Vouvray. It’s such a lovely word, rolls off the tongue so nicely, feeling much like the succulent Chenin Blanc produced around the small town of Vouvray on the right bank of the Loire River, in the small appellation of the same name. At first sniff, honey. Unequivocally, honey. Then ripe yellow apples, steel wool, chalk. It’s a pretty, luminescent yellow with a bit of haziness. There is herbaceousness on the nose too, fresh mint. The texture is soft with small grains, like candle wax. This Vouvray is dry, it has weight, but the acidity lives well within the richness and gives intensity of flavor, power in feel with ease and refreshment. The flavors are warm lemon, mint, limestone and honey. It evolves, lingering on the palate.
Vouvray is the largest and most significant white wine producing appellation in the Loire Valley, it is nestled along the north bank of the river, just east of the larger town of Tours, for which the Touraine region is named. Across the river is the smaller appellation of Montlouis-sur-Loire, also a great producer of varying styles of Chenin Blanc. Chenin is native to the Loire and is greatly at home in the tuffeau, clay and gravel soil types of Vouvray. It is capable of producing quality wines that range from fine vibrant and dry to full, sweet and nectar-like. Every producer of Vouvray or Montlouis has no choice but to depend heavily upon the weather each season – moreso than other regions of the world because the style of wine they end up they producing is completely reliant on the season. Some say that this is where the Atlantic and Continental climates meet resulting in some perfectly Chenin producing characteristics, and some rather unpredictable condtions. The continental influence gives warm and long summers in which the temperatures slowly decrease as fall approaches. Chenin ripens late as is, so this is very ideal. The harvest in Vouvray is often one of the latest in all of France each year, often stretching into November. There are several mesoclimate pockets of extreme humidity which in good years invites botrytis.
Botrytis bunch rot is a fungal disease that can do one of two things. If it appears late in the season and effects grapes that are almost ripe or damaged it depletes the yield significantly. If it graces the vineyards with its presence earlier when the grapes are vibrant and healthy than desirable effects occur. On the outside the grape turns more deeply golden to pink then maybe purple, they brown, then wrinkled and raisin-y. The skin is incredible hard, impenetrable by undesired micro-organisms. On the inside nearly half of the original water content has been lost (evaporation and to the fungus), and the botrytis consumes sugar, but consumes more acid too, thereby increasing the sugar concentration and providing us with delectable, full sweetness. If that’s the case, the wine is labeled moelleux. Dry are sec, semi-dry are demi-sec and sparking are petillant. If a season is not particularly warm and/or botrytis does not present itself, then more sec will be around that year.
Chenin itself has lots of acidity, a waxy mouthfeel, lots of stoniness, wet hay, honey, orange blossom, ripe yellow apple, bruised apple, and even in the sec wines, a fullness to it. Vouvray has fantastic longevity – the 2009s will have great acidity now (like, a lot of it) and the strength to evolve in the bottle for a decade.
I had a recent evening with my tasting group over delicious Vouvray and some of the better wine-centric conversation we’ve had in a while. A coincidence? I think not – there is a lot to say about this place and this wine. Free to bring any AOC Vouvray, we wound up with two wines from Domaine Huët that were both better than good yet incredibly different from one another. I have tasted Huet wines many times over the previous months and am continually wowed by them and so frequently hear the Domaine referred to as the greatest of all Vouvray producers. That said and tasted, I was spurred to learn more of Domaine Huët l’Echansonne, to use its full name.
The Domaine is, in reference to other European wine-producers, quite young. In terms of impact and quality? Significant. It was born officially in 1928 when Victor Huët, a WWI veteran suffering from the effects of exposure to mustard gas sought fresh country air. His wife, Anna-Constance was fond of a home that happened to harbor the now quite famed La Haut Lieu vineyard, and so it began. Son, Gaston took over after a time, then began farming the renowned Clos de Bourg vineyard in 1953 (purchased it a decade later) and purchased Le Mont vineyard in 1957. The three vineyards are along the Première Côte of Vouvray, land considered to be grand cru in status. Le Mont has soil of clay but more so stone and grants wines of strong minerality in their youth with great age-ability. Clos de Bourg is surrounded by stone walls and has more shallow soils than Le Mont, and even more stone. Wines from here have extreme minerality and some say, more strength and texture than those of Le Mont.
The 2010 Le Mont Sec has a greatly rocky nose with underlying honey, warm lemon, chamomile. It’s acidity is linear, moving and strong and powerful. The 2009 Clos de Bourg Moelleux smells of melting honey, candle wax, orange blossoms and ripe apples. Its palate is full and juicy, the acidity finds my mid-palate, stealthily, unnoticed, and then slowly dissipated as I continue to taste honey, limestone and pear pie. Both wines were so good, and very different. It was cool to taste the extremely different vintages and therefore styles from varying vineyards but be able to recognize the overall language of the wines, the textural similarities, the weight and most of all, the soil.
Gaston’s son-in-law, Noël Pinguet joined the domaine and continues as vigneron there today. Pinguet was one of the early adapters of Biodynamic vineyard practices and after a successful partial trial conversion in 1988, fully converted the vineyards in 1990 which only added beauty, consistency and success of Huët wines. When Gaston was ailing and passed away in 2002, Anthony Hwang stepped in. Hwang was born in the Phillipines, became a successful NY business man with a fervor for wine who can often be found vigneron-ing in Tokaji, of all places. His partnership and backing of Huët has enabled Pinguet to continue what Victor Huët began.
That was going to be the end of this post, but the other night I got to attend a tasting where Sarah Hwang, daughter of Anthony Hwang and director of sales and marketing for Huët poured the new releases, including a 1985 Clos du Bourg Moelleux. It was cool. ’85 was not a spectacular vintage in Vouvray but it wasn’t poor either. Some tasters didn’t care for this wine at all, I was intrigued by it and found it quite delicious. Its color is vibrant, almost unrealistically so. Think yellow highlighter. The nose has rich fruit and freshness but also obvious age but not in way that I’ve smelled on other bottle aged wines before. It wasn’t oxidated at all, not minerally either. The closest descriptor for me would be browned apples but fresh apple at the same time. The texture was quite remarkable, rich with fine graininess which, I learned is what “Moelleux” references, (in addition to rs level) it means marrow.