Interpreting Chenin Blanc
BY REBECCA GIBB MW | MARCH 25, 2021
Chenin is one of the most versatile grape varieties making every shade of white; its personality oscillating pendulum-like depending on its site and its winemaker’s intention. From still to sparkling, dry to sweet and everything in between, the range of options available to the Chenin producer is more dizzying than a carousel. Admittedly, there is a growing thirst for drier styles, and the resulting cutback on sweetness shines a spotlight on terroir. However, with an array of soil types in the two main areas specializing in Chenin – Anjou and Touraine – nature provides many idiosyncratic expressions. Add the diversity of human personality to the mix and it’s clear that Chenin has many interpretations. For the average consumer this can make buying a bottle of Loire Chenin fraught with danger, but for the curious winelover this single variety provides layers of intrigue.
Let’s Talk About Secs
It’s clear that the current generation of winemakers nearing retirement age have witnessed a major shift in both the region’s climate and global taste preferences since taking over from their parents in the 1980s. Relatively few want to drink sweeter styles of wine compared to 30 or 40 years ago and the drying of Loire Valley whites is incontestable. “Sec sells,” says Richard Kelley MW, a UK-based agent for many Loire producers, and local producers back up his assertion. It’s not just the emergence of sec styles (under 4g/L R/S although the sec category allows up to 9g/L if the acid is sufficiently high) but demi-secs (12g/L or up to 18g/L if the acid allows) have become drier and the unofficial sec tendre category has established as a middle ground between sec and demi-sec. The market has made its taste preferences clear and there has been a proliferation of dry offerings across the valley since the turn of the century, picking up pace in the past decade.
Changing tastes have coincided with global warming, which has facilitated this move to drier styles. Speak to any producer in the Loire Valley and the topic of earlier harvests and their consequence on wine styles is sure to crop up. A climate study of the Loire between 1960 and 2010 found that average growing season temperatures near Tours, had increased by 1.7˚C . With higher maximum temperatures, harvest now takes place 16 days earlier compared with the 1960s and most of that change has come about since the late 1980s. Real-life experience suggests that changes have been even greater. Following the untimely passing of his father François in late January, 35-year old Julien Pinon has become the eighth generation to manage the family domaine since its establishment in 1786. Records show that the first six generations of vignerons would harvest the grapes from their estate in Vouvray between October 15 and November 15; it’s now at least a month earlier. In 2020, harvest began at the beginning of September.
The impact of increased warmth, more sun and less water is riper grapes with higher sugars. That means more alcohol, lower acidity and higher pH in wines, so a greater likelihood that malolactic fermentation will occur spontaneously, all of which result in today’s modern style of Chenin Blanc. Contemporary, almost sumptuous expressions that hit the 14% alcohol mark might not be what traditional Chenin lovers crave. However, the rounder, riper styles and the diminution of eyewatering acidity levels don’t cry out for residual sugar to provide balance or mask any green characters, nor do the wines require a decade in bottle to become approachable.
Thus far, Vouvray and the wider Loire Valley have generally benefitted from warming temperatures. Chenin Blanc, a late ripener, has fared better than earlier ripeners; but still, the thermostat does not need turning up further. The past three vintages, 2018, 2019 and 2020, which are currently adorning the shelves, show a warm expression of the Loire. The 2018s – an abundant vintage compared with the frosted 2016 and 2017 – offer plenty of warmth and ripe, approachable wines from the get-go. The general standard is good, but the wines often lack the classic vivacity that I look for in Loire Chenin. Meanwhile, 2019 is a smaller crop, particularly for those in Savennières, which was severely affected by frost. I spent two weeks holidaying in the Loire in late summer 2019. There was barely a river to speak of, such was the lack of rain. Despite the dry and warm conditions, which led to some hydric stress, the resulting wines have retained a surprising amount of freshness, offering energy as well as intensity, and it’s an impressive vintage. Another dry, warm season followed in 2020, with an early start and finish - many producers reported it was their earliest harvest on record. The continued lack of water meant yields were low. While there are some very early releases emerging, I will write more fully about the season and its wines later this year.
Chenin is a thick-skinned variety, which can be both a blessing and a curse. It needs to be handled carefully to avoid excessive bitterness and tannin, particularly if there’s no residual sugar to camouflage any rough edges. However, when carefully made, the variety’s naturally phenolic character yields wines of texture and drive, conducting a structural interplay with its spine of acidity. When planted on schist, that hint of innate bitterness is heightened and becomes a distinctive and characterful trait, creating a real sense of purpose and sinew. Savennières producer Thibaud Boudignon describes the desirable bitter sensation as being akin to tonic rather than artichoke.
A Focus on Savennières
Defining Chenin Blanc in Savennières is not so easy as it seems. It is a dry white wine made from a single grape variety, although it hasn’t always been this way – once a sweet wine, Chenin here has been through several makeovers since then, now finding itself in a dry but diverse array of styles. The chaotic geology of the appellation can make your head spin: schist, sandstone and sand are joined by soil-types only geologists and Savennières makers are familiar with: heard of phtanite, rhyolite, spilite, anybody? While the different soil-types bring their own character, from the more tender sand-dominant top-soils to the austerity of schist, another layer of complication comes from the dizzying array of interpretations of winemakers.
There are producers like Château d’Épiré that define themselves a “traditional Savennières” producer. The have been making wine here since 1892 in a twelfth century church. But what does “traditional Savennières” really mean? Paul Bizard is the fifth generation at Épiré. In 1952, when Bizard’s grandparents were in charge at the inception of the Savennières AC, the winery was better known as a sweet or demi-sec producer. That’s not unsurprising seeing as it’s just a short drive from the famed sweet wine enclaves of Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. In more recent times, traditional means a malic-driven, linear style that focuses on tension requiring a real love for acidity - as well as patience for the wine to settle. In contrast, there are many broad-shouldered, full-malo, oak-aged wines that have one foot stylistically in Burgundy and there’s everything else in between. As a result, it’s not unfair to say that the hand of the winemaker can be as evident as the terroir.
One of the defining features of the Savennières landscape is its wide-scale adoption of organic practices: 28 of the appellation’s 38 producers (74%) are now organic compared with a Loire-wide average of 26%. In terms of total vineyard area, 66% of the vineyard land is farmed organically versus 16% region-wide. In the Roche aux Moines and Coulée de Serrant vineyards, which became appellations in their own right in 2011 and 2015, respectively, organic viticulture is compulsory. Typically, yields are low across the appellation: while the laws states a maximum of 50hl/ha, you are more likely to find vines cropping at 35hl/ha or lower. The resulting concentration in the wines cannot be denied. The move to more natural methods in the winery has inevitably followed, whether that’s spontaneous fermentations, the use of large barrels such as foudres and even the occasional amphora, or a reduction in sulfur levels.
There are high expectations when buying a bottle of Savennières and in many instances they are fulfilled - and occasionally surpassed. A core of passionate winemakers have been responsible for elevating the appellation in the past 30 years and making it the envy of nearby Anjou producers, who have sought to acquire a hectare or two in Savennières as a jewel in their portfolio. That said, it’s not all superlative and, as always, it pays to know your producer and their style. I have included in this report all the key producers’ latest releases in the appellation (with the exception of Eric Morgat who asked that his wines be tasted in situ. When we can travel I will update the notes).
A View on Vouvray
In a world full of good and great wines, there has to be a compelling reason to spend your hard-earned money on a particular bottle of wine and particular appellation. Beyond a dozen or so producers in Vouvray, that compelling reason is all too often lacking. I am not reinventing the wheel; in 1848, a study of the area’s terroir showed that most of the land wasn’t considered up to much: 7% of the vineyards were classified as first class, 7% as second class and the remaining 86% were ranked as "very ordinary.” Inevitably, I tasted some disappointing wines but the appellation’s top domaines’ offerings, demonstrate clearly that when Vouvray is good it’s very very good (as well as being an excellent value compared with a Chardonnay-producing region some 250 miles to the east.)
Sparkling wines represent 60% of Vouvray production but nine out of 10 bottles are sold in France, so we don’t see a lot of it and perhaps that’s no bad thing: there’s a great deal of very ordinary sparkling wine produced, destined for French grocery stores. The local laws require a minimum of 12 months on the lees but that period is frankly too short to imbue autolytic characters. The more serious sparkling wines in the appellation sit around the three-year mark before disgorgement. In contrast with the sparkling market, two out of three bottles of still Vouvray are exported. Long known for almost-trademark demi-secs, the best examples clearly demonstrate how compelling this expression of Vouvray can be but for every great example, there’s a slew of medium-dry, innocuous Chenin Blancs that have little substance beneath the residual sugar.
It pays to be choosy in Vouvray - and you can afford to be, so well-priced are the appellation’s finest wines. In the early 2000s, there emerged a new generation of producers, including Sébastian Brunet, Vincent Carême and Damien Pinon. They implemented organic viticulture and embraced wild fermentations, returned to larger-format barrels, adopted low-sulfur regimens and ushered in what seemed like a revolutionary move with the creation of pétillant naturels in a sea of traditional method sparklers. There is also yet another wave of rising young talents, such as Florent Cosme and Florian Le Capitaine. Both come from local wine-producing families but have decided to do their own thing and, following in the footsteps of the last young guns, they too have adopted organic viticulture and low-intervention wine production. The appellation recently outlawed chemical herbicides, and even more the conservative vignerons are coming around to the adoption of organic viticulture – a bit later than most, perhaps due to the appellation’s structure: large négociants from outside the appellation have long bought Vouvray fruit but were not particularly demanding about its environmental credentials. They are a little late to the party, but there is change in the Touraine air. Le Capitaine, aged 29, said: “Vouvray is a little bit sleepy and there’s not been much evolution. It’s said that it isn’t the appellation that makes the vigneron but the vignerons that make the appellation. The problem is that producers still want to make sparkling wines for the supermarkets. But I say, 'Long live still wines!'”
Instead of sucrosity, perhaps it’s time to focus more closely on what lies beneath the undulating landscape of the Vouvray AOC. Locals seem to think so: the appellation is funding a three-year study, digging deeper into its understanding of its sites. Researchers from the Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin (IFV) will be digging pits across the appellation, using weather data and producers’ insights to analyze and better understand Vouvray’s terroirs with a view to fulfilling the vineyards’ potential and adapt their cultivation accordingly. What we currently know is that it sits on the Paris Basin, a huge expanse of sedimentary rock. The yellowish limestone, known as tuffeau, is perfect for crafting both cool wine cellars and wines of finesse. On the so-called premières côtes, which plays host to some of the finest wines, a thin layer of clay-flint (argile-silex) provides relatively easy access to the limestone whereas the deeper, clay soils of the plateau are cooler, damper and later-ripening, often providing lower-alcohol sparkling wine bases. Typically, wines produced from clay-dominant sites are round, open and easy on the palate; limestone offers elegantly structured Chenin Blancs with chalky finesse; and flint imbues power and precision. In the past, the finest vineyards were those that were oriented southwards, or a variation on south, but perhaps with this new map and the influence of climate change, there are opportunities to be explored elsewhere. The future may yet hand us another interpretation of Chenin.
I had optimistically planned to travel to the Loire in late January 2021, but the ongoing global pandemic changed that. Instead, all wines were tasted in late February and early March at my home in the north east of England, with many Zoom meetings with winemakers. While there were a few producers who were not able to submit their wines in time for this article, we will update the database as soon as I am able to taste the wines.
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