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.
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:
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.
Being aware that these differences exist will help you choose a wine that lives up to your expectations. Not that you could go wrong in selecting a Vouvray at random from a good wine shop if your aim is to simply to taste an unfamiliar wine. But no one likes to drink something sweet when they’re expecting something dry, especially if they’ve carefully paired their meal accordingly. Fortunately, the majority of Vouvray bottles bear one of the above French designations. For those that don’t, if it’s fairly old (pre-2000 is a good rule of thumb), chances are it’s at least off-dry or semi-sweet; if it’s young, ask the staff at the wine shop (and if they have no idea, consider shopping elsewhere!).
2. Vouvray ages like none other
In the popular imagination, fine aging is the exclusive domaine of big, tannic red wine, high-end Burgundy, and vintage port. Not many honeymooners think of buying a white wine to put away for their silver anniversary. But top Vouvray deserves to be uttered in the same breath as Sauternes and good German riesling, which make up the lion’s share of the select list of white wines possessing serious aging potential. The ample acidity characteristic of Vouvray ensures the structural attributes necessary to longevity, and the high levels of residual sugar present in the sweeter varieties give the acidity a concentrated substance to break down over the years. The extent to which fine, sweet Vouvray can fruitfully age will surprise most: some don’t reach their full potential for a century or more. To prove the point, a bottle of 1919 Vouvray moelleux (made by the famous vigneron Huët) is currently selling for a pretty penny on an online wine auction website.
But it isn’t only the super-sweet, super-expensive wines that age with grace. A few months ago, I enjoyed a mouthwatering Vouvray tendre from 1990 (!) priced at $22 (!!) that represented the striking possibilities of which off-dry Vouvray is capable over time. Few other wine regions offer the opportunity to sample mature wines—red or white—at such a reasonable price. And even fewer provide the kind of quality and complexity typical of affordable aged Vouvray.
3. Vouvray pleases wine novices while intriguing wine experts
Vouvray’s unique ability to age and its tendency to reflect terroir make it a variety that delights wine enthusiasts in search of distinctive wines to enjoy in the near and long term. But most Vouvray tends to charm wine novices as well. This is especially true of the prolific demi-sec and tendre varieties, whose soft nose and sweet flavors make it particularly accessible to those who blanch at sharp or dry wines.
Not long ago, a friend who had only recently overcome her affection for Arbor Mist asked me to suggest a wine under $13 that she could bring to a dinner party hosted by someone who knew wine. I directed her to an $11 Vouvray. She informed me later that the wine impressed the host and pleased the guests, including those who weren’t “into” wine. Her only regret was that the bottle evaporated so quickly that she only got to drink half a glass.
One would be hard-pressed to find another wine that has such a broad range of appeal at such a terrific price point. Not many people may think of a Vouvray as a party wine, but it deserves to be in the narrow category of wines you’d be as confident serving to the wine cooler crowd as to the oenephile set.
So whether you’re looking for a bottle to open at your toddler’s college graduation, a gift for your favorite sommelier, or a crowd-pleaser to pull out in bulk at your next clambake, Vouvray’s the thing. Reverse the curse of old school California chenin and join the party that the French started long ago. You won’t be sorry.
Vouvray at a Glance
Location: Loire Valley, France (near Tours)
Size: 1,800 hectares (≈4,400 acres) of vineyards
Production: 13 million cases per vintage
Principle grape: chenin blanc
Recommended vintages: 1993, 1995-1997, 2000 (sec and demi-sec), 2001-2003, 2005
Recommended winemakers: Huët, Champalou, Foreau, Fontainerie, Chidaine, Fouquet, Pinon, Vigneau-Chevreau, Brédif
Food pairings: lighter fare, fresh salads, goat cheese (simpler sec and tendre); roast pork loin, wild turkey (better sec and tendre); thai, moderately spicy Asian food (demi-sec); foie gras (moelleux)
Where to find it: Generally—BevMo; in the Bay Area—Kermit Lynch Wine Merchants, Paul Marcus Wines, K&L Wines, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, Wine House; Online-- www.klwines.com, www.bevmo.com
This monthly column explores the lesser known wine regions of France.
Comments? Contact me at [email protected].