The Loire Valley is a beautiful wine region of France and one of my favourites. 

Leonardo da Vinci is buried there (at Amboise) and because of the many battles fought between successive armies of invaders invaders, there are more fortified chateaux along the 282km length of the River Loire than anywhere else in France. 

But today we come here for the wine – the river being the most powerful climatic influence on the vines providing water-borne transport, irrigation, cooling and, in the Coteaux du Layon appellation, the foggy autumnal mornings that create the perfect conditions for Noble Rot, the fungus that affects sweet late-harvest grapes and produces exceptional sweet wines.

The Loire is known for diversity – it produces a wide range of wines in a wide range of styles from sparkling, dry and sweet whites and reds – and value for money. It’s often my top pick on a restaurant wine list, and features in my list of recommendations.

So when I was invited to lunch by Loire Valley Wines, I didn’t hesitate. The theme was Christmas in July and the chef was Camille Tardieu  formerly of Cérès who was going to show us fabulously festive food pairings for wines chosen by Master of Wine Anne McHale. 

Well, I don’t know how you start your Christmas celebrations but for me it’s always fizz (and not just in December).  I was genuinely happy to see a bottle of my old friend Prince Alexandre Crémant de Loire, a staple on the shelves at Waitrose (£14.99 but often on offer). Fresh and floral with a hint of summer fruit, a zing of citrus acidity and an elegant mousse, crémant is made all over France in the same way as Champagne but without the hefty price tag. 

Camille took us to the Mediterranean for her first course, of cod cheeks in a bright Persillade sauce, served with creamed potato, salmon roe and sea greens – a colour play on the traditional reds and greens of festive decorations and punchy with salty green flavours that matched perfectly with the Domaine de la Tourmaline Muscadet ‘Sur Lie’ (£9.99 at Majestic).  Muscadet is made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape at the most westerly Atlantic end of the Loire, and the salty sea air infuses this wine making it a perfect match with fresh seafood and shellfish. After fermentation it is aged on the lees in large glass tanks, to develop further texture and character, and it’s as refreshing on the beach in summer as it is at the winter dinner table. 

Curlurgiones are a distinctive Sardinian speciality, little pasta parcels usually filled with veggie purées like potato and cheese. At her Stoke Newington restaurant Cérès Camille made them her own, endlessly introducing seasonal elements to keep things fresh and interesting. As a nod to Noël, these parcels were filled with Squash and confit garlic and topped with shaved truffles. All that earthiness and richness was balanced by the clean, fresh aromatics of Le Grand Maré Sauvignon Blanc de Touraine 2022 (Laithwaites £12.99) – a classic Old-World sauvignon that delivers cut grass, lemon and lime. 

Next up was Chenin Blanc, Domaine du Vieux Vauvert Vouvray (Waitrose £9.99) made in an off-dry style that was destined to pair beautifully with an Sri-Lankan inspired crab and scallop curry. Aromatic off-dry wine styles like this are a gift to mildly spicy food and I can confirm they got along very well together. 

Cabernet Franc is the anchor red wine of the Loire and Domaine Filliatreau ‘Vielles Vignes’ Saumur Champigny 2018 (Yapp Brothers £22) is made from old vines on clay and limestone soils, and the hand-harvested grapes have a long, slow maceration in stainless steel to develop powerful, juicy flavours of black fruits with savoury notes of mushroom, leather and pepper. The food pairing – Camille’s red-wine-braised Wagyu beef with mushrooms in an intense, rib-sticking sauce – was sublime, the wine’s acidity delivering freshness to balance the richness of the dish. Saumur Champigny is one of the best-value wines from the Loire, and while ready to drink it can be put down for 10-15 years to develop further. 

Again demonstrating the versatility of the region, and of Chenin Blanc as a variety, dessert (an exquisitely flaky mince pie with nougatine ice-cream, raspberry purée and caramelised pistachios), was paired with premier cru Domaine des Forges ‘Les Onnis’ Coteaux du Layon (Tanners £25). The intense dried fruit notes with hints of marmalade and ginger pair magnificently with fruit and spice, crunchy nuts and buttery pastry but the ever-present acidity brightens everything up like fire-side tinsel. 

All in all, a menu for all the months of the year, with wines to enjoy every day. 

One last recommendation (because I literally always have one in my fridge at all times, year round), is the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire Rosé (£12 but often on offer). Made by Bouvet Ladubay, premier Loire producers, this is not just for high days and holidays. 

© Linda Galloway 2023