Loire (II): Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc is one of the world's greatest white grape varieties, but there are only two areas that specialise in it: South Africa and the Loire Valley. In South Africa, it's often cheap and off-dry, although there are some select producers who produce quality examples. It's in the Loire that it excels, with world-class dry and sweet wines being made from the grape as well as more variable sparkling wine. There's a growing focus on dry wine, which is increasing in quality, but the less fashionable sweet wines still rank among the world's best.
the grape variety
Chenin Blanc is naturally high in acidity, which is accentuated by the cool climate of the Loire. This acidity used to be so searingly high that it took decades for the best wines to open up and be drinkable. The warmer climate and better vineyard practices have tamed the acidity a little and the riper grapes make the wines more approachable when young. Chenin Blanc, particularly in the Loire, is not an especially fruity wine, but it's much more aromatic than, for example, Chardonnay. In the Loire, there are citrus and stone fruit aromas, with tropical aromas in the sweet wines, with an unusual nutty toastiness especially as the wines age.
There are dozens of appellations in the Loire which specialise in Chenin Blanc, many of them too small to be found outside the region. Here are some highlights, by no means exhaustive, from my trip through the Loire:
Anjou is home to some of the great Chenin Blanc appellations, but some excellent white wine is made under the Anjou appellation itself. Unfortunately, Anjou has fallen from fashion because of too much cheap wine (especially rosé), but there's a renewed effort among winemakers to increase the quality of the dry whites. A good example is Château Soucherie who make very good sweet wine, but who are now focusing more on dry wine. Their Blanc Ivoire 2016 (✪✪✪✪; €13) is great for the price, with a rich creamy texture, crisp acidity, and pear, stone fruit, floral, and spicy aromas. Clau de Nell are just starting to make wine from Chenin Blanc, having previously only made red wine. 2014 saw their first Chenin Blanc; I tasted the 2016 from the barrel and the bottled 2015 (✪✪✪✪✪). Again, the wine was creamy and rich with stone fruit aromas, and it could have been mistaken for a high-quality Chardonnay but with high acidity and a dry mineral texture. This wine isn't actually under the Anjou appellation because the vines were planted 100 x 91cm instead of the minimum 100 x 100cm. As winemaker Sylvain Potin said, "Rules are great except when they don't work." Instead, the wine is under the Val de Loire IGP.
Lying north of the Loire river, the south-facing slopes of Savennières soak up the sunshine resulting in rich wines that nevertheless maintain high acidity from the grape variety and the cool nights. The wines of Savennières used to be notoriously difficult, perhaps because it used to be more difficult to get the grapes fully ripe, but now they are more approachable when young - though they still benefit from many years ageing. Domaine du Closel, a picture-postcard property in the heart of the village, have been run by female members of the family for several generations. They make three single-vineyard expressions of Savennières. La Jalousie 2014 (✪✪✪✪✪; €24) is mouth-wateringly acidic with a mineral texture typical of Savennières. Les Cailladières 2013 (✪✪✪✪✪; €30), made from thirty-year-old vines, is creamier, richer, and rounder with herbal, thorny aromas. Le Clos du Papillon 2015 (✪✪✪✪✪; €37), from volcanic soils and fifty-year-old vines, is a smoky, meaty wine that manages to be rich and austere at the same time.
Further down the road resides Coulée de Serrant, the luxurious but old-fashioned property of Nicholas Joly, one of the pioneers of biodynamic winemaking (I've never visited a region where biodynamics is practised so widely). He's such a signficant figure that the winery has its own appellation, Coulée de Serrant AOC, which sits on a steep, sun-baked slope. I got to try the 2007 (✪✪✪✪✪; €90), which was more balanced and approachable than the younger wines, but retaining its acidity and still rich and spicy, with stone and tropical fruit aromas. The wine, made in the cool Loire Valley, came in at 15.5%.
Coteaux du Layon
South of the Loire river, all wine made in Coteaux du Layon is sweet - more vines from the appellation are now being used for dry Anjou Blanc. Coteaux du Layon wines are good but not that exciting, usually made from a mixture of late-harvest and botrytised grapes. Where the wines really come into their own is in the small appellations of Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Quarts de Chaume lies on a hill overlooking the small, narrow Layon river which provides the fog in the autumn mornings to cause the grapes to be affected with noble rot. This is the only appellation in the Loire to use the Burgundian Premier and Grand Cru terms. The Premier Cru grapes are grown on the plateau at the top of the hill, with the Grand Cru grapes lower down on the slope near the river. 2011 was apparently a perfect year for botrytis and I was fortunate enough to taste Château Soucherie's Premier Cru from that year (✪✪✪✪✪✪✪). With 180g/L of residual sugar, this is a rich, sweet wine but the acidity lifts the wine and stops it being too heavy. This is a beautiful, complex, layered wine that still has a rich, fruity immediacy: as good as sweet wine gets.
Moving into the Touraine section of the Loire Valley, the majority of wine made in Chinon is red, from Cabernet Franc (more on that in the next blog). I didn't even know that white wine was made there, but I got to taste a rare example. Château de Coulaine Chinon Blanc 2014 (✪✪✪✪✪; €20) was rich and creamy, with a grainy, mineral texture and stone and tropical fruit aromas (most noticeably banana). Again, a wine that could be mistaken for Chardonnay.
I had been looking forward greatly to visiting Vouvray, but the small village itself was something of a disappointment. The highlight of the area was in fact a wine from neighbouring Montlouis-sur-Loire. This was a sparkling wine made by a young producer called Xavier Weisskopf (who also makes a fantastic Malbec), under the Domaine Le Rocher des Violettes label (✪✪✪✪; €20). Sparkling wine in the Loire can vary in quality, but this one had a rewarding apple fruitiness, high, refreshing acidity, and balanced autolytic aromas. Unlike in Champagne, the second fermentation had started with indigenous yeasts - yet another example of the hands-off approach to winemaking by Loire producers.
The advantage of the Loire is also its disadvantage: there are so many styles of wine to choose from which will enthrall the wine lover but perhaps confuse the everyday drinker. Chenin Blanc exemplifies this aspect of Loire wine - it can be dry, sweet, or sparkling, and changes subtly according to the area and the producer. But these food-friendly, ageworthy wines at their best stand up against any white wine from elsewhere in the world.