The charming hilltop town of Sancerre, located among a patchwork of vineyards, is the perfect place to start a wine tour along France’s longest river. From Porte Cesar rampart you get a panoramic view north to the 14 villages on Sancerre’s wine route from St Gemmes to St Satur – and to the east, you can see for miles, with the placid Loire in the foreground lazily snaking its way north to Orleans and the region’s most easterly vineyards of Pouilly Fume in the distance.
Take time to walk through Sancerre’s ancient streets. Follow the smell of fermenting grapes through a maze of alleys to Vacheron’s winery in rue du Poits Poulton to sample biodynamic sancerre or soak up the atmosphere in Auberge Joseph Mellot’s historic conservatory in the town square.
Nestled at the foot of Sancerre’s slopes is the pretty hamlet of Chavignol, home to famous “crottin” goats cheese, the perfect foil to the region’s vibrant sauvignon blancs. But don’t expect to see any goats. Vineyards completely surround the dwellings now and the elusive goats are farmed 30km away.
Leave behind Upper Loire to head west, cutting out the river’s northward loop. En route to Vouvray, where you meet the river again, drive through Valencay – famous for its pyramid-shaped goats cheese, brisk chardonnay and sauvignon-based whites and its chateau parc. As you cross into Touraine, make sure you stop at the Loire’s most famous architectural gem, the “ladies castle”.
Chateau de Chenonceau is where Mary Stewart met her first husband, young Dauphin Francois II, son of Catherine de Medici. This 16th-century chateau with renaissance gardens, maze and boat trips gives you a great introduction to Loire’s dramatic chateau architecture.
Now cross the river Loire to pretty Vouvray on its northern bank. With its stark mansions on terraces of white tufa, plus troglodyte cave houses and palm trees which grow in its special microclimate – this is one of my favourite French wine towns. On Vouvray’s wine route visit Domaine Huet’s caves at rue de la Croix Buisee; their chenin blanc-based sparkling, dry and sweet whites are legendary, but not overpriced. Drive up to Vouvray’s plateau where St Martin first planted vines in the Loire in the 4th century.
Head west again and cross the Loire to Rabelais country; Chinon and its beautiful castle. This is the Loire’s mini-Medoc, home of vibrant, sappy, cabernet franc-based reds, delicious with pork rillettes. Visit Charles Joguet in nearby Sazilly.
Still on Loire’s south bank, continue towards Saumur. Just before the town, you drive through fashionable Saumur Champigny. Sample cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon-based reds in Domaine Filliatreau’s elegant La Grande Vignolle caves.
Saumur is a tourist gem. For the most spectacular view in town, book into Hotel Bords de Loire on an island in the river, with views of Saumur castle. Join a wine school at the famous cremant sparkling wine producers, in the elegant suburb of Saint Hilaire, of Langlois-Chateau, owned by Champagne Bollinger, and Bouvet-Ladubay, owned by Champagne Taittinger.
In terms of food, Loire is all about fish – both from the river and from the sea – as you head further west into Nantes. To sample river fish cooked to perfection, there is no better place to enjoy local food right on the banks of this majestic river, than on the Loire’s tiny island of Behuard. Here in a charming wooden fishing hut next to a sandy beach, is one of the most authentic and modestly-priced restaurants in northern France, bustling with local foodies. Chef Jean Paul Feuvray of Restaurant Guingette “La Croisette” cooks fish rillette and filet de sandre to perfection.
If you have time, sample sweet Quarts de Chaume at Domaine Baumard next to Rochefort’s pretty abbey nearby on Loire’s southern bank or dry savennieres on the north bank at the famous Coulee de Serrant vineyard at Chateau Roche-aux-Moines.
As you head west again you start to smell the sea as Atlantic breezes sweep in across Pays Nantais. Finish your tour on Brittany’s coast where France’s most majestic river meets the sea, with a bowl of mussels and local Muscadet Sevre et Maine.
Flights from Edinburgh to Paris start at around £48.99 in August; Hotel St Martin in Sancerre has rooms from E69, tel: 00 33 248 542111. Winery websites to investigate include www.huet-echansonne.com; www.charlesjoguet.com; www.langlois-chateau.fr; www.bouvet-ladubay.fr; www.filliatreau.com; www.chateaudetarge.fr; www.baumard.fr; www.chateau-de-tracy.com; and www.coulee-de-serrant.com
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