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Loire Valley Wines: Hillary, was this your first visit to the Loire Valley?

Hillary Zio: Yes, and I was very impressed. It’s a beautiful place. I travel a lot in the US, but in the last few years I’ve been going further afield, to France, Italy, Germany and Spain. I love travelling!


LVW: Not only are you a sommelier, you’ve also written a book, The Unfiltered Guide to Working in Wine.  You must be very busy!

HZ: Yes, I teach online classes, organise events for companies during the holidays and help brands create their social media content. I spend my time writing about wine to let people get to know the brands I like.


LVW: What is your own wine story? How did you get where you are today?

HZ: I’ve worked in the wine industry for 12 years. It all started with a friend I met at university, whose father was a winemaker in California. I was a complete wine novice then, and his family taught me a great deal. That’s when I decided that wine was something I wanted to pursue as a career. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, so I got as many qualifications as I could – I’m a certified sommelier, and have WSET level 3.


LVW: After all your travels, what was your first impression of the Loire Valley?

HZ: I didn’t know what to expect when I landed in Nantes. It was bigger than I’d imagined, possibly because I’d only been to Reims and Beaune, and they are both quite small. As I walked around, I realised that it had to be quite a big town for the students, so that they would enjoy studying here. The cobbled streets were so lovely, and the cafés on each corner - simply walking around was enough for me.  We followed the river and went through some beautiful little villages. We visited Vouvray and Chinon, which were amazing. The people were great, and the food was incredible! All those different pâtés and rillettes - the kind of thing we think of as fine foods at home, but here they were everywhere. Of course, the vineyards were magnificent too, and the people were so welcoming!


LVW: Any memorable experiences?

HZ: On our first day, we went to Domaine de la Pépière in Muscadet, which was really interesting. They told us all about their biodynamic methods, and how the harvests are influenced by the ocean. That was a very memorable day.

In Anjou we all rode Solex motorised bikes, which was really cool. There were a lot of sweet wines around, which we also tasted on our Vignes Vins Randos trail: a long vineyard walk with stop-off points for wine-tasting.  


LVW: Did you enjoy Vignes Vins Randos?

HZ: I loved it! We walked through the vineyards, enjoying our surroundings and stopping to taste wines as we went. There was even black pudding! My favourite part was probably seeing the pictures of the soils right beneath our feet. The whole thing took about two and a half hours, which was perfect - it gave us a bit of exercise. I highly recommend it.


LVW: How would you describe the Loire Valley landscape?

HZ: Rolling hills, not too steep, lots of green – and vineyards everywhere! We were lucky with the weather, and the sky was blue every day. We even went up in a hot air balloon, and saw for ourselves the huge variety of different landscapes, farms and historic castles. I can’t imagine there’s anywhere else like the Loire Valley. The river makes it unique, and you can see it from nearly everywhere.

LVW: Had you tasted any Loire Valley wines before coming here?

HZ: Yes, in fact I’d say I mainly drink wines from the Loire Valley. I like the minerality, so I’ve always liked Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc; but I also enjoy Cabernet Franc and Gamay. Also, Loire wines are affordable. At my age (around 30), I don’t often go for a great Bordeaux or Burgundy. I look for wines priced around $25, and choose the ones with the most complex flavours. I drink mostly French wines because I’m not so keen on the rich, super-ripe wines we get from California or Australia. They’re usually higher in alcohol, and the fruit is more concentrated. Loire wines are more subtle.


LVW: As you already knew a lot about Loire Valley wines beforehand, what did you learn from your visit? What was the biggest surprise?

HZ: Because I live in New York, I had practically only ever drunk dry wines. I had never really had a sweet wine before I visited the Loire Valley. Some were too sweet for me, but others I found delicious, as there was enough acidity to counterbalance the sweetness. Some paired very well with cold meats and cheeses, not just dessert. Even some of the rosés we tasted were semi-sweet, and that’s something you don’t often see in New York.

LVW:  If you came back here again, what would you do?


HZ: I would definitely bring my husband – there are so many romantic hotels! And I’d like to taste even more wines. The Loire is such a long river, I’d like to explore the eastern sections next time. Soon, I hope.

LVW: Did you see any similarities between all the wines you tasted?


HZ: I found that all the domaines were very different, but at the same time you can see a common thread in their traditions and values, in the care lavished on their wines. Many of the winemakers prefer to showcase the grape rather than focusing on vinification style or type of ageing, such as using wood. They really are passionate about the different ways their grapes can be expressed depending on terroir.

LVW: Is there a dish you particularly enjoyed, or a pairing you found memorable?


HZ: I really liked Bernard Baudry’s Chinons. He makes them to showcase each individual soil type, and I would match them up with a herby chicken confit with vegetables – they have such pronounced earthy, forest floor flavours. They would also go very well with a mushroom sauce.  

I learned so much! I loved visiting the wineries, which isn’t always the case everywhere I go. I even saw barrels made from chestnut wood, which is apparently quite rare. The Loire Valley is easily accessible, and I can imagine it being very popular with New Yorkers in the future.

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