Wine 101: French Region Deep Dives: Vouvray

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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers dives into Vouvray, a unique French wine region where one grape takes on a multitude of forms. Wines from here are on our shelves so let’s get a nice breakdown of the Loire Valley region and its affinity with Chenin Blanc. Tune in for more.

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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and I’m trying to just wrap my mind around what it’s going to be like for my neighbors when they see me in the backyard, just wielding my lightsaber, just going through the forms on a Wednesday night.

What’s going on, wine lovers? From the VinePair Podcasting Network, this is “Wine 101.” My name is Keith Beavers and I am the tastings director of VinePair. And how are you doing?

We’re still in the Loire Valley, we’re going to go talk about a town called Vouvray, a grape called Chenin Blanc, and more of that tuffeau soil. This stuff is really cool. I don’t know, just the culture of it, everything, it’s… all right, let’s get into it.

Okay, here we are, still in the Loire — yeah, that rhymes, sorry — and we are talking about a town on the north bank of the Loire River called Vouvray. Last week, we talked about another little village on the south bank of the Loire called Saumur, and they’re about two towns apart from each other. Between them are a couple of awesome red wine appellations that we’ll talk about in the future: Chinon and a place called Bourgueil — I’m probably butchering that. But here is where we get to talk really about Chenin Blanc because Saumur is awesome. The reason why I wanted to do that, like I said in the last episode, is because Vouvray is so well known. And for good reason. Saumur is not as well known, but I wanted to do that first so Vouvray wouldn’t overshadow a smaller region. They’re both really awesome in their own right. But here I wanted to talk about Chenin Blanc because of the absolute, focused importance of this variety in this appellation. 5,000 acres of land under vine and pretty much all of that in Vouvray is Chenin Blanc.

It seems like Chenin Blanc showed up in the Loire Valley around the 15th-16th century and specifically in one of the castles there, Château Chenonceau. Oh my gosh, I’ve been to this castle. Oh my God, if you’re ever in Loire Valley just please check it out. It is massive and so cool. The caretakers of the grounds of this castle — there were vineyards there on the castle grounds, so this is where this grape pops up, but it wasn’t called Chenin Blanc at the time. It was called plant d’Anjou because it was a plant of this larger Anjou region. This grape makes its way to an abbey, because, of course, monks, and the name of the abbey is Mont Chenin, and they begin to propagate it because they’re monks and it’s a monastery, it’s not a private residence. This is where it is believed the name Chenin Blanc comes from; it was the white grape of the Abbey of Mont Chenin.

That’s fun, but what’s even more fun is the fact that this variety is one of those varieties that moved around for a while, and it has a parent-offspring relationship with some of those mother varieties I talked about in the first season: Chenin and Gouais Blanc. But also, it’s a sibling of Sauvignon Blanc and a grape called Trousseau. And what that Sauvignon Blanc makes, it makes it the uncle/aunt of Cabernet Sauvignon. I just thought I’d throw all that in there because this is what’s crazy about wine. These varieties start at some place, they were always traveling around — monks — and they would find their spiritual homes in certain places. Sancerre for Sauvignon Blanc, and then also Bordeaux, but Chenin Blanc is the Loire Valley in France.

And the town of Vouvray took this variety on and basically made it their entire wine industry. Whenever we talk about wine regions, especially in France, it’s just such a wild quilt. Every wine region has their challenges and they make beautiful stuff from it. I just find that really fascinating. From the crazy weather in Champagne to the chaotic soil in Burgundy to the Atlantic influence of Nantes for the Melon de Bourgogne, the Muscadet, everywhere they wanted to make wine and the weather and the climates and the soils were such as what they were, but they made something beautiful out of it. And that’s what happened in Vouvray. And it’s here in Vouvray that the French in this area consider this place to be where the Atlantic influence and the continental influence meet.

And because of this, the weather is crazy unpredictable. The Chenin Blanc grape, though, thrives here. And it is grown every year, and then depending on the weather, the winemakers make Chenin Blanc in a specific form. So what I’m trying to say here is this is a place that has one variety, and it comes in different forms of wine based on the climate or the annual weather patterns. I just find that fascinating. But what that does with Vouvray is it makes it a little bit confusing to understand what you’re looking at in a wine shop. So let’s get into it.

Chenin Blanc, sometimes known here as Pineau de la Loire, has been here for a long time. And before the monks were doing their thing here, the wine trade or the wine industry here was specifically for the Dutch wine trade, so it wasn’t a very focused wine region. It wasn’t until the monks, of course, came and maintained this area. And because of their focus and attention on wine, they came to understand that the soils here were that tuffeau, that creamy limestone-clay-based soil that we were talking about in Saumur. And the monks realized that Chenin Blanc was the move, if you will. And because of the work of the monasteries, in 1936 when France was creating its appellation system, Vouvray became an AOC. And because the monks were like, “Chenin Blanc is the move,” that became the primary variety of the AOC. So here, just like in Vouvray, the houses and the wine cellars are created out of this tuffeau rock.

And I have to say, my wife and I had the chance to tour some of these wine cellars and caves — this is years ago in Vouvray — and we visited a winemaker and we started going down into these caves and, I don’t know, I was a little scared. We were walking and walking and walking and walking. I’m like, they know what they’re doing, right? I mean, I was seeing marks and stuff on the walls and hoping that was how they… I don’t know, but it was fascinating stuff. And yes, at some point when we’re sitting there tasting wine, deep, deep, deep into this hill in Vouvray, in this wine cellar, I looked up and there’s roots hanging down from the soil, and he’s like, “there’s a vineyard up there.” Blew my mind! And this is what’s really interesting.

One of the many interesting things about Vouvray is that it’s one of the last harvests in France, which is in November, and because of the crazy weather and because the growers are at the mercy of the weather, sometimes there are several passes through vineyards to pick certain grapes for certain styles of wine, if they can make it happen. And the majority, well, all these wines are pretty much raised in stainless steel.

It’s interesting, I was reading in the “Oxford Wine Companion” that Jedi Wine Master Jancis Robinson says that the cooperage industry is not very popular here in Vouvray because Chenin Blanc is defined by its high natural acidity. It’s a very unique variety in that it shows extremely bracing acidity while being able to still have a good body of fruit. And sometimes, this thing called noble rot, which I’ve mentioned before, Botrytis cinerea, infects the grapes. And this is when they make sweet wine out of Chenin Blanc. But because of that high, high acid, these wines age forever. So the way Vouvray works out, on our market when we’re looking at it, is it’s defined by the perception of acidity in the wine. In that, if it’s not as perceived, it’s going to be a little bit sweet.

So, this is how it breaks down: In French the word sec, S-E-C means dry. And this is how it shakes out for Chenin Blanc is that you’ll have sec, which is dry Chenin Blanc, not a lot of residual sugar, very high acid. Then you have demi-sec, which is medium-dry. Then you have something called moelleux, which means medium sweet. Moelleux is a reference to marrow or mellow. And then you have doux, D-O-U-X, which means sweet. Now, this is the capper: These categories may or may not be on the label and they may not be strictly defined on the label. This is a region that feels like with the weather being the way it is, there was never really — I don’t think anybody wanted to kind of hammer down a sharp category.

Yes, these categories are here, but it’s more about enjoying Chenin Blanc in different forms from Vouvray and going to wine shops and saying, “I would like a demi-sec, I would like moelleux, a doux, a sec” or something like that, and that kind of will help you out. Now, sometimes, on the larger production, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, larger-production Vouvrays, they’ll have this on there, but this also is the same with their sparkling wine. Sparkling wine from Chenin Blanc is just damn stunning. It’s just stunning. It’s beautiful, bracing, crazy, awesome wine. And it sometimes has a little… It’s so cool. But as I said in the pét-nat episode, pétillant naturel, this is also pretty much, not the birthplace of pét-nat, but it’s one of the early recognized areas of what we call today pét-nat.

And again, here with the sparkling wines of Vouvray — I mean first of all, just like in Saumur, this is an ideal aging environment for sparkling wine. And because of the tradition there, the wine has been made in a couple of different styles. You have the pétillant naturel style, or you have the full sparkling wine style and they call it pétillant naturel in Vouvray, and they call their full sparkling wines mousseux. But the thing is, just like with the sec, demi-sec categories, you may not see that on the label either. So in Vouvray itself, you could be ordering a bottle of sparkling wine – in Vouvray, at a restaurant – and what comes to you could be a pétillant naturel, or it could be a full sparkling wine because they call it the same thing. The locals refer to sparkling wine as fines bulles — fine bubbles.

So whether it’s mousseux or pétillant naturel, they just want some sparkling wine, you know what I’m saying? So I’m giving you all this information because of the loosey goosiness of this AOC. It’s like you’re going to a wine shop, you want to try some Vouvray, you’re going to look and you’re going to say, “Oh my gosh, what is all this stuff?” If it’s a dry white wine from Vouvray, and it says sec on it, that’s really the only rule they have there in that a wine has to be called sec if it’s less than 8 grams of sugar. But other than that, it’s just kind of whatever, man. So it does require talking to the wine merchant about what’s available. You might see demi-sec, doux, you might see a word liquoreux, which means liquor-like, and what I find just so fascinating about this wine region and what you will too is you’re going to be trying Vouvray and you’re going to be getting into it.

And you’re going to form preferences within the different forms of wine being made in one region by one grape. That’s amazing. That’s why wine is just so mind-boggling, that this variety has such high acid, which would make it mostly a great wine for base wine for a sparkling wine, obviously. But with that botrytis situation, because of the climate being so crazy, because of the convergence of the climates, these Atlantic and continental climates, you get this botrytis, and then it takes on a whole different form. I don’t know. It’s really great. So that’s a little info on Vouvray and it’s a wild one, isn’t it? It’s like the rules are there, but they’re not there. And then you can really enjoy these wines. You might be a little bit confused, but don’t really worry about it because the wine’s really great. Yeah, that works out. I like that. I’ll see you guys next week.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.