The rental-car lady in Tours, France, said to me: “You’ll get lost?” I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a French invitation to scram out of the Europcar office. I had just declined to rent a GPS unit, on the grounds that for my five-day jaunt driving around the Loire Valley, my first trip to the area, the road taken by mistake might be the most revelatory.
Reader, I got really lost. The Loire is the longest river in France, stretching 630 miles through thoroughly modern cities, quaint medieval towns, and long passages of gorgeous countryside; it forms the winding spine of a huge region. For my visit I picked a dead-center swathe of the corridor, loosely bound by the area around the cities of Tours and Angers—seemingly a doable stretch, but still there were times when I drove round and round those rotaries or traffic circles, scanning the signs for help.
Luckily, even the smallest approaching towns are usually signposted, including one that appeared to have just three buildings total. In the end I was able to make my appointments at some of the area’s top wineries. As a wine critic, I had long wanted to explore the region I consider the most diverse and quality-packed in the world. The Loire does it all, from red to white to sparkling to still to sweet to dry, and the wines are unbelievably affordable.
I wasn’t disappointed. The winemakers I visited in Savennières and Vouvray—both of which specialize in steely (though very different) whites made from Chenin Blanc as well as Chinon (delightful, fragrant reds from Cabernet Franc)—have a remarkable sense of purpose and connection to the land.
In Vouvray, for instance, which is next door to the lovely midsize city of Tours, the vineyards are perched above a rocky and sheer cliff over the Loire. “They’re all high up, otherwise it’s not Vouvray,” said Benoît Gautier, who makes dozens of incredible whites under his name from the special clay and limestone soil.
The French idea of terroir—that a particular piece of land can produce unique characteristics in a wine—can seem a little vague and metaphorical. But in Vouvray, you can get a taste, smell, and feel of the terroir by staying inside the cliff that supports those special vineyards. The rooms at the famous Relais & Châteaux property Les Hautes Roches are literally carved into the rock face and look down at the river. True, my room was a bit ’70s-looking, with its decor of orange-and-red prints—the nicest rooms are actually in the lovely freestanding home on the property—but the chance to burrow into the famous terroir for a night was impossible to pass up. My room was cool and humid but not dank; it was like a modified wine cellar, and I felt well aged indeed when I awoke.
Once I had checked out of my cave, I needed to visit at least one of the grand châteaux that have made the Loire a classic tourist destination. Again, I relied on a winemaker (and about a dozen rotary arrows) for guidance. “If you visit one château, it has to be Chenonceau,” said Jean-François Merieau, whose Touraine bottlings include wonderful Gamay and Malbec varietals.