Discovering Chenin Blanc

The Loire Valley is comprised of a long, diverse stretch of vineyards that run along the longest river in France, the Loire River. Along the banks of the river the main white varietal is Chenin blanc. Wines made from Chenin blanc are elegant, complex and age-worthy, yet generally undervalued and less well-known among the public. I’m pretty convinced there is a secret society that promotes drinking Burgundy so the society can keep Loire wines to themselves. But that’s just a theory. How can these wines be so phenomenal, yet still so unknown? Renowned importer Kermit Lynch puts it perfectly, “One can love Savennieres and Vouvray yet remain aloof to Chenin blanc.” While Savennieres and Vouvray are both Chenin blanc wines, they couldn’t be more different. Since the grape is heavily influenced by its environment, it is difficult to assign an identity to the varietal. Along the Loire river, varied soil type, slopes, aspects, and weather all affect the grape’s expression in the wine. At its core, Chenin blanc is mineral driven with high acidity, but the rest is up for grabs depending on terroir, mesoclimate and winemaking techniques. Below are just some of the many appellations that make beautiful Chenin blanc. I’ve also included some bottles to try so you can begin exploring the varietal.

The most recognizable appellation for Chenin blanc is Vouvray. Vouvray produces a style that ranges from dry to sweet and still to sparkling. The soft riverside tuffeau soil and protected south facing slopes create ripe, full bodied Chenin. Try the 2013 Sylvain Gaudron "La Butte du Trésor" Vouvray Sec $15.99, it delivers high acid and opulent weight with notes of peach skin, white nectarine and jasmine.

Just across the river from Vouvray sit the vineyards of Montlouis-sur-Loire.  While the difference between Vouvray and Montlouis can be difficult to detect, Montlouis produces fewer sweet wines and tends to have a lighter body. The 2014 François Chidaine "Les Bournais" Montlouis Sur Loire (Sec) is sourced from one biodynamic vineyard.  Aromas of honey, caramelized apples, and pollen emanate from the glass. Flavors of flint, beeswax, green apples and even fresh pineapples create a seamless structure of waxy texture and high acid that begs to age in the cellar for a few years.

Moving west, a single hill in the region of Saumur is home to some of the most complex and interesting Chenin blanc of Loire. The historic hill of Brézé sits on tuffeau limestone rock, which is thought to contribute to the wine’s character.  The vineyards are divided into true “clos,” or walled off vineyards, ensuring that the varied topsoils maintain their individuality. While the 2013 Château de Brézé Clos de Midi Saumur Blanc $18.99 is the château’s entry level bottling, it is also a ‘clos’ that expresses a wine from a cooler, sandy site. This is the lightest bodied wine of the article, but possibly one of the most complex. Aromas of fresh honeycomb and lemon zest lead to flavors of orange blossom, cooked rhubarb, and wet pudding stones. The acidity is searing and juicy, and will cut through fatty dishes like a sharp knife.

Just west of Saumur is Anjou, a region that traditionally makes sweet Chenin blanc, or Pineau de la Loire as it’s called locally. Anjou was the first Loire region to plant Chenin blanc, way back in the 9th Century. In Coteaux du Layon, the Parisian Basin and the Massif Amorician meet, resulting in exposed vineyards that benefit from autumn sunshine and drying winds off the Atlantic; perfect conditions for noble rot. Noble rot pierces the grape skins, concentrating the sugar in the grapes and making them perfect for dessert wine. 2013 Pithon-Paille "4 Vents" Coteaux du Layon $34.99 shows the remarkable balance the wines from this area have. Piercing acidity means the 92 grams of residual sugar hardly feels sugary sweet.  Flavors of honeycomb, candied orange peel and apricots make for a perfect pairing with mildly-sweet fruit desserts, foie gras, or blue cheese.

But Anjou is known for more than just sweet wine. Great winemakers can prevent the spread of noble rot and make beautifully concentrated, dry Chenin blanc. The biodynamic vineyards of the 2013 Clos de l'Elu "Ephata" Anjou Blanc produce a wine with dense structure and length that prove it will age for years to come. This dry Chenin blanc is aged in amphora for seven months leading to a very aromatic wine with notes of smoke, white tea, and honey suckle. The palate has savory qualities of sea salt and celery, with a pithy, waxy finish.

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Finally, north of the river, on one of the rare, very steep, south-facing river banks, lies the appellation of Savennieres. Vineyards here are perfectly situated to provide structured, concentrated, dry Chenin blanc worthy of sleeping in the cellar for years.  The 2013 Nicolas Joly Les Vieux Clos Savennières $36.99 perfectly embodies the terroir of the appellation. Meyer lemon, flint, and crunchy apple burst from the glass, with flavors of almond skin, shells, resin and pears. This wine is an elegant powerhouse that will age gracefully.

Take a moment to explore Chenin blanc and all its many personalities. You too will find yourself trying to join the secret society.

-Olivia Ragni