Vouvray for summer sipping

Greetings to everyone! There has been a long delay since my last regional review. Sadly it seems that time for pleasure writing about wine is scarce these days… That being said, I have certainly not stopped reading about or imbibing delightful wines. Some of the recent highlights include Comte Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre 2015, Francois Lamarche Vosne 1er Les Chaumes 2013, R. Lopez de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva Bosconia 1991, Louis Michel Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir 2014, Thierry Allemand Cornas Reynard 2013, Guigal Cote Rotie La Landonne 2004, Domaine Weinbach Gewürztraminer Mambourg SGN 2006, and an Eyrie Pinot Noir South Block 1999. There have been many more excellent bottles, but these are the ones that really stand out in my memory. So despite the lack of time for writing, no need to shed any tears for me as my palate is still being treated to delightful vinous treasures on a regular basis!

It is finally summer! The recent solstice has happened and though it actually snowed here in Montana that day, for the most part warmer weather has arrived. This often represents a shift in my imbibing habits; on a hot, sunny day, its hard to drink a young Cornas or a cabernet sauvignon. Of course, with the right meal and selection, red Burgundy still flows all summer (at least at my house), but otherwise we switch to a sipping glasses of whites and roses as the refreshing nature of these wines is just delectable during the warmer months. So given that, I thought we would delve into the extremely complicated Loire Valley a little more. There are a slightly overwhelming number of different regions in the Loire, so many people are intimidated by it. I have elected to keep it moderately simple and stick to a fairly well known wine that many of you will have had or will at least have heard of. We’ve touched briefly on some of the sauvignon blancs of Loire before so now I want to get into the other major white grape player which is chenin blanc! Chenin blanc (also referred to in the Loire valley as “pineau de Loire”) is an “obscure” grape to most people who enjoy wine. This is a shame because it is a delightful grape that can produce wines of widely varying styles that will fit the palate of almost everyone in one form or the other. I also happen to believe that chenin blanc can produce whites that rival the best whites in the world from more famous grapes. The most well known region for chenin blanc is Vouvray and that is where we will focus our attention today, but keep in mind chenin blanc is produced in multiple other villages throughout the Loire (and is often stellar) and even has a little bit more international exposition as well (especially in South Africa). So if you like some of these bottles, there will be other options to branch out and get a chenin blanc fix.

Vouvray is a village in the Loire Valley as I mentioned above. Here is a map to help orient yourself. I’ve outlined Vouvray in a blue square. In case you’ve forgotten, the Loire is situated in the northwestern part of France. It reaches the Atlantic, but also stretches far inland so it is highly varied as a region. Wine has been produced in this region for hundreds of years, probably as far back as 1000-1200 years really. Initially most of the vineyards were managed by the church (of course), but things really accelerated in the 1600s with significant vineyard expansion. Vouvray produces chenin blanc in a wide array of styles. In fact, it is routinely referred to as a “chameleon” grape because it performs so well in so many different styles. Sparkling, dry, off dry, sweet, and botrytized dessert wine are all in play with Vouvray and can all be exceptional. This is part of what I love about Vouvray and part of what is frustrating (especially if trying to identify this blind!). The variety of styles sometimes makes it difficult to know what you are getting when you buy a bottle. I’ll try to help you sort through that a bit. First, let’s look into the soil and climate a bit.

Vouvray is a cool climate region. As I mentioned, it is in the northern part of France not too far from Paris, so certainly on the northern end of where grapes can reliably ripen. It is relatively far inland and therefore essentially a continental climate, though it does still have a little bit of maritime effect from the Atlantic. Vintages can vary from quite cool to quite warm and this affects the style of wine made in the year. The soil here is mostly gravel and flint mixed with clay sitting atop the local limestone base known as tuffeau. Tuffeau is famous as it is easily excavated and lends itself to creating deep and cold cellars and also was excavated to build some of the famous vacation chateaus for the Parisian aristocracy centuries ago. This limestone and gravel soil seems to suit the chenin blanc grape well and allows it to produce excellent wines in many different styles depending on the vintage.

Vouvray is 100% chenin blanc as I mentioned above. So with just one grape you would think the wines of Vouvray would have a little bit of uniformity. That however is very far from the truth. Vouvray is made in styles from sparkling to dessert with everything in between; so despite one region and one grape, the options seem to be endless! The styles produced are often dictated by the growing season. In a cool season, more sparkling and dry (sec) wines will be produced. In a warmer season with full ripeness you will start to see some of the sweeter wines produced. Still (as opposed to sparkling) Vouvray styles from driest to sweetest are sec, demi-sec, moelleux, and doux. If you do not like any residual sugar in your wines, you will want to stick to the sec wines. However, due to the naturally high acidity of chenin blanc, demi-sec wines don’t often taste significantly sweet as the acidity buffers the sugar similar to German rieslings. The fruit flavor profile of Vouvray ranges from lemon and apple to ripe orchard fruits depending on the ripeness level of the wine. The wines are often very floral with jasmine, honeysuckle, and lilac notes. A classic note often picked up is lanolin or wet wool note. I also often get a mineral and fresh hay note from these wines. In some of the sweeter wines you will definitely notice botrytis as well. The moelleux wines will tend to have a bit more ginger and baking spice notes in addition to the ripe, almost honeyed orchard fruits. The other lovely thing about Vouvray is that it ages effortlessly. In fact I recently purchased a couple bottles of 30 year old Vouvray and they are still early in their cellaring lives! So you can buy a couple bottles and follow them over a decade or so if you like without worrying about them going downhill. Despite the cellar potential they are also quite delicious young so really you get the best of both worlds!

I find Vouvray to be a highly versatile wine for pairing with food. Certainly some of how you pair these will depend on the sweetness level of the wines, but I have enjoyed them in many different scenarios. The sec wines are fabulous aperitifs or with cheese/fruit plates. The fat in the cheese helps to mellow out the acids a bit. They are also excellent with white fish dishes. I love the demi-sec wines with complex cuisines with a bit of spice. Thai, Indian, and Mexican all pair quite lovely with a demi-sec Vouvray. The off dry nature smoothes out the spice a bit and yet there is plenty of acidity to be palate cleansing. The floral and fruit notes go well with the herbal and chili flavors in these cuisines. Demi-sec Vouvray also pairs very well with roasted birds. In fact, it is one of my favorite wines for Thanksgiving with the varied flavors and roasted turkey. So keep that in mind in November! I have a little less experience with the moelleux styles, but I have also had these with spicier foods. They drink quite well on their own as well. Sparkling Vouvray can be a fun alternative to Champagne and often has a lovely honeyed note. The bottom line for pairing Vouvray? You have a lot of options and experimentation is welcome!

Let’s look at a few producers now. Hands down my personal favorite is Domaine Huet. A legendary domaine that produces exquisite wines in all of the different sweetness levels, Huet is one of the great white wine producers of the world in my opinion. Despite the stellar track record and reputation of the Domaine, prices remain largely affordable with sec wines starting in the $30 range and moelleux around $50-60. Certainly this is not cheap, but for the quality of the wine and the aging potential, this remains a bargain compared to many other regions. I buy the Huet wines every year and I have yet to be disappointed. If you want to splurge and enjoy sweeter wines, try one of the 1ere trie moelleux wines from them. These are superb wines make with a strict selection of botrytized grapes and they can age for decades!

Another excellent producer is Phillipe Foreau of the Domaine du Clos Naudin. Foreau also makes wines that run the gamut of sweetness styles. The late harvest wines are a bit harder to find, but are exquisite. Domaine Champalou makes very solid and reasonably priced Vouvray. They do not put a sweetness indicator on the bottle, but my general impression has been a slightly off dry style (probably “sec tendre” in French). Two producers that I have heard very good things about, but have never been able to find a bottle are Francois Chidaine and Jacky Blot of Domaine de la Taille au Loups. Both produce wine in Vouvray and nearby Montlouis sur Loire and have stellar reputations. They are definitely worth a try if you see them. I know I am definitely on the lookout for them!

With that I will leave you for this episode. I’ve tried to shorten things up a bit so hopefully it was still informational without being too long! I hope you can find some Vouvray to sample and also consider trying some of the other Loire chenin blancs if you can. Enjoy!

J. “Tuffeau” Newman, CSW

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