In the summer we spent a week in Touraine, which meant getting to drink plenty of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, the two primary varieties of the Central Loire. The latter gives good quality and great value wines in the appellations of Chinon, Bourgeuil, Anjou Villages and Saumur Champigny, but we'll save that story for another day. The real superstar of the region is Chenin Blanc, an almost forgotten variety in the international market, yet one of extremely high intrinsic quality and unsurpassed versatility, being responsible for white wines in almost every imaginable style.
As you can see from my rather fetching hand drawn map, the home of Chenin Blanc runs across the heart of the Loire Valley, in the two main sub-regions of Anjou-Saumur and Touraine. This is the classic Loire of big Chateaux and rolling farmland. It’s also completely dominated by Chenin Blanc, being the sole grape in all the key white wine appellations of the region; Anjou, Saumur, Savennières, Coteaux du Layon (including the crus of Bonnezeaux and Quarts-de-Chaume) Vouvray, Montlouis and Crémant de Loire.
These Chenin Blanc appellations account for more styles of wine in a very small geographical location that just about any other variety does when considered across the entire globe. Dry, off-dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, sweet, dry sparkling, off-dry sparkling, … you get the picture. As well as full on fizzy you also get pétillant wines, which means ‘very slightly sparkling’, just a prickle in the glass. Wow, what a minefield! Complex as it is, it’s well worth getting to know and understand the area and appellations, as they make some of the most interesting white wines in the world.
First of all let's look at the primary fizz of the region, which is Crémant de Loire.
Crémant is a controlled term for a regional sparkling french wine that is made in the traditional method, as per Champagne, but not from Champagne. Consequently Crémants from around France can offer really good value as they have quite rigorous appellation rules but don't have the mark-up that goes with the bling of Champagne. Crémant de Loire is made from 100% Chenin and gives dry, crisp, subtle sparklers that can be extremely good and are generally excellent value. However, let's move on from the fizz as what I really want to talk about today is the myriad of still styles that really highlight Chenin's quality...
At the western end of the Central Loire we have two appellations facing each other across the river that make wines at the opposite ends of the spectrum; Savennières is uncompromisingly bone dry, making wines that need 10 years ageing to show their best. Extremely severe when young, with age you end up with a full, rich and naturally honeyed wine that hasn't needed any oak to get there. Indeed Chenin and oak don't really go at all.
By contrast Coteaux du Layon (and all its sub-appellations) is reserved for sweet wines, producing sensational botrytis wine with rapier acidity. These gain complexity with age and can last for yonks, but many are also perfectly accessible young. With the crisp clean acidity of Chenin Blanc these sweet wines, for my money at least, offer much more enjoyable drinking than most Sauternes, which is far richer and can be cloying. An essential component of a stickie wine is the crisp acidity to counter the sweetness and keep the wine clean and balanced. A good Coteaux du Layon with either some foie gras to start with or some apple tart to finish things off is a great thing. The example shown is probably the best choice on the high street, a Coteaux du Layon Chaume 2009 from Domaine des Forges, one of the major producers of Loire stickies. It has the characteristic streak of Chenin acidity that counters the sweetness so well. It has some botrytis but is not a wine made entirely from noble rot grapes, making it lighter and fresher than it would be otherwise. It costs about ten quid from Waitrose, which is very reasonable for any high quality stickie.
Chenin Blanc has rapier acidity but is very hard to ripen and does so unevenly, particularly as there are so many soils and meso-climates in the region. Consequently you end up with growers picking in ‘tries’, meaning they harvest a selection of grapes or bunches in successive passes through the vineyard on different days, hence you often get a producer with many different styles of wine. This is exemplified by the two appellations facing each other across the river in the Eastern end of the Central Loire, Vouvray and Montlouis. These wines produce every style; Sec (dry), Demi-Sec (medium) and Moelleux (sweet), all of which capable of being still, pétillant or fully sparkling. Due to the intricate patchwork of soils, Vouvray has the largest number of tries, typically 4 to 6 for a quality producer. In cooler years you’ll find more fizzy, sec and demi-sec Vouvray and only in the hotter ones you find more moelleux wines, rivalling and perhaps even surpassing the great sweet wines of Coteaux du Layon. It all depends.
The wine pictured above, called 'Les Choisilles', is from the excellent producer François Chidaine, which I bought from his shop when in Touraine. It's an absolute cracker. Officially it's a sec, but due to the vagaries of vintage, this 2006 was rich and full, giving the impression of a hint of sweetness. Other vintages of the same wine tend to be more austere and need more bottle time, but that's the variable nature of Chenin and in particular Chenin in the Central Loire. It made for a beautiful aperitif with some local goats cheese. A delightful and generous wine and decent value at €14.
An example on the high street that's excellent and you know what you're going to get is a Demi-Sec Vouvray from Clos de Nouys. The medium sweetness is perfectly countered by the acidity with delicious peachy flavours. Lovely as an aperitif this is also good with a light fruit pudding. In fact, I think I might have a bottle tonight with an apple crumble made from the fruit off our garden tree. Perfect for the season. This is again from Waitrose and until tomorrow (11th October 2011) it's reduced by 20% from £10 to £8. It's very fairly priced at the normal price of a tenner and is a really good grab for £8.
So as you can see, knowing what you're going to get with a Vouvray or Montlouis is no easy thing. As the appellations can make all these different styles, it's vital to read the label. Most should say either 'Sec', 'Demi-Sec' or Moelleux. Having said that, the wine above, 'Les Choisilles', doesn't. So how do you know the sweetness level? It's tricky! If it's not on the label you have to either know the wine, have a recommendation or ask someone. However, in an age of homogeneity, predictability and saminess, it's refreshing (Chenin's always refreshing) to have a wine that just follows the vintage and does what is right for the year in question. Just go for it, enjoy it and don't worry if it's sweeter, dryer, richer or leaner than you imagined.