Vouvray: A Chenin Blanc for the Ages

Among Americans, the Loire Valley is most often associated with gardens and castles and not much else. We journey the 150 kilometers southwest from Paris and take a day or two visiting Chateau de Chambord and Chenonceau, all the while enjoying the delightful flora and thinking of bygone days when princes and noblemen still roamed the cavernous halls in this ancient land.

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But the French know better. They know what we foreigners are just beginning to discover—that some of the most interesting, delicious, and affordable wines in the world hail from the chalky soil on which those famous castles stand.

The Loire Valley, France’s largest geographical wine growing region, meanders along the Loire River from Orléans all the way to the Atlantic. It contains a number of sub-regions, many possessing their own AOC designation and growing wines unlike any other on earth. One of the best of these sub-regions, Vouvray (Voo-VRAE), is adored by wine lovers for one thing above all—producing the best darn chenin blanc you’ll ever taste.


At the mention of chenin blanc—a white grape indigenous to the Loire Valley—some of you may recoil with distaste. And for good reason. Upon singing the virtues of Vouvray recently to my mother-in-law and using its chief grape as a selling point, I was given a brief history lesson. It turns out that most chenin blanc was in the 1970s what most white zinfandel is today: pallid, generic alcoholic juice produced in bulk by corporations rather than vintners and consumed in mass by post-teen party-goers rather than wine enthusiasts.

But I assure you that real chenin blanc from the land that put the grape on the map is nothing like its slanderous imitators. Good Vouvray chenin blanc is charming, firm, and delicate, exhibiting a nutty, floral, honeyed character whose rich flavor is balanced by palpable acidity and bracing minerality. Like all great wines, Vouvray tastes like the place in which it was made, its flavors reflecting the flinty clay of the soil and varying with the finicky northern weather. As a result, though not every Vouvray is good, almost every Vouvray is unique. The best cuvées from the best vintages constitute some of the most haunting, complex, long-lived white wines produced anywhere. Chenin blanc done well is a seductive pleasure enjoyed by few outside of France, but available to all in today’s global economy. So even if you’ve been burned by the California commercial chenin blanc of yore, consider giving the grape another shake by becoming acquainted with the place where it all began.

At least three things need to be said about Vouvray in order to convey a basic sense of the uniqueness of the region and its wines. Here goes:

1. Vouvray comes in multiple styles: don’t be caught unaware


Essential to buying and ordering Vouvray is knowing that it comes in five styles:
dry (sec)
off-dry (tendre)
semi-sweet (demi-sec)
sweet (moelleux)
sparkling (pétillant)

Sec is the dry variety, though due to its natural floral, honeyed flavor profile, chenin blanc will rarely be as dry as sauvignon blanc or other bone-dry whites. Vintners produce more Vouvray sec (and sparkling Vouvrays) in cooler vintages than in warmer vintages, since the most unctuous grapes tend to earmarked for the more hallowed sweeter Vouvrays. Nonetheless, the dryer Vouvrays, when made with care, can be as multidimensional and satisfying as any value white wine.

Tendre contains more residual sugar than sec but is still relatively dry. Its popularity is growing, perhaps due to its appeal to those who are attracted to Vouvray’s aging potential but shy from sweet wines.

The prototypical Vouvray, demi-sec, is semi-sweet without being heavy or syrupy, and it constitutes at least the plurality of Vouvray’s still wine production in every vintage. Most consider demi-sec to be Vouvray’s most natural variety, and its honeyed freshness represents the pinnacle of chenin blanc’s expression.

Moelleux
is a full-on sweet wine, composed mostly of grapes that have been ravaged by boytritis cinerea—the “noble rot” made famous by Sauternes. Like Sauternes, Vouvray moelleux is built to be cellared, with the best examples developing complexity and nuance that deepen the wine’s flavors decade after decade. Many are considered still to be in their prime up to 100 years after bottling.

Finally, pétillant, which comes in dry and semi-sweet varieties, is Vouvray’s answer to neighboring Champagne’s world-famous sparkling wine. Part of pétillant’s distinctive charm its tendency to be crisp even when somewhat sweet, thanks to chenin blanc’s delightful balance between honey, citrus, and mineral flavors.

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