Chenin blanc is underappreciated.
Byline: Eric Asimoc
It's a wine lover's duty to extol the beauties and virtues of genres that are underloved and underappreciated. This was so of riesling before the world cottoned to it, and it is so now of chenin blanc, the great white grape of the Loire Valley.
This is a painful duty. Chenin blanc achieves its most captivating forms in the Loire, in well-known areas like Vouvray and Savennieres, and in the hands of excellent vignerons throughout Touraine and Anjou who, for one reason or another, may not use an appellation name. Yet recent vintages have been cruel, particularly 2012 and 2013, and there is sadly not a lot to go around.
Nonetheless, we press on, because these wines are too beautiful to ignore. Our next subject will be Vouvray Sec, with a little help from the neighboring appellations of Montlouis and Jasnieres. Ordinarily, I would try to keep the focus narrow, on Vouvray, but if widening the search is the price for finding good, dry chenin blancs from the Touraine, so be it.
While good chenin blancs come from South Africa and, increasingly, California, the Loire is where the wine in its myriad styles reaches the heights. Only riesling rivals it for versatility, possibly because, like riesling, chenin blanc offers great acidity. This permits it to make wines that range from bone dry, or sec, to moderately sweet, or demi-sec, to lusciously sweet and nectarlike, or moelleux, all the while retaining a refreshing balance. It even makes great sparkling wines. Finally, as again with riesling, these wines can age and evolve for decades.
It's a peculiarity of Vouvray that even wines labeled sec may not be entirely dry. Sometimes they are what the winemakers call "sec tendre,'' with just a touch of residual sugar, but they are rarely labeled that way. This is not something to fear if you think you don't like sweetness in wines, but it is something to notice.
The three wines I recommend are: Huet Vouvray Le Haut-lieu Sec 2013 (Vieux Vins, Vineburg, California) $32; Champalou Vouvray 2012 (Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, California) $22; and Francois Chidaine Montlouis Clos Du Breuil 2012 (Louis/Dressner Selections, New York) $25.
If you can't find these, look for any other dry wines from Huet and Chidaine, as well as those from Francois Pinon, Vincent Careme, Domaine des Aubuisieres, Philippe Foreau, La Taille aux Loups, Frantz Saumon, Clos de la Meslerie, La Grange Tiphaine and Le Rocher des Violettes.
As with most good white wines, try not to drink them too cold. Take them out of the fridge 20 to 30 minutes before serving, but pour yourself a glass so you can see how it changes as it loses the chill. Vouvray is especially flexible with food. It goes well with pork roasts, fowl, white bean stews, scallops, lobster, crab, less delicate fish and many different cheeses.
Characteristics To Consider:
Texture: On the palate, chenin blanc feels like no other wine. How would you describe it?
Degree of Dryness: Vouvray secs may not be entirely dry. Do you sense any sweetness? Is it balanced?
Aromas and Flavors: Describe it in general terms: Floral? Fruity? Non-fruit qualities? Anything else spring to mind?