Savennières and Vouvray: Two Tastes of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc

A tale of two Chenins . . .

Thanks to Jill from L’occasion, the French Winophiles are headed to the Loire Valley this weekend. (Check out her invitation post here.) It’s a place offering a stunning array of wines, from bone-dry Muscadet on the Atlantic coast, to lusciously sweet Quarts de Chaume further inland. It’s also home to the famed Sauvignon Blanc of Sancerre and the tangy Cabernet Francs of Chinon. Did I mention there are sparkling wines, too?

The Loire Valley offers an embarrassment of riches to wine lovers, whatever their preferred style happens to be. And that’s what we’ll be chatting about this Saturday, August 15th, at 11 am ET, if you’d care to join us. We’ll share tasting notes, food pairing ideas, and personal travel tales from the Before Time. Don’t we all need a dose of that about now?

Look for us on Twitter following the hashtag Winophiles. Tell us about your favorite Loire Valley wines and, by all means, please post pics of the dishes you like to serve with them. Just remember to add #Winophiles to your tweets so they’ll show up in the thread.

Here’s a sample of what we’ll be talking about:

Chenin Blanc: Workhorse White Grape of the Loire Valley

While this region produces wines from other white grapes, Chenin Blanc is the mainstay. This variety makes beautiful wines that can fit anywhere on the style spectrum; sparkling cremant and concentrated dry still wines; semi-sweet versions, and liquoreux bottlings that perfectly balance searing acidity with residual sugar.

Chenin Blanc in the vineyards of Layon in the Loire Valley (photo: Fred49 via iStock)

Early to bud, Chenin is prone to spring frosts; because of its late-ripening nature, autumnal rains are a threat at harvest. For producers of sweet wines, whose grapes linger on the vines long into the fall, this is a serious risk. Another consideration at harvest time is Chenin’s propensity to ripen unevenly: highly-skilled teams will make multiple passes through the vineyards, selecting individual berries as they reach perfect ripeness. For example, in Vouvray, harvesting grapes destined for sweet wine occurs later than almost anywhere else in France All of this adds to a producer’s cost.

Acidity, perhaps the hallmark characteristic of Chenin Blanc, is what allows these wines to age – potentially for decades. High-acid fruit is perfect for sparkling wines and, as previously mentioned, for balancing high sugar levels in the luscious late harvest wines. For dry, still wines, that acidity has been a bit of a mixed blessing. Cooler vintages with less-ripe fruit result in austere wines requiring years of bottle age before they’re enjoyable. Climate change has ameliorated the situation a bit, allowing grapes to fully ripen in most years, leading to wines that are ready to drink upon release. Indeed, Chenin thrives in consistenly warm conditions, such as in South Africa. More Chenin Blanc is grown here than anywhere else in the world.

Vouvray: One Grape, Many Wines

The town of Vouvray is part of the Touraine region, which lies inland from the Atlantic Ocean and experiences less of that body’s climate-modifying effects. A microcosm of the larger Loire Valley, Vouvray makes Chenin-based wines in all styles: sparkling, dry still wines, demi-sec, moelleux, and liquoreux.

However, finding the precise style you’re looking for can be a bit of a challenge, as labels don’t mention where a wine falls on the sweetness scale. My rule of thumb is to look at the alcohol by volume (printed in a corner of the label). Anything below 11% is likely to have noticeable sweetness; the lower the number, the higher the sugar. Higher percentages tend to taste drier. But I highly recommend tasting a few of the sweeter wines, even if they’re “not your thing.” Forget the cloying sweet wines of your youth: these babies are a gorgeous balancing act between sugar and acid; a joy to the palate. Don’t write them off!

Chenin Blanc grapes affected by botrytis cinerea aka noble rot (photo: Fred49 via iStock)

Vouvray was granted AOC status in 1936, acknowledging the special conditions created by the Loire River and its tributaries. These narrow waterways offer protection from cooler temperatures and, in some cases, foster the humid conditions necessary for the development of botrytis cinerea or noble rot, essential to the production of the sweetest, rarest wines. The best sites, on riverside slopes, are warmer, with full exposure to the sun.

For a wine to qualify for Vouvray AOC status it must be at least 95% Chenin Blanc, with the balance contributed by Menu Pineau. In reality, most wines are 100% Chenin. Yields are capped at 52 hl/ha; many producers struggle to reach that limit, especially for botrytized wines. In general, wines do not undergo malolactic conversion or spend any time in oak (although some producers are experimenting with both.) The best versions are capable of aging for many years in bottle.

Tasting Notes: 2019 Sauvion Vouvray Sec (11.5% abv; $12.99 on wine.com)

Sauvion is the number-one producer of Muscadet in France, and the family-owned enterprise has extended its winemaking prowess into other parts of the Loire Valley including Sancerre and Vouvray. The goal in every case is to make wines that are “elegant yet easy to drink.” Oenologist Pierre-Jean Sauvion declares himself a “pleasuremaker, not a winemaker.”

This wine is pale gold with medium+ intensity aromas of lemon, white grapefruit, green apple, honeysuckle, and a hint of spring leaves. On the palate it is off-dry with high acidity, medium body, and flavors that mirror the nose: citrus and apple, accented by honey and white tea. A delightful, simple pleasure that’s a nice sip on its own or next to a plate of cheesy snacks.

Savennières: The Seductive Promise of Chenin Blanc

For lovers of dry Chenin Blanc, Savennières is hallowed ground. This wedge-shaped parcel in the Anjou region lies on the north bank of the Loire River, providing south- and southeast-facing plots right along the water. Grapes get the advantage of full exposure to sunlight during the growing season, as well as the more moderate temperatures ensured by proximity to the river. Soils are a combination of schist and sandstone, allowing for sufficient drainage and encouraging the vine’s roots to grow deep. With low fertility, average yields are low at around 50 hl/ha.

Within Savennières there are two subregions:

Savennières – Coulée de Serrant is a monopole of just seven hectares, farmed biodynamically by the family of Nicolas Joly. His wines have developed a cult following, in effect putting Savennières on the map.

Savennières – La Roche–aux–Moines is slightly larger (33 hectares) and dates to the 12th century when it was given to the Abbey of St. Nicholas by a local nobleman. The resident monks planted the first vines, giving the parcel its name: Roche-au-Moines means the monks’ rock.

Yes, Savennières produces sweeter wines (demi-sec, moelleux, doux, sec tendre) but I would argue that the region’s claim to fame is its concentrated, high-acid dry wines that may be unaccessible in their youth. Opening a bottle before it’s ready might deliver a puckering punch to the palate but, boy oh boy, do they reward a few years in the cellar.

Some producers are even working differently in the vineyards, allowing the grapes some extra time to ripen (and accumulate sugar) without inviting fungal disease. These wines would be less shockingly acidic upon release – a nice option for those of us lacking patience.

Tasting Notes: 2017 Domaine Laffourcade Savennières (13% abv; $26.99 on wine.com)

Established in 1958 by André Laffourcade, this estate began with 19 hectares in Quarts de Chaume, noted for its heavenly sweet wines. In 1970, André’s son Pascal added Château Perray Jouannet in Bonnezeaux to the portfolio, followed by a riverside parcel in Savennières in 1988. All vineyards are farmed sustainably and are tended manually. Average age of the vines is 20 years. This wine, 100% Chenin Blanc, was fermented in stainless steel at low temperature, then aged in a mix of neutral oak (30%) and stainless steel vats (70%).  It is medium gold in color, with medium+ intensity aromas of honey, beeswax, lemon curd, and melon. There’s just a suggestion of vanilla and a bit of mineral/wet rocks. Some pastry dough notes interspersed with an oily, petrol-like aroma. On the palate it’s bone dry, with flavors confirming the nose. More evidence of malolactic conversion (cream and butter) and perhaps some lees aging (yeast). Fruit is in the background, with notes of honey, lemon, and melon.

Both wines were delicious with this easy summer salad of shishito peppers, fresh corn, red onion, cucumber, and feta.

For more information on the wines of the Loire Valley, please visit the official website, which goes into detail on each individual appellation. Great stuff for wine students!

22 comments

  1. Can’t remember the last time I enjoyed either of these two wine types but love them both. The next time I hear someone ‘dis’ Vouvray, I’m sending them here for words: “Forget the cloying sweet wines of your youth: these babies are a gorgeous balancing act between sugar and acid; a joy to the palate. Don’t write them off!” And thanks for a fresh summer salad idea ;-D

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pierre-Jean Sauvion seems to have accomplished his goal of being a pleasure maker, at least by the sounds of your description of this wine. “aromas of lemon, white grapefruit, green apple, honeysuckle, and a hint of spring leaves.” A hint of spring leaves…What a glorious and transportive descriptor.
    As I am about to pick up Nicolas Joly’s book to read, I probably should find a Savennieres to sip on!

    Liked by 1 person

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