Regarded as one of the world’s great white wine regions; Vouvray sets the standard for Chenin Blanc
Believed to have derived from the black Pineau D’Aunis grape (also known as Aunis or Chenin Noir), Pineau de Loire is more commonly known outside The Loire Valley as Chenin Blanc.
This grape variety generally flies solo and, for no fault of its own, seems to endure somewhat of an endless emotional rollercoaster, thrust upon it by the wine drinking masses.
Fortunately, this kind of furor matters not to the winemakers of Vouvray. Some of whom harvest parcels dating back many hundreds of years, and continue to produce some of the greatest white wine on the planet.
Several other appellations in The Loire Valley are permitted to produce Chenin Blanc with their region’s name proudly adorning the bottle. And although there are some brilliant producers in regions like Montlouis, Savennieres, Saumur and Anjou, nowhere else does it quite like Vouvray.
Only Vouvray can demonstrate the incredible versatility and ageing potential of Chenin Blanc to such a profound extent. Here we find impressive examples of dry, semi-sweet, sweet, dry sparkling and semi-sweet sparkling white wine. The region produces all styles impeccably.
Vouvray is less than ten kilometres away from Tours and, in the opposing direction, just fourteen kilometres from Amboise.
There are many incredible Chateaux nearby.
These include the magnificent Chateau Amboise where Francois 1er lived and Leonardo DaVinci frequented until his death in 1519 in nearby Clos Luce.
The exquisite gardens of Chateau Valmer are South-West of Vouvray on the other side of the Loire river, and the remarkable ruins of Chateau de Vendome are just North, within the boundaries of the Vouvray appellation itself.
All three Chateaux are within half an hours reach.
The bars and restaurants overlooking the Loire here range from average to exceptional. And whilst the scenery is generally extraordinary, it is not uncommon for an expensive glass of Vouvray at a more chic establishment to give less pleasure than a glass poured from a bag in box at one of the more humble spots.
The kitchens serve an abundance of delicious fish dishes. Trout, pike, bream and eel are caught from The Loire and served fresh the same day, often grilled in butter. The perfect companion after beurre blanc sauce is of course a dry glass of Vouvray.
Vouvray itself is home to only 3000 residents. Most of the vineyards are located outside of the main village in the other seven communes that make up the Vouvray appellation.
Troglodyte caves carved out of the limestone hillsides are both charming and commonplace here. These primitive dwellings remain home to vignerons and also lend to beguiling, venerable tourist retreats in the many gites, inns and at least one exclusive luxury hotel that now inhabit the old caves.
Some caves are kept in their original state, and others are fitted with somewhat curious more modern facades, whilst many have simply had updated doors, windows and perhaps a balcony installed, like the example pictured below.
For obvious reasons none of these homes have gardens. So it is quite common for families to rent or buy small plots of land nearby where they can grow vegetables and spend time outdoors.
I'll have whatever Balzac is having
During the fifth century, Saint Martin is credited with having cultivated the first vines here, producing Vouvray’s earliest wine.
Little is known about the precise drink itself. In fact, no one is absolutely sure whether the wine was white or red.
It was during the seventh century under French monastic order that, having been taught how to properly keep vineyards by the Romans, monks planet vines in rows; laying primitive groundwork which, with certain technical modification, remains widely in use today.
In the ninth century vines including Pineau D’Aunis and Chenin Blanc, aka Pineau Loire, which are native to The Loire, were planted.
The misconception is that Chenin is an offspring of Savagnin, first found in Jura, but Pineau De Loire does not count Sauvignon blanc as its cousin.
Contrary to popular belief, the first Aunis (and its subsequent white offspring; Chenin) grew wild, originating from nearby Anjou.
Around the fifteenth and sixteenth century, Dutch merchants planted Chenin in prime vineyards which largely remain the best sites still to this day.
It is during this timeframe the caves were dug out and used as chais. Caves were the perfect environment for winemaking due to the consistently cool year round temperature.
These caves proved invaluable for the making, and subsequent storing, of wine as they offered the absolute perfect conditions.
Within a short time of this progression, the name Vouvray became so popular that demand outweighed supply.
Unscrupulous merchants would begin blending and labelling white wine from all over Touraine and The Loire and shipping it to The Netherlands and Britain labelled as Vouvray.
Eventually the 1936 appellation controllee creation curtailed the illicit sale of erroneously labelled Vouvray, as wine production became highly regulated.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Vouvray is now one of the most popular white wines in France.
Take heed, however; just because Vouvray is so highly regarded by many, do not be fooled into thinking everything with the name Vouvray on the bottle is liquid gold; it’s really not that simple.
More than a million bottles of Vouvray are produced in a good year, with many of the mainstream producers being forced to put profit over quality.
Regrettably, the likelihood is that the bottles in your local supermarket are going to range from muted and uninspired, through to flabby, messy and downright repulsive.
There does seem to be a somewhat unfortunate tradition in Vouvray of there being an immense spectrum from world-class wine at one end; right down to virtually undrinkable wine at the other.
This has definitely contributed to the extreme up and down swings in popularity of the region’s wine through the eras.
A solid run of vintages in the ’90s put the region’s name back at the forefront, and there are several fine producers offering simply stunning, incredible bottle after bottle; truly some of the best white wine in the world.
And yet there are still many pitiful examples that should probably have been poured into Southern France’s wine lake, let alone been bottled and finished with a gold foil.
This great gamut of truly incredible at one end and utterly catastrophic at the other is what keeps the finest Vouvray wines affordable.
So, rather than berate the corporate Vouvray making machines (as well as the smaller enterprises that have lost interest and simply couldn’t care less about quality), consumers must be grateful for all the middlebrow Mountain Dew masquerading as Vouvray. Thanks to this the price of genuinely world-class examples continually remain affordable.. now all you need to know is your way around it!
In the 1833 story L’illustre Gaudissart by Honore de Balzac, our fable’s protagonist, Felis Gaudissart, is fooled into buying two barrels of non-existant Vouvray by a raving lunatic.
The basis for this shameful faux pas is that the barrels contain what is left of Vouvray’s head cuvee from the “Margaritis vineyard”.
Sadly for Gaudissart the vineyard from which the wine supposedly belonged, where he is taken for a walk to discuss the deal, belongs to an irrelevant stranger.
But the craze for Vouvray that gripped Paris and subsequently convinced (a by then intoxicated) Gaudissart to part with a hundred Francs was, at the time, very real.
History appears to have repeated itself and, to an extent, extended to encompass not only Vouvray but all of Chenin Blanc.
Depending on whom you speak with or what you read, the grape might be lauded as the most underrated, or disparaged as the most overrated, variety in existence.
Whilst these days there are laws forbidding the locals from selling fictional Chenin, many of the owners of badly tended plots profit handsomely from tourists, so enamoured with the scenery they will forgive no end of faults in the wine. Add to that the overall number of restaurants happy to have the word Vouvray on their wine list and long lives the rather seismic gulf between the best and worst of Vouvray.
The absolute truth is that the vines, the terroir and, to no lesser extent, the winemaker are responsible for making Chenin great.. or not so, as it were in so many instances.
The specific genetic code of the humble vitis vinifera, as well as the name of the village in which its greatest vineyards are centred, by themselves can do very little.
“Well, then, Monsieur, I take your wine at a hundred francs—”
“No, no! hundred and ten—”
“Monsieur! A hundred and ten for the company, but a hundred to me. I enable you to make a sale; you owe me a commission.”
“Charge ‘em a hundred and twenty,”—“cent vingt” (“sans vin,” without wine).
“Capital pun that!”
“No, puncheons. About that wine—”
“Better and better! Why, you are a wit.”
“Yes, I’m that,” said the fool. “Come out and see my vineyards.”
“Willingly, the wine is getting into my head,” said the illustrious Gaudissart, following Monsieur Margaritis, who marched him from row to row and hillock to hillock among the vines. The three ladies and Monsieur Vernier, left to themselves, went off into fits of laughter as they watched the traveller and the lunatic discussing, gesticulating, stopping short, resuming their walk, and talking vehemently.
“I wish the good-man hadn’t carried him off,” said Vernier.
Finally the pair returned, walking with the eager step of men who were in haste to finish up a matter of business.
“He has got the better of the Parisian, damn him!” cried Vernier.
And so it was. To the huge delight of the lunatic our illustrious Gaudissart sat down at a card-table and wrote an order for the delivery of the two casks of wine.
“Adieu until to-morrow, Monsieur,” said Gaudissart, twisting his watch-key. “I shall have the honor to call for you to-morrow. Meantime, send the wine at once to Paris to the address I have given you, and the price will be remitted immediately.”
Gaudissart, however, was a Norman, and he had no idea of making any agreement which was not reciprocal. He therefore required his promised supporter to sign a bond (which the lunatic carefully read over) to deliver two puncheons of the wine called “Head of Vouvray,” vineyard of Margaritis.
This done, the illustrious Gaudissart departed in high feather, humming, as he skipped along,—
Unique Terroir and why Chenin Blanc is so at home in Vouvray
The combination of macro and microclimate coupled with the positioning of the vineyards in relation to The Loire River all contribute to Vouvray’s unparalleled expression.
Upstream from Tours on the Northern/Right banks of The Loire, Vouvray’s vineyards stretch from just back from the river banks, all the way sixteen kilometres North at the E60.
Whilst rare Vouvray ‘Silex’ soil can be found, the vast majority of Vouvray’s vineyards sit on siliceous clay or yellow clay limestone known as Tuffeau.
The macro climate is mostly mild with influences from the Atlantic, which begin to give way to a more dominant Continental climate at roughly the point The Loire and Brenne rivers meet.
The microclimate is aided by multiple streams running through and around the various communes of Vouvray, each one giving it’s wine expression and individual character. These streams offer a source of vital climate control to the vines. This enhances Chenin’s richness and lends to the fine balance between tension and voluptuousness that fine Vouvray wine is known for.
Unlike hotter climates such as South Africa where Chenin is often flabby, the above factors encourage the relatively high acidity Chenin Blanc to reveal its illuminating profile and texture, whilst also allowing the components of the various terroir to fully assert themselves.
The earlier the grapes are harvested the more acidic, and less sweet. Grapes picked during early harvest are used in sparkling wine. The later the grapes are harvested, the riper they are able to become to the point that they collapse under their own weight. It is at this point the sweetest wine can be created.
For sparkling wines, once early harvests are completed the base wines are vinified. It is at the point of disgorgement prior to the second fermentation that a liquer containing sugar and yeast is added. Depending on the amount of sugar that is added, this step is where the winemaker will make the distinction between a Brut or Demi-sec style.
The sweetness levels for dry wine are achieved differently; no sugar is ever added to still Vouvray. The best winemakers add no yeast either, because there is no need; fermentation happens automatically. In order to produce different sweetness levels from the same vineyard the winemaker must make repeat harvests, painstakingly handpicking only the grapes that are ready for whichever specific style is desired. Vouvray apellation laws stipulate exactly when these harvests may take place; the rules dictate that if the grapes are picked outside of a precise window then the finished wine cannot bear the name Vouvray on the label.
Generally speaking, the more Northern vineyards produce mostly country wine. These vineyards get largely ignored by wine writing journalists, presumably looking for wine that is as molecularly close to water as possible. They miss a trick however, because within the most northern terrority of Vouvray exist some incredible, inimitable winemakers with some of the greatest terroir in all of Vouvray. Here you will find Vouvray which is vivavious, alive, animal, fleshy, and in the best instances, undeniably beautiful.
Nearer the Loire river we find the sort of wines that are largely more agreeable with those searching for more deft, delicate, streamlined white wine that is considered more structured. For the most part, in good winemaking hands, the more elegant wines can be found in the sandier vineyards and more supple wines are found in Tuffeau soil.
Oak barrels are often used to vinify Vouvray. Old French oak barrels are preferable to brand new barrels. Barrells up to 2-3 years old impart certain vanilla and smoked flavours which are considered to be quite undesirable when vinifying Chenin Blanc. Gently oaking in old oak and replacing one or two barrells out of dozens at a time is thought to be the greatest way to oak Vouvray. This way the new oak is imperceptible as it should only make up a small proportion of the overall vessels with which the wine is kept.
What are the various styles of Vouvray?
Bubbly was first created in Vouvray relatively recently.
Only since Vouvray was given the AOC decree in 1936 was the production of sparkling wine even considered here. Nowadays over half of the total bottles labelled Vouvray are sparkling.
There is much confusion over the nomenclature of Vouvray’s bubbly.
Petillant, methode traditionelle, pet-nat, ancestral.
What do they mean? What is the difference?
Method wise there are two different ways to make sparkling wine in Vouvray, and both are covered under their own unique, separate appellations to avoid confusion. ‘Methode Traditionelle’ is the Champagne method of taking the base still wine and fermenting it a second time with the addition of a dosage made up of yeast, sugar and liquer. The two styles of methode traditionelle are Brut and Demi-sec. These will be harvested and vinified at the same time, with differing amounts of sugar added to the dosage.
Non Dose can also be produced where enough native, or natural, yeast exists to allow a second fermentation to take place without the need to add a dosage. The rare non dose style is the very driest of all Vouvray wine.
The other method used here to make bubbly is Methode Ancestral, referred to as Petillant.
This produces what is considered to be a semi-sparkling wine. Petillant does not offer the same effervescence but can often present a better expression of the terroir. Contrary to the methode traditionelle wines, good petillant can leave behind quite beautiful still wine, in a rather unusual style, once the bubbles have been lost. Petillant is normally a dry style wine, as no sugar can be added at any point of the process.
Even when ordering a glass of Methode Traditionelle in a bar in Vouvray you may well be met with a blank stare.. ask for Petillant, however, and you are likely to be served Methode Traditionelle. Proof that not even the locals have the perfect grasp on Vouvray’s phraseology.
Fried Chicken, British Fish & Chips (without vinegar), Smoked Salmon, Andouillette au Vouvray, Apple Pie, Strawberry Melba, Belgian Waffles, Paris Brest.
Young, fresh style sparkling Vouvray often has no vintage on the label and is best consumed within 1-2 years. On the other hand, cuvees that have spent longer on their lees can keep 15+ years.
The style known locally as ‘Tranquil Sec’ is what most enthusiasts equate with Vouvray.
This is the style which, in the last thirty years, has gained such an appreciation as to not only overshadow it’s demi-sec counterpart, but to also mount a serious challenge for the number one spot in the realm of dry white wines.
The fact is that, technically speaking, ‘Dry’ is not the style that Vouvray is historically linked with at all.
However, we can put that knowledge aside and happily fool ourselves into believing, based on how irresistible it is, that Chenin Blanc’s entire existence was born to be dry; dry to the bone.
So as we contemplate the emblematic profile of dry Vouvray we are reminded, by any number of true examples, that terroir and vine age will, to a large extent, dictate how we associate a perceived standard of this region’s benchmark style.
The proximity of the vineyard that your glass of Vouvray comes from in relation to the Loire river is arguably the main defining factor.
Generally speaking (when only taking into account very good dry Vouvray examples), the closer to the Loire the vineyard sits the more elegant, graceful and stylish; the further North, away from the river, the more expressive, dramatic and vivacious.
Between the two extremities, we find wine that is both complex and structured (found just North of the vineyards closest to the Loire), and wine that is generous and supple.
Given that replete information, you may believe those key four personalities are all that dry Vouvray has to offer. In that case, you would be wrong. Because it is worth bearing in mind that many excellent Vouvray winemakers also blend white wines that are a combination of any two or more of the aforementioned soils. Given this fact, dry white wine devotees shall find a veritable plethora of Chenin Blanc to their liking here. The proximity of the vineyard, the soil type and the age of the vines is almost never printed on the label; neither front nor reverse. The only surefire way to work out which dry, still Vouvray speaks loudest to you is by drinking them.
Think grilled chicken in a creamy mushroom pan sauce; the ideal pairing for dry Vouvray. Good with white fish, great with hard cheese such as Comte or Gruyere and also pairs well with white meats and even charcuterie.
Can keep minimum 10 years. Good examples up to 25 if cellared properly.
Finally we reveal the original Vouvray style.
It is the humble demi-sec which is the true representation of past Vouvray wines gone by.
People often prefer this style because it is dry but not too dry; sweet but not too sweet. Younger or more inexperienced enthusiasts prefer to fool themselves that this wine is dry. This, for no good reason, often irks the more experienced enthusiast. Well to hell with the more experienced enthusiast and their opinions. If this style appeals then allow it to appeal even more. Let not prudishness spoil a good thing.
There really is nothing wrong with preferring a wine that is neither dry nor sweet. Simply no grape in existence can create a wine such as this as perfectly as Chenin can. And nowhere on earth can produce Chenin Blanc in a demi-sec style the way Vouvray does.
Arguments shall, no doubt, pursue over whether Champagne (even at its price) makes the greatest sparkling white wine on earth. We can argue whether Savennieres makes better dry Chenin than Vouvray.. equally, we can argue whether the regions of Tokaji or Sauternes make better sweet wine than Vouvray; one thing that is beyond any reasonable discussion is where on earth makes the greatest semi-sweet, or demi-sec, wine; and the answer can only be correct with a region on The Loire beginning with a capital V.
Good examples are easy to spot, there is the acidity present that one finds with a dry Vouvray, but there is a sweet yet saline roundness reminscent of salted toffee apples found neither in dry nor sweet white wine.
An easy-to-remember measure is to taste the wine and if it tastes akin to the flesh of a ripe orchard apple, if there is that perfect balance between sugar and acid that you find in a golden apple which is not a day too old nor a day too young; neither over-ripe nor under-ripe, then we are in business; its veritable demi-sec.
If on the other hand it tastes closer to the apple peel we find in green apples, or Granny Smith’s, then walk away; or at the very least move along and opt for another style.
Good all rounder, especially good with fish in a creamy sauce. Great with soft, light cheese. Can easily fill in for rosé or sparkling and be great with Asian food & lightly to medium spiced food. Lobster or crab are the pairing to die for though.
Can easily keep 20+ years, up to and beyond 30 in great vintages.
Arguably the greatest style of Vouvray, sweet Vouvray represents a solid contender for the world’s greatest sweet wine.
Despite losing traction with modern wine drinks, sweet white wine is undeniably alluring, particularly when sufficiently aged.
No other drink is as luscious, silky and voluptuous.
The production of sweet Vouvray is not guaranteed every year though.
The weather dictates to the winemaker as to which styles are made, and in what proportions.
Noble rot, it has to be hot!
Notable years for sweet Vouvray are 1989, 2003, 2015 and 2018 when Summers and Autumns were dry, hot and long, enabling fruit to continue to develop long into October.
So how does sweet Vouvray compare with the likes of Sauternes or Tokaji?
Firstly, purely in terms of drinkability, Vouvray is the clear winner.
Good sweet Vouvray is less viscus and cloying, it is far more palatable and nowhere near as wearying. Where half and three-quarter bottles are common for Sauternes and Tokaji, full bottles of sweet Vouvray are the norm.
The implication is that a bottle of sweet Vouvray is just as likely to be finished as a bottle of any other style Vouvray, so why resign it to smaller bottles?
Another factor worth considering is how once a bottle of sweet Vouvray is opened, it can happily keep, re-corked, in your fridge for up to one week; its development vaguely parallel to what we might expect many subsequent years to add.
The characteristics of Sauternes are the exact characteristics that are turning drinkers away from sweet wines; rich, slick, heavily coated. Whereas sweet Vouvray is not like this, the better examples are more agreeable than Sauternes, so much so that serving sweet Vouvray as an aperitif is an entirely acceptable option.
So, now you are aware of the power and affordability of sublime sweet Vouvray, never again throw away £400 on Chateau D’Yquiem; at least six bottles of the most incredible, ageworthy late harvest Vouvray can be had for roughly the same amount.
Many refer to this style of wine as a dessert wine, and whilst it will certainly pair just beautifully with Apple Pie, Lemon Maringue and Cheesecake, the greatest unisons are with Blue Cheese (particularly Roquefort) and Foie Gras or Duck Liver Pate.
Can keep 50+ years. 100 years in legendary vintages. No one really knows how long great modern sweet Vouvray will keep because it will easily outlive all of us; a sobering thought..
Apellation status since: 1936
Region size (vineyard total): 2210 hectares
Soil: Tuffeau, sandy gravelly pebbles, some flint
Connecting river: Loire (northern bank)
Wine styles: WHITE
Permitted grapes: Chenin Blanc
Food pairing: Chicken & mushroom braised in cream