Article By: Sandy Block, MW
If there is a wine more persistently under-appreciated and under-valued than Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, I’ve yet to discover it. Whether in Anjou or Touraine, the ancient mineral laden soils of France’s grandest river system yield up some magical elixirs from this grape, wines of harmony and contradiction, able to fuse elusive forces together in a startlingly complete whole. Elsewhere we may encounter a wine with direct sensual appeal alongside another that stimulates reflection, but rarely do the two great pleasures unfold simultaneously as they will in a glass of Savennieres or Vouvray. And equally uncommon for a white wine: Loire Chenin can transform itself after long aging, with layers of hidden charm emerging only after years in the bottle. A white wine that tastes better decanted? Yes, urge many of the Loire’s top Chenin Blanc producers, let my wine breathe.
Despite this potential though, one explanation for Chenin Blanc’s stubborn obscurity may be that there are no analogues. Bordeaux has its Napa, Coonawarra and Maipo; Sancerre its Marlborough; and the Mosel its Clare Valley, Alsace and Wachau; but where on earth is there Chenin even remotely comparable to the crystalline purity a quality Loire can deliver? In fact, the disparity is so extreme between the original and everywhere else it’s been planted that the grape’s being so ignored, even among otherwise knowledgeable wine professionals, is fully understandable. But a second issue conspiring against the fame of Loire Valley Chenin is that quality remains miscellaneous even within the region itself. For every island of brilliance, such as Huet or Gauthier, a sea of execrable undifferentiated Vouvray surrounds it. This is because Chenin Blanc’s a particularly unforgiving if wholly transparent variety, easier to get wrong than right: dilution and blandness, sweetness without enough minerality or balancing acid, excessive bitterness, searing sourness minus sufficient fruit, under-ripeness – these are the all too common tasting notes reinforcing the grape’s lackluster reputation. It’s also a variety that’s extremely sensitive to high yields, vineyard temperatures that are too hot to allow it a slow even ripening, excessive use of sulphur dioxide and a host of other factors that will blunt its flavors and strip them of nuance.
On two visits to the Loire within the last year – attempting to source outstanding examples of the grape – what stood out with striking vividness was how totally individual good Chenin Blanc is: from one AOC to another, within each appellation, from vintage to vintage by the same producer, and even among different parcels on the same estate. If it’s consistency you crave, this is not the grape that delivers it. If, on the other hand, the thrill of surprise is what you’re after, exploring Chenin is mandatory. Opening a bottle from many of the producers discussed here will provide it more often than not. What follows is an assessment of the best of the wines I experienced while in the region, some of which are no longer commercially available, along with explanatory notes on the main AOCs and their terroirs. (Note: there are some glaring exceptions, particularly in zones that produce exclusively sweet wine, such as Quarts de Chaume and Coteaux du Layon).
Starting in the region to the west and north of Angers, Savennieres is a pure Chenin AOC that is among the region’s best-kept secrets. Situated behind cliffs that drop steeply to the Loire and planted on rocky southeast-facing slopes which keep yields naturally low (often two to three tons per acre), absorb whatever sunshine is available and radiate heat to advance ripening in the predominantly cool climate, it’s imperative that this postage stamp zone’s 4OO acres are harvested in stages, or “tris”, where only the ripest grapes are picked on each pass through the vineyards. Most often bone dry, Savennieres not only has a long aging curve, but generally requires several years in the bottle to shed its cloak of youthful austerity. Even when young, the mineral essences absorbed by the vines are apparent.
Grower Damien Laureau cultivates twelve acres in the district; his Savennieres “Cuvee des Genets” 2OO4, made from vines planted on schist and quartz, is ripely fruity with intriguing whiffs of honey, pear and earth. Beautifully balanced, soft in texture but piercing in the intensity of its mineral, peach pit and spice-accented citric flavor, it’s a fantastic accompaniment to a wide array of fish and seafood, particularly scallops. The 2OO5, as befitting the warmer vintage, was not quite as structured, a little milder with more apricot.
Nicolas Joly, the brilliant biodynamic proprietor of the monopole appellation (one of only seven in France) Clos de la Coulee de Serrant, an historic 18 acre Grand Cru within Savennieres, makes a lovely 2OO4 as well, the “Clos Sacres”; it’s a Savennieres laced with ripe pear fruit, hints of orange blossom, honey and a lingering stone fruit finish. Bone dry and edgy, this wine, like all of Joly’s Chenins, is advanced in color, which we may attribute to later harvesting and significantly reduced yields compared to even the low local average. Despite what common practice would dictate concerning a darker colored white wine, Joly advises to decant so that his Savennieres is encouraged to open. He is convinced that Chenin is at its best only when fully ripe and the grapes begin to raisin. He harvests at low yields (less than two tons per acre) in three to five passes through the vineyard. What stands out about this Savennieres, as well as the more richly concentrated Coulee de Serrant, is a burst of minerality in the wine’s finish.
The Coulee was tasted in two vintages, 2OO5 and 2OO7, the latter of which is very good but quite closed even after decanting, revealing little more on the palate than spice, fullness, a promise of things to come, and a creamy textured intensity of earthy roasted fruit. The 2OO5 is medium gold and even slightly bronzed in hue, with baked apricot, leafy root vegetable, dried wild mushroom, and stone-like aromas. There’s also an unmistakably heady scent of pear brandy wafting from the glass. On the palate it’s got powerful fruit viscosity with notes of white pepper and caramel. A distinctive, unusual and impossible to categorize tasting experience, the 2OO5 is a chameleon whose individuality keeps evolving in the glass.
A bit down the road there is an amazingly full range of wines made by Chateau de Fesles at Thouarce in the Anjou AOC Bonnezeaux, including dry Chenins, rosés, soft fruity reds, and the estate’s crown jewel, a richly sweet dessert nectar the product of three to seven “tris” through the vineyard, each selecting only the most perfectly ripened, sugar-concentrated grapes. Bernard Germain, a Bordeaux native, is the proprietor at Fesles and he was among the first to put simple, basic Chenin in wood, but he uses larger Central European barrels almost twice the size of a barrique. His Bonnezeaux is always picked quite late and ferments very slowly in cask, generally over the winter and into the spring following harvest.
The wines get very interesting at the level of the dry 2OO4 La Chapelle, which ages in oak for 18 months and now shows a delicate herb aroma with lush, silky pear and smoked apple fruit. The 2OO2, with its burnt honey scents and crème brulee viscosity, is even better – velvety and round but with signature “nervosite” and pear-accented spice. The 2OO5 vintage Bonnezeaux is a gold-colored marvel of lush, honeyed, very buttery, sweet apple and apricot flavors, accented with leafy, earthy, toasted nut tones. It spent over two years in oak barrels, has a fair amount of “noble rot” influence, and would be a brilliant match for one of the Loire’s signature goat cheeses, Crottin de Chavignol, a blue cheese, or a crème caramel. More developed still is the 2OO1 vintage featuring floral, peachy, delicate herb scents, with a creamy richness and luscious hazelnut-like toasty spice accenting the dried fruit flavors. I preferred this to the also great 1998, which shows butterscotch, lemon and mulled spices but does not have the 2OO1’s magnetic tension.
Many people consider Touraine, the hilly zone just inland from Anjou and about 12O miles off the Atlantic Coast, to be the heart of the Loire. The climate here is the region’s mildest, with several vineyard areas so sheltered from oceanic influence by forests and hills that, interestingly enough, even this far north they can ripen red grapes along with the whites. Touraine is the center of the famed Tuffeau bedrock formation, the crumbly calcareous yellow-colored whitish limestone that forms the vineyard subsoil in many places and provides a perfect storage environment for the production and long aging of wines. Caves carved into the hillsides along the River are among the most unique and interesting winery facilities I have ever seen.
Vouvray, produced just east of Tours and not far from the Cabernet Franc vineyards of Chinon (but in a substantially less sunny location) is among the best-known Loire wines, but quite diverse in style and, as previously noted, also among the region’s least consistent from a qualitative standpoint. Vintages vary considerably this far north, which is one of the reasons following Loire Chenin from a top producer is so rewarding, but consistency is neither desirable nor really attainable from one year to the next, although it does remain high on the list of what many consumers want. Still there are 1.3 million cases produced in an average year, of which over 1O% is imported to the US, making Vouvray the second most popular Loire wine here behind only Sancerre. But, because of variability in residual sugar and unpredictability in labelling, it is rarely clear to consumers what kind of Vouvray they will be getting: bone dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, fully sweet, or something on the borderline where the categories intersect. Throw the large proportion of traditional method sparkling and petillant wine in this zone into the mix (in some cooler vintages total production exceeds 6O% bubbles) and the picture complicates further – but what it means is that there is a Vouvray for virtually everyone. Even among the still wines, however, perceptions of sugar vary from one taster to the next, so it’s impossible to agree on a standard that will determine whether my “sec-tendre” (semi-dry) Vouvray will taste “demi-sec” (semi-sweet, despite the literal translation as ”half dry”) to you or not. This is so despite clear regulations on the amount of residual sugar required in a wine to qualify for each of the designations. There’s also the issue of Vouvray’s flavor balance naturally changing with age, so that more sweetness becomes apparent in a wine after 5 or 1O years in the bottle compared to when it is first released.
So with all of these obstacles, what is it about Vouvray that captures the American palate? First, like many French AOCs, there is more versatility in the zone than you would expect given just a single village name. There are 8 communes, covering over 5OOO acres whose wines can contribute to Vouvray, some of which ripen grapes more easily than others depending on where they are sited on an east/west and north/south axis. There are also various soil types prevalent in the zone. We mentioned the tuffeau, but above this there usually sits some combination of perruches (clay mixed with calcium rich stones) and the more minerally, limestone laced clays known as “aubis”.
I tasted several credibly made Vouvrays at the AOC’s main cooperative cellars, the Cave des Producteurs, representing 4O growers, the most amazing of which was from the glorious 1959 vintage (deep gold in color, with honey, beeswax, smoky floral scents, and an amazing richness of nutty sweet marmalade edged with lemon that still tasted youthful). Although Vouvray’s finest wines are made at the private estates, such as Domaine du Viking and Gaston Huet, most of the coop wines were better than just pleasant, including a 2OO6 Demi-Sec la Vallee Coquette (cooked apple and honey with a slight greenish tart edge, abundant earthiness and a long smooth fruit finish), a 2OO5 Lieu-dit Rosnay, from a single grower in the village of Rosnay (quite mineral-like with big rich lemony, apple and honey-like flavors, strong extraction and an earthy hot spice finish), a 2OO5 Lieu-Dit Les Fosses d’Hareng from 15 acres of vines in the east of the AOC planted on clay and silex (lime-scented and fresh, with pear, creamy apple, and stone fruit in the finish) and, best of all, a super cuvée called Vouvray Cinquante 2OO5 (strongly pineapple-like, with oily green herb aromas, and custard-like sweet lemon, cinnamon, and vanilla bean flavors).
Moving to one of the AOC’s top domaines, Viking is based in Reugny in the coolest, most northern of Vouvray’s communes where the soils are chalk and silex. Grapes are hand harvested, sorted, de-stemmed, and fermented slowly at cool temperatures with considerable lees stirring. The wines then age for 18 months in chestnut rather than oak, which proprietor Lionel Gauthier feels imparts too harsh of an edge to balance his wines’ more delicate personality. The 199O “Cuvée Tendre” is still vigorous, fresh and delicious, with honeyed apple and pear flavors, marked by pronounced lemon, apricot and peach pit undertones. Tasted in the 2OO2, 2OO4 and 2OO5 vintages as well, the Cuvée Tendres are all marvels of concentration. 2OO5 may be the best yet, versatile enough to suit a variety of fish dishes, including those that incorporate fruit and other sweet flavors in the preparation, and those displaying curried and similar mildly spicy influences, as well as cheeses and fruit-based desserts.
The wines from Gaston Huet take the Chenin terroir story to even greater heights as there are three plots bottled separately, the 22 acre Le Haut Lieu (a pure clay parcel which retains water the best), the 17 acre Le Mont (on clay and silica soils that contain some silex), and the 15 acre Clos de Bourg (with its rocky, well drained shallow clay and limestone soils). Like Joly, the Huet domaine follows a strict biodynamic farming protocol and uses no artificial yeasts or other adjustments to conduct its long slow fermentations. So many of these wines were delicious, but here are the highlights: The 2OO7 Le Haut Lieu Sec has a fine floral bouquet of apple blossom and fresh herbs, it’s only lightly sweet with brilliant lemon and apple flavors, clean and slightly bitter in the finish. The 2OO8 is even more poignantly acidic, with very appetizing ripe honeyed apple flavors and a pure olive and herb aroma. This will be a special wine once it ages. Finest of the “sec” style, however, is the 2OO8 Clos du Bourg which has a flinty, smoky, lemon peel aroma, with creamy textures, strong apple, caramel and spice flavors and leaves a pure, crystalline nectarine-like fruit impression in the finish. The 2OO7 Le Haut Lieu Demi-Sec is not quite as expressive at this stage as the Sec, but it has an attractive orange zest and peach stone fruit aroma with honey and hot spices, such as anise lingering on the palate. The 2OO7 Clos du Bourg Moelleux and the 2OO8 Le Haut Lieu Moelleux were equally fine, the latter perhaps a bit more brilliantly structured, the former more luscious in texture despite the lack of botrytis.
In general the Huet Le Haut Lieu’s struck me as more attractive in youth because of their cleaner, more lemony structure, while the other two crus taste richer and earthier, with perhaps better extraction for the long haul. The apex of my tasting were the Premiere Tries, liquoreux wines with the rich velvetiness of great Sauternes. The 2OO6 Clos du Bourg shows banana, pineapple, floral, and orange scents, impressive creaminess and a burnt caramel toast flavor. Slightly minty in the finish, this is a wine that could develop over decades, although it would be hard to resist drinking early with a double or triple crème cheese. The 2OO3 Le Haut Lieu, from one of the real scorcher vintages in the Loire, is even better. Earthy, tropical, with cigar box and sweet herb scents, this wine tastes like quince jelly. It’s got cinnamon, butterscotch and candied apple flavors that go on and on. A sweet wine to rival any I’ve tasted from the Loire or elsewhere, it would also complement a simply prepared steamed lobster.