The Chenin Blanc grape is synonymous with Vouvray, one of the best-known sub-regions in the Loire region of France, producing wines that can last decades because of the grape’s high acidity.
Chenin is sometimes known locally as Pineau de la Loire. Vintage conditions influence wine styles. Cooler years tend to produce drier styles including sparkling Vouvray. Warmer years mean sweeter, dessert style wines.
Wines are designated by the terms sec, demi-sec, moelleux and doux. Sec is the driest with less than 4 grams a litre of residual sugar. Demi-sec is off dry while moelleux can have botrytis influences. Doux is the sweetest with typically more than 45 grams a litre of residual sugar. Dry styles have more noticeable acidity than the sweeter wines.
Acidity helps with longevity and Vouvrays are known for their ageing potential, particularly from good vintages. But the sweeter moelleux styles also have the potential to age and develop in the bottle for several decades, and sometimes up to a century.
Wine cellars were created when locals quarried blocks from the limestone (known as tuffeau) to build houses and the magnificent chateaux that adorn the Loire area. These cellars provide ideal storage conditions for wine, especially the local sparklings made using the traditional champagne method.
Vouvray received its appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or “controlled designation of origin” in 1936. It sits atop a plateau dissected by tributaries of the Loire. These streams provide the humidity that helps create the botrytis conditions (known as noble rot) to make sweet wines.
Jim Budd, president of the Circle of Wines Writers and a noted Loire expert, provided a chance to meet a range of up-and-coming Vouvray winemakers.
Michel Autran trained as a doctor but has been making wine since 2006. His first vintage was in 2011 and he makes wines of precision and elegance. A walk through his 3.8 hectares shows the meticulous care he takes of his vines.
A moth that lays eggs in the young grape bunches can be a problem in the Loire and Michel explained how locals use the science of “sexual confusion” to fight the insects. Female moths release sex hormones that enable males to find them. Devices that release female pheromones are placed in the vineyards. These devices confuse male moths and prevent them from finding mates. No mating means eggs are not fertilised and do not hatch.
This is an example of creative viticulture methods. Michel has been converting his vines to organic viticulture and will be certified bio-dynamic from the 2015 vintage because the process takes some years for certification to come into effect.
Jim Budd said the use of weed-killers was far too prevalent in Vouvray with many vineyards “completely blitzed”. Producers should persuade their colleagues to adopt more sustainable viticulture and to promote biodiversity, he said. Most of the winemakers we met were organic and all refused to use weed-killers.
Michel sows barley between his vines so the plants can be composted to increase nitrogen levels in the soil. He plants lots of yellow flowers because insects are attracted to the colour. He even drives a yellow van.
Michel has chosen poetic names for his two wines, made from the two different soils on his property. His 2013 Tranquile Enfer (translated as peaceful hell) comes from flinty soils known as silex. The 2013 Ciel Rouge (red sky, as in the poem about red sky as a warning for shepherds in the morning) is from clay soils. Both are elegant and precise and reflect the careful way he tends his vineyard.
Mathieu Cosme took over the family vines in 2005 at Domaine de Beaumont and has worked with his brother Florent since 2011. Mathieu has the build of a rugby prop and is a fit and large man, but his wines are delicate and he treats his vines with utmost respect and gentleness.
Many of those vines are more than 90 years old. In his vineyard Mathieu smashed together two flinty rocks in his giant hands. The smell of gunflint and smoke was noticeable. His elegant and zingy wines offer the aromas reminiscent of those flinty rocks.
Some of his labels display quirky line drawings such as the 2014 Le Facteur su’l’velo (the postman on his bicycle). Brother Florent’s 2014 Utopie is a delightful and complex sparkling wine that tastes sweet and dry at the same time. Mathieu explained that they used natural yeasts that live in the dark tuffeau limestone caves.
Jacquelin Rouvre, known as Jacky, ran a Paris restaurant for 17 years before he took over his parent’s three hectares in 2008 and went to school to learn to make wine. Jacky crafted his first vintage in 2010. His 2010 La Joubardiere Cuvee Warren spends four years on lees and is a wondrous wine. It’s named after his son Warren. Jacky’s 2013 sec is another outstanding wine with powerful fruit, silky mineral texture and citrus tang.
Jacky met Vincent Carême when he started studying and the two men have remained friends. Vincent is the only member of the group who speaks English, so Jim served admirably as translator. Vincent’s sparkling 2013 Cuvée Ancestrale is bone dry and spends 18 months on lees. The first fermentation finishes in the bottle without any addition of sugar. It speaks of the flinty rocks in the vineyard and has great length and texturality.
Also lovely was his 2012 Le Clos Vouvray, a dry made from vines at least a half-century old matured in oak for 18 months. It has fine length and minerality. The 2009 Moelleux is made from fully ripe grapes with a high concentration of sugar. The natural acidity balances beautifully with the sweetness. A sweet and sour delight.
Vouvray is in good hands based on tasting the wines of this new generation of winemakers.
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