Terroir. Spend any time in one of the world’s great wine-producing regions, whether it’s Northern California’s Napa Valley, Italy’s Tuscany, or France’s Loire Valley, and you’ll eventually hear some version of this evocative term. Derived from the French word for “land,” terroir officially refers to the combination of land and climate—the trees, the flowers, the rainfall, the soil itself—that produces a distinctive wine grape. (You may also hear the term used to describe varieties of cocoa and coffee beans and other products.) The best wine regions take terroir quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the names of wines—several hundred in France alone—are regulated so that, unless your grape is grown in a designated area, you can’t just slap a name (or “appellation”), such as Côte du Rhône or Champagne, on your bottle. That’s terroir in its literal, and commercial, sense. But I love how the term has also taken on a larger meaning, evoking the unique sense of place you experience when you immerse yourself in a destination. If the water running down from the mountains and the flowers that grow in the fields can affect the flavor of a grape, then certainly the personality of the people and the daily rhythms of work, food preparation, and leisure time can determine the flavor of a vacation.
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And in that sense, terroir is exactly what you get when you rent a bicycle in the charming French town of Saumur and embark on the Loire à Vélo, a cycling trail through the towns and forests, past châteaus and farmland, of one of the country’s major wine regions.
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WHAT IS LA LOIRE Á VELO?
La Loire à Vélo (it means literally “the Loire on a bicycle”) is a one-of-a-kind cycling route that traverses more than 500 miles of the Loire Valley, attracting more than 800,000 cyclists each year. Still under construction, the route is literally growing by the kilometer to allow cyclists to explore the region at their own pace, hitting cities such as Nantes and Angers, and getting a taste of the land along the way at châteaus, in tiny villages, and in the dark, chilly, delicious tasting rooms of local wineries. More than a third of the Loire à Vélo consists of quiet roads that don’t have much automobile traffic; nearly another third consists of green ways; and another third is closed to cars. Fully two-thirds of the route runs along the Loire River itself, and there are hundreds of spots for cyclists to stop. The Loire River Valley has been a popular cycling destination for years—it’s just the kind of place that makes people want to feel the earth under their feet—or under their wheels. The Loire is often referred to as a “fairy tale” destination for its stunning, turreted châteaus (manor houses that were once home to nobility and other serious land owners, including French kings when they wanted to get out of Paris), beautiful forests, and not only the lovely Loire but also the Maine, Vienne, and Indre rivers. The central Loire Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the entire valley has been nicknamed the Garden of France not only for the vineyards that grow the grapes for extraordinary wines but also for the rolling farmland that produces bushels of fresh cherries, artichokes, and asparagus. (For Loire à Vélo maps and detailed routes, plus updates on the growing trail, visit cycling-loire.com.)
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT CYCLE
Bicycle rental shops such as Detours de Loire, a chain that has a shop in Saumur, are plentiful in the region and, depending on how you arrive in the Loire, may be the most convenient way to get geared up for your ride. Rental-shop owners will usually speak English, and you should let them know your level of skill (be honest—there’s no point pretending you know what you’re doing if that just translates into mayhem or injury on the trail), and if you have a preference for any particular kind of riding—such as all-terrain cycles, road bikes, or hybrids. A rented cycle should come with a tire pump and repair kit, a bell, properly working gears, and a place to hold a water bottle. If you’ll be renting for more than one day, ask about multi-day discount rates. A half-day bike rental typically starts at around $11. Another alternative is to bring your own bicycle—high-speed trains allow travelers to zoom from Paris to the city of Angers in about 90 minutes, and local trains link the major towns and cities along the Loire à Vélo, including Orléans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, Angers, Nantes, Saint-Nazaire, and others. Cycling brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Loire each year, and local trains are equipped with ample storage space for cycles.