Chenin Blanc is a chameleon. Dry, sweet or sparkling, it excels in all three styles. And there are three distinct areas for high-quality Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley, where it can make some of the finest examples that exist. In Touraine, lay the twin appellations of Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire, close to the city of Tours, the capital of Touraine. Further west, in the Anjou-Saumur region near the city of Angers, capital of Anjou, is the Coteaux du Layon, home to some stunningly, intensely sweet and soft drier wines. Finally, at the limits of Anjou, before it transitions into the Atlantic vineyards of Muscadet, is the small, tightly drawn dry wine area of Savennières.
The dry whites of Savennières are among the most ageable white wines around, with aging potential of 10–20 years. The same goes for the luscious wines produced in Vouvray, Montlouis-sur-Loire or the Coteaux du Layon. Chenin Blanc forms the base of a sparkling Vouvray and is blended into the sparkling wines of Saumur. All of these can be complex, mysterious in their transformations and beautifully memorable.
Chenin Blanc makes some of the highest quality wine of any variety in the region. It’s certainly more dynamic than the often-one-dimensional Sauvignon Blanc of Sancerre. So why is its reach so limited, its reputation less regarded?
While it makes great white wines, Chenin can easily go awry, making vaguely semisweet white wines with little definition that are unmemorable. And outside of its Loire home—whether planted in New World regions (outside of high-end producers) or in southern France—the grape’s reputation has been sullied. However, it’s worth putting aside these worries and assumptions for the expressions of Chenin Blanc cultivated in the Loire Valley.
Take Your Time
Savennières Chenin Blancs come from the schist soil of a mere 200 acres on the north bank of the Loire River on plateaux that stop abruptly, forming cliffs that drop down to the river. The appellation has a strong streak of organic and biodynamic philosophies, driven by the vineyards of Roche-aux-Moines and Coulée de Serrant, the latter a monopole owned exclusively by charismatic owner Nicolas Joly.
It’s here that Florent Baumard, owner of Domaine des Baumard, farms vines in another iconic Savennières vineyard, the Clos du Papillon, so called because it is shaped like a butterfly with wings outstretched.
Asked why Savennières is so propitious for Chenin Blanc, he says, “The taste of the grape is relatively neutral. It can soak up the taste of our terroir, especially with dry wines. That’s why we can have so many different tastes in the remarkable terroir in Savennières and why some of our wines age so well.”
And Savennières does age magnificently. Austere in its youth, after four or five years, it develops honey and beeswax flavors while remaining dry and keeping the intense acidity. The wines are always rich, relatively high in alcohol and able to mature gracefully for 20 years or more. If there is a comparison, it is with German dry Riesling.
These wines are at the apogee of dry Chenin in the Loire. They bring out the terroir, the soil, translating the schist into a powerful structure, the sandier soils away from the river into lighter wines that mature more quickly. They benefit from their remarkable southern exposure to garner the sun to develop sugars and intensity of fruit flavors while never losing sight of acidity.
Aging is also the preeminent quality of the other appellation that makes great dry Chenin: Vouvray in Touraine. Some 20-year-old wines from some top estates like Domaine Huet can still be as fresh as a daisy. Or as with Château Gaudrelle and Domaine Bourillon Dorléans, develop a nuttiness mingled with baked apples—and still hold strong to that essential acidity.
The Sweeter Side
The sweet Chenin Blanc wines of the Loire have traditionally been the glories of the grape. It’s the combination of lightness, acidity and intense sweetness aided by botrytis that makes these wines so great. The coolish climate of the Loire gives the first two, while the riverine nature of the vineyards with their autumnal mists that bring all botrytis to develop and, hence, produce these notable sweet wines.
The river Layon, a tributary of the Loire, runs in a tight, high-sided valley just east of Angers. In autumn, mist rises easily and regularly up the valley sides. While sweet wines come from all over the Layon, the finest come from two small crus.
Florent Baumard, who also has vines in Quarts de Chaume, one of the two top sites in Coteaux du Layon, praises the sandstone soils of the vineyard. “It doesn’t just produce sweet wines but gives a strong sense of place to the wines,” he says. The Quarts de Chaume is a series of four ridges just above the valley; the name comes from the fact that the lord of the manor demanded a quarter (or quart) of the production from the vineyards each year.
The other super-cru of the Layon is Bonnezeaux. Again, vines face southwest. Like the Quarts de Chaume, the wines have this balance between acidity and sweetness that comes so effortlessly to Chenin. The wines will age for decades and certainly should not be drunk before 10 years.
Vouvray wines may be produced with the same grape, but the grapes are cultivated in very different conditions. Medium sweet wines are commonplace. But sweet wines, made from botrytized grapes, are rare. That is why Vouvray producers go for dry and sparkling wines.
But when Vouvray scores with its sweet wines, it can, as Vincent Carême of Vouvray Domaine Vincent Carême says, “achieve the best.” According to him, it is not just the main Loire River that gives these perfect botrytis conditions, but the little side valleys that are nestled between the ridges of the Vouvray vineyard.
The wines are a little weightier than in Layon. Although happily, it’s impossible to escape the acidity that gives even the sweetest wines some freshness.
Sparkle and Shine
Saumur is traditionally at the center of the Loire’s sparkling wine business. Large companies, emulating Champagne with cellars carved out of the friable rock cliffs, surround the town that is dominated by its massive many-turreted castle.
Chenin Blanc has long been the mainstay of Saumur’s sparkling wines. The amount of Chenin in the blend can vary, but most Saumur is now a blend of Chenin with Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. In style it competes with the more recently created Crémant de Loire, which can be made anywhere along the Loire Valley, and is now much more likely to be made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir: The Champagne blend, in other words.
But Chenin Blanc comes back into its own in the two Touraine appellations of Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire Vouvray’s contribution to Loire sparkling wines is more significant, each still wine producer also making sparkling wines from vines that are picked earlier.
Vincent Carême, who produces a wine called L’Ancestrale using a technique in which the first fermentation is stopped and then completed after bottling, notes that while he can make any style from anywhere in his Vouvray vineyard, certain soils are better for each style. “We make still wines from the chalk and flint soils because the wines bring out the characteristics of the soils, while soils with more clay are better for sparkling wines because we don’t want too much taste of terroir in these wines.”
While Saumur and Crémant de Loire have an international feel to them from the presence of Chardonnay, Vouvray and Montlouis sparkling expressions are different—uniquely Loire. With their apple and hazelnut flavors, sometimes hinting at honey and pepper notes as well, like many Loire Chenin Blanc expressions, these are wines that could come from nowhere else.
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Bottles to Try
Château de Fesles 2018 La Chapelle Vieilles Vignes (Anjou), $24, 92 Points. (Buy on Wine-Searcher)
Domaine Bourillon d’Orléans 2019 La Coulée d’Argent Sec Montgouverne (Vouvray), $50, 93 Points. (Buy on Wine.com)
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Last Updated: September 28, 2022