A short drive from Paris could land you right in the midst of French wine, castles and royal history. The Loire valley is home to breath-taking landscapes as it hugs the curves of the Loire river over 800km. Peppered across these landscapes are an astounding number of Castles from the French Renaissance, sharing the region with an eclectic range of vineyards. After just a day exploring this wondrous region, you won’t be surprised to learn that a part of it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
A little background information on the region’s history will help you grasp the remarkable and unique character of the legacy we can observe today. Let us take you through the tens of centuries of wars, conquests, artistic breakthroughs and royal intrigues and cover all the fascinating dimensions of the Loire valley’s exceptional heritage.
The story of this vineyard began over 2000 years ago, when the Romans conquered Gaul and brought Grapevines along with them. They left behind their knowledge and expertise in winemaking and for the next millennium, wines produced by clerics in the area and distributed via the Loire River slowly begin to make a name for themselves. But those were troubled times, punctuated by barbarian lootings and Viking invasions, hindering the vineyard’s prosperity and renown.
The stepping stone to fame was provided by Henry II of Plantagenet, Duke of Anjou turned King of England. In 1154 this fine man decided to have the best wines from Anjou served at court, where they were a sensation. The tradition stuck with French and English royals thereafter, and so the legend began!
Then from the middle ages to the 15th century, the vineyards around Angers, Orleans and Saumur grew and prospered a great deal. The royalty and nobles were very fond of the wine produced along the river, but also of the landscapes and environment of the Loire Valley. They are the ones you have to thank for the absolutely dazzling castles you can visit in the region, built or renovated during the French Renaissance.
Before the 12th century, the castles built in the Loire Valley were mostly feudal fortresses, strongholds designed to protect the nobles in the region. An impressive example is the Chateau de Loches, a military fortress built with a massive square keep and vast ramparts in the 9th century. It was given by King Charles the 7th to his mistress Agnes Sorel, the first of many women to be officially recognised as mistress of the King!
During the 16th century, the Loire Valley Castles set the stage for the many intrigues and scandalous developments within the French court. It was a prosperous era for wine production and trade, once King Francis the First allowed strategic dealings abroad from the Breton border. The same king is behind the construction of the magnificent chateau de Chambord, although he never lived to see it completed. If there were a single castle to see while trailing along the Loire it would be this one. Chambord is the largest among the castles in the region (nearly 3000 altogether!) and an awe-inspiring example of Renaissance style.
Francis the First was also a driving force behind the French Renaissance, as he brought many Italian artists to Chambord to work on the castle. He became a patron of the arts and is to thank for the arrival of the Mona Lisa: Leonardo de Vinci came to France under his patronage and brought La Joconde, which is now in the Louvre. The Italian artist even spent the last three years of his life in the Loire Valley, at the beautiful Gothic-Renaissance castle of Amboise.
The Renaissance continued on under the reign of Francis’s son, Henry the Second. He too was inspired by the exquisite Italian aesthetic and art of living. He infamously gave a Castle over to his mistress: Less than 3 months after his father’s death, he offered the impressive Castle of Chenonceau to Diane de Poitiers, much to his wife’s annoyance… In fact, as soon as he died in a jousting incident in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici took Chenonceau back and made it her own residency. One look at the gorgeous Castle, its charming gardens and its elegant bridge and you will soon understand what all the fuss was about.
Most of the castles you can see today were renovated or built centuries later during the Renaissance. As you will certainly be able to tell as you admire the intricate architecture, vast windows and elaborate gardens, these were built for pleasure rather than defence. The enigmatic Chateau d’Ussé, for example, built in the 15th century in a Renaissance style with a slight medieval twist, was said to inspire the enchanted castle of Sleeping Beauty…
While generations of Kings occupied the majestic castles of the region with their courts, wives and mistresses, the production and popularity of the Loire valley vineyard went through the roof. The region enjoyed prosperity and growth, until the hardships caught up in the following centuries.
Firstly, the terrible winter of 1709, where temperatures dropped to -20°C, which damaged the vines terribly. Then the French revolution and the wars in Vendée devastated the vineyard for years on end, and once it was back on foot the Phylloxera epidemic hit around the end of the 19th century. Thankfully, the wine-making region eventually pulled through and earned several AOCs and classifications. Today it’s home to more than 7000 domains and the longest wine trail in France!
On a wine tour to the Loire valley, you can discover the wide range aromas and flavours the region has to offer. White wines, dry or sweet, red wines, rosé, sparkling… whatever your preference the vineyard can accommodate. The region’s relatively cool climate ensures that wines produced every year varies greatly with the weather. Why not let them surprise you as you taste delightful wines along the valley’s beautiful roads, draped in aromas of raspberry, blackcurrant, honey, lily, peach …
Once you’ve discovered the Loire Valley’s stunning castles, surprising history and heart-stirring scenery, there is yet another feature to explore, specific to this region. Although the name is a bit of a mouthful, the Troglodytes are definitely worth a visit. These dwellings are dug in the slopes and natural facades, made of tufa stone. Many estates store their wine in troglodyte caves, since they stay at a constant temperature all year round (about 12°C). You could see an example of these surprising constructions on a Wine Day tour from Paris, and taste some of the delightful wine the region has to offer!