Mention the Loire Valley and the first thing most travellers think of is châteaux. The fairytale piles of Cheverny and Chambord, Villandry and Amboise, with their towers, turrets and manicured gardens, loom larger than life in the rich history and gentle landscape of the Loire, just a short drive or train trip south-west of Paris.
Our Loire Valley, though, is all about wine - especially natural wine, which we've imported into Australia for the past six years - and the wine bars where we drink it. We visit the valley once or twice a year and in all our trips we've managed only one brief late-afternoon château excursion - to Château de Chenonceau. It sits dramatically across the River Cher, a Loire tributary, looking at first glance like an extraordinary covered bridge that was never completed. But, as beautiful as the châteaux are, for us nothing beats walking in an organic vineyard of gnarled old vines, with asparagus and herbs growing wild between the rows, and then later raising a glass.
The Loire is one of France's most diverse wine regions. It's home to about 75,000 hectares of vines and more than 100 AOCs (Appellations d'Origines Contrôlées) and IGPs (Indications Géographiques Protégées), including Sancerre (the spiritual home of sauvignon blanc), Vouvray (typically chenin blanc), Chinon and Bourgueil (both usually cabernet franc) and Muscadet (the centre of production of melon de Bourgogne, the valley's biggest planting). The Loire River is more than a thousand kilometres long and the wine region spans its final 500 kilometres, from the picture-postcard village of Sancerre in the east to the city of Nantes, where the river spills into the Atlantic. It also includes historic towns such as Orléans, Amboise and Tours, all part of a UNESCO World Heritage site recognised for its outstanding cultural heritage and beauty.
Natural wines are a small but exciting part of global wine culture. These are wines made with grapes grown according to organic or biodynamic principles, fermented without commercial yeasts and bottled with no extra ingredients beyond a small amount of sulphites sometimes added as a preservative. In simple terms, this translates in the glass to wines that are vibrant and alive with savouriness and texture. The savouriness is in part a result of the organic viticulture, which seems to make it easier for mineral salts to find their way from the soil into the grapes, but also comes from the natural fermentation, which involves many different yeasts, each contributing something to the wine. And, because they're not filtered, they can be cloudy; as with unfiltered honey, this results in more complexity and texture - there's more of the grape left in the wine to contribute to its overall flavour.
In France, there are natural winemakers in most wine regions but the Loire is a hotspot. Land is cheaper here than in the better-known regions, and there's a tradition of making drinkable, relatively inexpensive, everyday wines. Many natural winemakers aim for drinkability over "cellarability" because drinking is certainly what they like to do. Look at the list of exhibitors at any big natural-wine fair in the UK or the US, or visit a natural wine bar in Paris or Copenhagen, and Loire producers will be front and centre. That's partly because their wines are more affordable, so are often poured by the glass, but also because there are just so many natural winemakers in the region.
And wherever there are lots of natural winemakers, there are natural wine bars - that's the constant attraction of the Loire for us. We visit each year to taste the new vintages and we usually attend the annual La Dive Bouteille, France's biggest natural-wine fair, held in or near Saumur in the depths of winter. This is hardly a chore, though, especially when the region has so many wonderful places to eat and drink.
The same philosophy that prompts a restaurant or bar to serve natural wines generally applies to the food, too, with provenance equally important in both cases. Recommendations from the winemakers we work with have made it easy to find such places; here are our favourites.
Le Cercle Rouge
Every time we visit the Loire we base ourselves for at least two or three days in Angers, the historic university city bisected by the River Maine, surrounded by vineyards of the Anjou appellation. But we never visit unless Le Cercle Rouge is open. One of our favourite wine bars anywhere, it's a good place to learn about new local producers and places to eat. Patrons inevitably spill onto the street, especially during the weekend of the Dive Bouteille, when the bar becomes the centre of the natural-wine universe. Then getting close enough to the bar to buy a drink, never mind finding a stool, requires military-like strategy. Start with the list of wines by the glass, which is more likely to begin with a pétillant-naturel sparkling wine than Champagne - though the chance to try cult Champagne producer Anselme Selosse's cuvée Initial for just $229 a bottle should never be missed. The food is simple, reflecting the kitchen's trade with small growers and producers who follow a philosophy similar to that of the winemakers. Plates of charcuterie and pickles, chunky, house-made terrines and fatty rillettes with good bread and cheese are perfect accompaniments for an exploration of Loire Valley wines.
4 Rue des Deux Haies, Angers. +33 2 4187 4966.
Les Becs à Vin
This is a bistro by day and a wine bar by night in the heart of Orléans. Among its several owners is Thierry Puzelat, one of the Loire Valley's best-known natural winemakers, and Les Becs à Vin is a mirror to his larger-than-life character. Instead of a wine list, empty bottles line the walls and windows, their prices marked in large white numbers. It's immediately appealing, with mismatched chairs and tables, vases of fresh flowers, and a guitar at the ready on the wall. At night, the bar serves cheese and charcuterie, including rillons, cubes of slow-cooked pork belly that are a specialty of the Touraine. At lunchtime it offers a seasonal dish and dessert for $22). The food, simple but delicious - maybe roast pork with braised cabbage - is sourced from local organic producers.
8 Place du Châtelet, Orléans. +33 9 6516 6409.
Most of the places where we drink natural wine in the Loire are casual to the point of abandon, but Une Île is different. It has a Michelin star, though this isn't necessarily a recommendation because fine dining in country France can be an expensive disappointment, especially if you're looking for natural wines. Nevertheless, winemaker René Mosse recommended Une Île, run by the husband-and-wife chef-and-sommelier team of Gérard and Catherine Bossé. Among her wines are older vintages of renowned Burgundy producers, such as Valette and Pacalet, and also some of the Loire's edgier winemakers, such as Laurent Herbel and Olivier Cousin. Classic French ingredients are handled deftly; we've had stunning, always seasonal dishes here such as, memorably, langoustines with white asparagus and roast pigeon with foie gras. Gérard is known for his tout mer (all from the sea) menu. When you've had enough carousing in wine bars and want to feel like a grown-up, this is the right address.
9 Rue Max Richard, Angers. +33 2 4119 1448.
Named for the French word for steak cooked between blue and rare, Saignant might be the tiniest restaurant in Angers. Bright red and the size of a shipping container, the space was once occupied by Chez Rémi, one of our favourite> restaurants in France outside Paris. Restaurateur Rémi Fournier moved to a new home opposite Le Cercle Rouge (which he also owns), and opened Saignant last year. The menu is steak and burgers, with fries, house-made ketchup and salads, and the wine list is a rollcall of the Loire's best naturals.
7 Bis Boulevard du Maréchal Foch, Angers. +33 2 4139 4558.
The new Chez Rémi, now in a much larger space, remains the hardest place to land a table in Angers. The odds of meeting a local winemaker are high in this lively bistro and the short blackboard menu is good value at $46 for a three-course dinner. This might be fricassée of asparagus, eight-hour lamb shoulder and strawberry tart. Its excellent wine list includes older bottles from renowned Loire producers such as Clos Rougeard, and you can do a wine matching by the glass - marked on the blackboard as "Accord Mets et Vins".
5 Rue des Deux Haies, Angers. +33 2 4124 9544.
Autour D'un Cep
This sandstone-walled bistro, full of life, is another great-value dining option in Angers. One of the owners, Antoine Landron, is the son of winemaker Jo Landron, who makes delicious Muscadet. Unsurprisingly, then, the short but well-formed wine list includes gems from Landron and his friends from the Loire region, along with interesting wines from elsewhere. Dinner costs €30 for three courses from a small menu using excellent produce; we had asparagus soup, made special with lobster from Brittany, duck fillets with polenta and spring peas, and strawberry and rhubarb sablé.
9 Rue Baudrière, Angers. +33 2 4142 6100.
If any place in the Loire typifies the culture and verve of the natural wine movement, it's L'Herbe Rouge, a restaurant and bar in the hamlet of Valaire, just south of Blois. Owned by Cécile Argondico, the partner of vigneron Thierry Puzelet, this is a hangout for anyone interested in natural wine and a brilliant exemplar of joie de vivre. At lunchtime, the restaurant is filled with vineyard workers sharing bottles between tables and eating well. They work hard and play hard, too, which might explain why magnums are so well represented on the list. Unusual is the large selection of wines from beyond France, giving patrons a choice of six natural Georgian wines, for example, and Italian labels such as Arianna Occhipinti and Foradori. The food is rustic, even if some of the dishes wouldn't look out of place in more refined settings: lentils with foie gras; smoked herring with potatoes; faux fillet of beef with frites; rice pudding with rosewater and raspberries; and in spring, a local specialty, acacia-flower beignets.
Le Bourg, Valaire. +33 2 5444 9814.
Tours is a beautiful city with a big university and an old town of medieval half-timbered buildings in cobbled lanes and squares, full of restaurants and bars packed with students, tourists and locals. Here you'll find plenty of menus touristiques - a good reason to take a 10-minute walk from the old town to Casse-Cailloux. It has a daily $43 blackboard menu offering three choices for each course - veal tongue with ravigote sauce, say, roast pork shoulder with prized new potatoes from the island of Noirmoutier, excellent cheeses and chocolate moelleux. The extensive wine list is strong on aged Loire wines from producers such as Mosse and Chaussard. All the young guns are represented, such as Pascal Simonutti, and unexpectedly on a largely French list, a Barolo from renowned producer Giuseppe Rinaldi.
26 Rue Jehan Fouquet, Tours. +33 2 4761 6064.