After centuries, the perfect note

Vouvray is one of the world’s most exceptional wine regions. Its ancient vineyards on the north bank of the Loire River near the city of Tours grow in a kind of limestone known locally as tuffeaux. Some of these vineyards date back to the sixth century, when monks tended the vines. Into the cliff-like bank of the river the locals have dug tunnels which penetrate deep into the tuffeaux. Trogglodytes once lived there, although the 80 to 90 per cent humidity probably didn’t do their lungs much good. Later, they used the tunnels to house their animals on winter nights, or to store stock feed and farm implements. Today, some of the wine companies such as Marc Bredif use the old tunnels and galleries to store their bottled wines at an ideal 12 degrees Celcius.

At Marc Bredif, the winemaker takes visitors to a round cave at the end of a tunnel to conduct the tasting. Thirty-five metres above this gallery, vineyards are growing. Occasionally they find old vine roots penetrating the chalk.

Up above on the plateau, the winemaker for Domaine Huet points out, are ancient walled vineyards called ‘clos’ where the chenin blanc vine produces its best wines. Clos du Bourg is Huet’s finest. Its six hectares of vines are cultivated biodynamically, as are all Huet’s vines. Nearby is another famous walled vineyard, Clos Baudoin, which has lately changed hands and is now part of the domaine of Francois Chidaine.

The great wines of Vouvray are only made from chenin blanc. In Australia and most other places, chenin blanc produces a pretty ordinary, rather neutral wine. It is one of the world’s most graphic demonstrations of terroir that in Vouvray – and across the river in Montlouis – the chenin blanc gives great wine. The vine, the soil and the mesoclimate come together to give perfection, like three notes of a chord.

Of course, the fourth component is the hand of man, and the experience accumulated over centuries of cultivating this vine in this land could be said to be the fourth note of the chord.

Chenin blanc is amazing here because it produces not just one wine but a whole array: sparkling and still wines of various degrees of sweetness and richness.

Sparkling Vouvray is big business: several brands are dedicated to bubbly (eg Chateau Moncontour); even at Bredif, which is famous for its still wines, 60 per cent of the production is sparkling. Sparkling Vouvray is mostly made in less-ripe seasons, and from earlier-picked grapes, usually grown on less-privileged sites, and ranges from inexpensive wines with short aging on yeast lees, to much finer wines which are marketed after a longer time on the lees – up to nine years at Domaine Huet; five for their regular vintage cuvee.

The still wines range from dry or ‘sec’ to half-dry or ‘demi-sec’, to sweet or ‘doux’, and finally the very rich, sweet wines which are often made from botrytis-affected grapes, called ‘moelleux’ or ‘liquoreux’. These are the pinnacle of Vouvray, and are among the greatest sweet whites in the world. They live a very long time. I’ve tasted great moelleux wines as old as 1947. On my latest visit Bredif opened a 1959 which was heavenly. The 1990 is also a great vintage, sublime to drink now, and promises to be just as long-lived.Francois Chidaine told me that when he took over the Clos Baudoin, the owner Prince Poniatowski opened an 1874 for him – the oldest Vouvray he’s tasted. [Philippe Poniatowski is descended from the last Polish king. He sold the Clos Baudoin vineyard to Chidaine in 2006.]

Generally, the drier wines don’t live as long as the sweet, but Christophe Pichot at Domaine Pichot opened a 1954 sec, from my birth year, which was remarkably good – not a great year but still drinking very well, although I like to think I have more years ahead of me than the wine.

At its best, old Vouvray has a gold to amber colour, a tremendously complex bouquet of honey, poached fruits, grilled nuts, vanilla and toasted bread, and the sweet wines have great richness and character in the mouth, the substantial sweetness balanced by high acidity and concentrated flavour. Vouvray moelleux is never sickly sweet, and is not sweet for the sake of sweetness. It is beautifully balanced, and often less-sweet than we might expect. Indeed, I would argue the most enjoyable style of Vouvray is the demi-sec, which goes with a very wide range of foods and occasions. It can suit rich foods such as foie gras, pates, charcuterie and country-style terrines, but also richly-sauced fish, chicken, buttery scallops and crustaceans, and also sweet foods – cakes, tarts and gently-sweet fruit-based desserts, even traditional tarte tatin.

The labeling of Vouvray can be a bit confusing. In a suitable vintage, a winery may produce generic Vouvray of various sweetness levels, and also (as with Chidaine and Huet) single-vineyard Vouvrays of sec, demi-sec, doux and even moelleux levels. This makes for fascinating comparisons if you’re lucky enough to have a comprehensive tasting.

At Pichot, Christophe Pichot has decided to completely re-invent his labeling, to simplify things. He will do it this year, after research conducted with women “because women are the buyers of most wine”.

There will be four wines with four labels and four sweetness levels. Each will have its own distinctive colour (did anyone mention Wolf Blass?). No more sec or demi-sec. The sec will be labeled Coteaux de la Biche, the demi-sec will be Peu de la Moriette, the moelleux will be Marigny, and the super-sweetie is Larmes de Bacchus.

This is unusual for Vouvray, though: I suspect other producers will stick with their multiplicity of vineyards and styles indefinitely. Each to his/her own. I for one would hate to see everyone abandon the individual bottling of small vineyard parcels. The complexity of wine can be confusing, but it is also part of its fascination.

All four producers I visited export to Australia: Marc Bredif is imported by Negociants Australia, Domaine Huet and Francois Chidaine are both imported by Bibendum; and Domaine Pichot by Vintage & Vine.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 21 January 2013


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