Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley—the Rodney Dangerfield of wines
Versatility is a special thing in the wine world. Very few grape varietals are versatile enough to produce age-worthy wines, world-class sweet wines, exceptional dry wines, and delectable sparkling wine. Chenin Blanc from the Loire hits all of these benchmarks; yet, it gets NO RESPECT.
In fact, Loire wines, as a whole, are underrated outside of France. Yes, there are exceptions to that statement, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumè in particular (which are both based on Sauvignon Blanc). However, white wine appellations that specialize in Chenin Blanc (e.g., Anjou, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume, Saumur, Savennières, Vouvray, and Crémant de Loire) still take up little room on wine shelves and wine lists. We, for one, hope that changes. But in the interim, you, the savvy Teakwood Tavern reader, will benefit from knowing that there are remarkable Chenin Blanc wines from Loire whose quality far surpass their price.
Chenin Blanc, or Chenin for short, has been growing in the Loire for over a thousand years. The first recorded mention was in 845 at the Abbey of Glanfeuil. In Loire, it also goes by the names of Plant d’ Anjou, Pineau, or Pineau de la Loire.
Despite Chenin’s history, it was severely abandoned in the 1970’s. During that period, a third of all Chenin vines in France were replaced with other varietals. Most of those vines were located in the middle of Loire. For example, in Anjou-Saumur and Touraine, two large regions discussed below, Cabernet Franc replaced many Chenin vines. Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc did the same in Touraine.
Thanks to DNA testing, we now know that Chenin is related to a broad range of grape varieties including Savagnin, Sauvignon Blanc, Trousseau, Colombard, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Chenin is praised for its high acidity, generally falling between medium-plus and high acidity. That is one of the reasons why it produces quality sweet and sparkling wines.
Chenins from Loire take on various flavors and aromas. Interestingly, a honeyed flavor is often present in both sweet and dry wines, and that can often make a dry Chenin come across as off-dry despite the residual sugar not reaching an off-dry level. Other flavors and aromas include green apple, quince, pear, honeysuckle, chamomile, peach, apricot, citrus peel, pineapple, and ginger. Botrytized Chenin loses the green apple and gravitates towards more tropical fruits and peach marmalade.
Chenin is also prone to noble rot, which the fungus Botrytis cinerea causes. While this might not sound pleasant for drinking purposes, it is used in the production of some of the greatest sweet wines including Tokaj and Sauternes. In the future, we will tackle a post on botrytized wines, but suffice to say that when the conditions are right for noble rot, spectacular wines can be achieved. A few of which we will discuss below.
The Loire Valley
The Loire Valley owes its name to the Loire River, which is France’s longest at 629 miles. The Loire is generally grouped into four subregions. Starting from the Atlantic Ocean and moving east, they are Nantais, Anjou-Saumur, Touraine, and Central Vineyards. These subregions are not wine appellations, but they are referenced in most wine books and can be helpful when learning the actual wine appellations discussed below.
Overall, the climate of Loire is cool. Anjou is the northern limit for French viticulture, and grapes here won’t always ripen completely. Other appellations, like Saumur and Vouvray, have a bustling sparkling wine industry, which is beneficial in difficult years due to the ability to blend wines from different vintages. Additionally, Nantais, Anjou-Saumur, and Touraine all have cool maritime climates due to proximity to the Atlantic. Only the Central Vineyards have a continental climate.
While the cool climate is beneficial for retaining acidity, it can also bring about hazards. Frost, hail, and fungal disease are all risks for winegrowers in Loire. In 1991, spring frost destroyed up to 90% of the crop in some of parts of Loire. Fungal disease is linked to high levels of rainfall during the growing season, which is often the case for maritime climates.
Anjou-Saumur & Touraine
According to Oz Clarke, “The reason Chenin Blanc can be regarded as a classic white grape variety—indeed, one of the world’s finest—is one small region of France. Anjou-Touraine, where the vineyards center on the river Loire and its tributaries is the source of classic Chenin.” For the rest of this post, we will focus on the best appellations found within the Anjour-Saumur and Touraine part of the Loire that Mr. Clarke referenced.
If you wanted a cheat sheet listing the appellations worth seeking out, well, here you go: Anjou, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume, Saumur, Savennières, Vouvray, Montlouis, and Crémant de Loire. But why stop there? Let’s dig deeper beginning with Anjou-Saumur, which is really two neighboring regions, Anjou and Saumur.
Anjou and Saumer are neighbors with Anjou being further west. Because of its closer proximity to the Atlantic than Saumur, logically, it would have a cooler and wetter climate. Yet, it is slightly warmer and drier than Saumur because the Mauges hills protect Anjou from some of the ocean effect.
While there are similarities between the soil of Anjou, Saumur, and Tourine, the soil of each large region has its own nuances. For instance, Anjou’s soil is comprised of schist, slate, clay, and limestone, which is different than the regions we discuss below. And within Anjou are appellations that have their own unique soil structure.
The most important appellations within Anjou are Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaus, and Savennières appellations. The first three are renowned for botrytized Chenin and the last is the gold standard for dry Chenin.
Coteaux du Layon is a broad appellation located in the valley of the River Layon. The River Layon provides morning mist, which encourages noble rot. Within Coteaux du Layon are two appellations that rank among the greatest sweet wines of the world—Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Quarts de Chaume is Loire’s only official Grand Cru, and it only produces wines in the best vintages. Quarts de Chaume’s soil is comprised of brown schist and carboniferous soils.
Savennières holds a special place in Chenin lore because it is home to the best dry expressions of the grape. Because of this esteem, Savennières has been vying to become Loire’s second Grand Cru for some time now. Savennières is located on a steep south-facing slope on the bank of the Loire River. The soil here is schist and sandstone. The vast majority of Savennières wines are produced in a dry style, but some off-dry (sec tendre) wines are produced as well. Savennières wines are praised for their dense, concentrated, and rich style. They are generally medium to full-body wines that are incredibly age worthy. According to experts like Oz Clarke, quality Savennières reaches its peak around the ten-year mark but continues to last for many years after that.
While Saumur has many of the same attributes as Anjou, one difference is in the soil. Saumur is known for its soft, white tuffeau, which is extraordinarily fine limestone formed from 90 million-year-old marine sediments. This white tuffeau is very porous. In Saumur, there are many underground cellars that were carved from the truffeau.
Saumur produces a lot of sparkling wine. The limestone soil help the grapes achieve the bright acidity needed to make quality sparkling wines. Saumur Brut is produced in the traditional method (i.e., Méthode Champenoise), and the white versions are predominately made from Chenin. But we would recommend seeking out Crémant de Loire instead. Technically, grapes destined for Crémant de Loire can be grown in Anjou, Saumur, and Touraine; however, the majority of the grapes are from Saumur. Crémant de Loire is considered a superior wine to Saumur Brut because of stricter production rules such as lower yields, hand harvested, at least a year in bottle on the lees. Crémant de Loire wines are primarily comprised of Chenin but a few other Loire varietals are permitted.
Touraine is known as “the garden of France,” and Loire’s most famous château country. Touraine is the eastern neighbor to Saumur.
We are BIG fans of the red wines of Touraine, especially those of Chinon, Bourgueil, St-Nicolas-de-Bourguil. But those red wines, along with Saumur-Champigny from Saumur, will be addressed in a future post.
Touraine’s climate is cool but the eastern vineyards are warmer than the western vineyards, which are tempered by the Atlantic influence.
I hope you are ready for this . . . now comes a twist: Touraine AOC white wines must be made substantially from Sauvignon Blanc.
Wait, what? Isn’t this a post about Chenin Blanc?
Confusing. I agree. Here’s the deal. If you pick up a bottle that says Touraine AOC, then you should expect it to be Sauvignon Blanc. But within Touraine are the two appellations that specialize in Chenin Blanc. In fact, the most important individual white wine appellation in the Touraine district is Vouvray, which is only Chenin Blanc. The other important Chenin appellation within Touraine is Montlouis.
The appellation of Vouvray was created in 1936. Vouvray produces more Chenin Blanc than any other appellation in France. Unlike Savennières, Vouvray wines come in all sweetness levels: dry (sec); off-dry (sec-tendre); medium-dry (demi-sec); or sweet (moelleux). Regardless of the sweetness level, all of these wines are age worthy. Vouvray’s soil is soft tuffeau along the riverbanks with a thin layer of clay overlaying the tuffeau on the cliffs staring down on the Loire River. The best vineyard sites are found on these cliffs. Because of Vouvray’s location in the middle of Touraine, it has a blend of Atlantic and continental influences. This leads to an enormous disparity in weather from year to year. The result of that varying weather is that ripeness of grapes varies from year to year as well. It is not uncommon for Vouvray’s harvest to be one of France’s last so that grapes may reach desired ripeness levels.
Across the river from Vouvray is Montlouis. This appellation has really picked up momentum in the past thirty years and the best wines are comparable to those in Vouvray. These aren’t easy to find in Texas, but if you have better luck than us, they can be a great bargain to the name brand of Vouvray.
While both Vouvray and Montlouis produce still and sparkling wine, almost 2/3 of all wine is sparkling. This makes sense since there is less risk in difficult years when the grapes aren’t ripening well. Also, the sparkling wines are permitted a higher yield than those destined for still wines. Lastly, there’s a great demand for sparkling Vouvray and Montlouis because of the high quality to low price and their ability to age.
Winemaking in Anjou-Saumur & Touraine
One of the main considerations for winemakers in Anjou-Saumur and Touraine is how to deal with the cool climate and Chenin Blanc’s inherent ability to ripen unevenly.
To combat the cool climate, the best vineyards are usually those that experience the most sunshine and warmth. In Loire, like most other cool climate regions, those vineyards have a southerly aspect, are located mid-slope, and face the river (which provides extra heat and reflected light).
To combat Chenin’s uneven ripening, farmers must make successive selected pickings, or tries. In late autumn, pickers must be sent through the vineyards picking individual grapes, and some whole clusters, at the desired level of ripeness. This process lasts anywhere from a month to six weeks to complete.
As you’ve likely gathered, Loire takes its sparkling wine production seriously. Behind only Champagne, Loire is France’s second biggest producer of sparkling wine. Sparkling whites from Chenin make up a large percentage of those sparkling wines, but sparkling rose is also a big part of the industry.
Because winemakers want to retain Chenin’s naturally high acidity and its aromas, they often skip processes that would eliminate or lessen those attributes and instead use techniques that let those attributes shine. Malolactic fermentation, which converts malic acid to lactic acid the result of which is a softer acid in the wine, is generally avoided. Further, winemakers prefer inert containers like stainless steel, cement, and old wood because they won’t overtake the grapes natural aromatics. Also, winemakers use bâtonnage (lees stirring) to add weight and a creamier mouth feel.
Chenin Blanc is incredibly versatile but you will need to take sweetness into account. Dry, still Chenin is great as an aperitif or with salads, seafood, and poultry. Medium-sweet Chenin can match the weight of richer foods like pâté or cream dishes and the acidity helps cleanse the palate. Sweet Chenin wines are wonderful with fruit tarts, foie gras, and blue cheese. Sparkling Chenin is an incredibly versatile wine, but you still need to watch sweetness levels when pairing food.
Wines we tried for educational purposes . . .
Domaine D’Orfeuilles, Vouvray Brut, $23
This 100% Chenin Blanc sparkling wine boasted flavors and aromas of yeast, brioche, green apple, peach, pear, flint, honey, elderflower, and dill. The acidity was high and the alcohol was medium (12.5% ABV). The mousse was medium, which contributed to the medium body. The flavor held on for a medium finish. Overall, a delightful $23 sparkling wine that would turn heads for its uniqueness at that price point.
Chateau de Brézé, Clos de Midi, Saumur 2018, $20
This dry Saumur wine showcased flavors and aromas of pineapple, honey, honeysuckle, wet stones, banana, nectarine, and green bell pepper. The acidity was medium-plus and the alcohol came in at 13.5% ABV. This wine was medium body with a medium-minus finish.
Alexandre Monmousseau, Clos Le Vigneau, Vouvray, 2016, $35
The wine was an incredible example of how a dry wine can be perceived as an off-dry wine simply because of its aromatics. This wine screamed honey, honeydew, and honeysuckle. But it is a dry wine. That’s Chenin’s charm. The wine also brought flavors and aromas of flint, lime, apricot, passion fruit, and orange peel. Acidity was medium-plus and the alcohol was tied for the lowest of the group at 12.5% ABV. The is a well-crafted wine that left a pleasant medium length finish.
Château d’Épiré, Savennières, 2017, $25
This gem bursted with aromas and flavors of pear, green apple, mint, jasmine, wet wool, wet stones, honeysuckle, apricot, and grapefruit. The acidity was medium-plus. As expected from a quality Savennières, it was a dry wine. Alcohol was at 13% ABV and the body was medium. The finish was delightfully elongated. This wine was powerful, nuanced, and incredibly well balanced.
Domaine Des Baumard, Quarts de Chaume, 2009, 375ml, $45
We wanted to include a sweet wine in this panel so we decided to bring in a wine from Loire’s only Grand Cru, Quarts de Chaume. We were fortunate to find a 2009 vintage from the legendary Domaine des Baumard. This wine did not disappoint. Intense flavors and aromas of apricot, marmalade, honey, dried banana, caramel, dried mango, chamomile, elderflower, eucalyptus, and baked pear sprung from the glass. The wine was indeed sweet, but the medium-plus acidity cut through the richness of this full body wine. The finish was insanely long. Yes, please.
This post has gone on WAY too long. I know. I couldn’t help myself. And that's after already cutting so much I wanted to talk about. I’ll have to find a creative way to come back to this topic again. Maybe when we discuss biodynamic viticulture since France’s first biodynamic vineyards were in Touraine in 1962. I’ll also come back to Chenin from South Africa since there are almost twice as much Chenin plantings in South Africa as France.
But for now, this will have to do. I hope you learned a lot about the versatile Chenin Blanc and the Loire Valley.
I've long been a fan of both the white and red wines of Loire, but this region took on another layer of sentiment when Shenandoah and I decided to honeymoon there this year. COVID stopped that plan. But COVID can’t stop me from learning more about this enchanting part of France and its phenomenal wines. We will make it there soon, and hopefully you will too now that you’ve read this post.
Sending respectful and versatile love,