Chenin blanc, a grape variety native to the Loire, has never become fashionable. In South Africa it’s a workhorse grape; in California it scarcely features at all. Yet anyone who has been treated to, say, a 1947 Vouvray (and stocks of these old wines have not entirely vanished) can’t dispute that chenin blanc is capable of great complexity as well as longevity.
Because chenin can, like riesling, be made in styles ranging from bone-dry to sweet to sparkling, it has lacked a clear identity, which has not helped the growers of the Loire, especially in Anjou and in Vouvray, where it is the principal white variety. Indeed, a visit to Anjou in the 1970s and 1980s was a depressing experience. Supposedly a classic sweet-wine region, its products turned out to be harsh, sulphury and often not even especially sweet.
Low prices discouraged growers from making the kinds of sacrifices in the vineyard required to produce a great wine. Yields were sky-high, grapes didn’t ripen sufficiently and had to be chaptalized (i.e., sugar was added to the must to boost the alcohol), and vineyards were machine-picked, so it was impossible to select only the truly botrytis-affected grapes. No wonder the wines, with a few honorable exceptions, were dire.
Then along came the 1989 vintage, followed by the 1990. Botrytis was rampant, and many growers made sweet wines of amazing richness, concentration and power. The top growers began realizing good prices, and a revival was under way. Unfortunately the run of good vintages ended, and it wasn’t until 1995, followed by 1996 and 1997, that more such wines could be made.
The major regions are Vouvray, a large region east of Tours entirely planted with chenin, and its smaller neighbor of Montlouis. Here the growers have the option of making every conceivable style of wine, so sweet wines are made only in exceptional years.
Further west, in Anjou, are regions devoted to sweet wines (although in poor years growers can make Anjou blanc from the grapes, but prices for such wines are low). These include Coteaux du Layon and Coteaux d’Aubance.
To complicate matters further, Coteaux du Layon is divided into six villages, each of which has the right to add its name to the label. And there is a tiny sub-appellation, Quarts de Chaume, for which yields are extremely low. The same is true for another prestigious appellation, Bonnezeaux.
This kind of fragmentation is a marketing nightmare, so it is not surprising that the names of the top producers often carry more weight than the names of the appellations. Vouvray is often associated with its top estates, Huet and Foreau, and Château de Fesles has long been the best-known estate in Bonnezeaux.
These wines differ from, say, sauternes, in having a much higher natural acidity, which is a characteristic of the chenin grape. The flavor profile is not so much peach and honey, as in sauternes, so much as apple, apricot and quince. It is the acidity that makes the sweet wines of the Loire so remarkable. Fresh and lively in their youth, they mature to an amazing richness and complexity, suggesting crème brulée, figs and dried fruits.
And the best years are close to immortal: vintages such as 1959 and 1947 are mostly very much alive, and recently tasted wines from ordinary vintages as 1907 and 1917 were still surprisingly fresh.
Twenty years ago the number of Loire estates that made great sweet wine could be counted on the fingers of two hands. Today there are dozens of them. But there is little agreement about how the wines should be made.
Grapes affected by botrytis gain rapidly in sugar content, and are usually harvested at about 30 to 32 Brix, enough to make a distinctly sweet wine without chaptalization. To put this in perspective, Château d’Yquem likes to pick at about 35 Brix.
Growers in Coteaux du Layon such as Patrick Baudoin and Philippe Delesvaux take a different view.
“I want to make the most concentrated wines possible,’ said Delesvaux. “To do this, I prune severely and have very low yields. So in years such as 1997, I have been able to pick at 40 or 45 Brix.”
So instead of making wines with a balance of sugar and alcohol comparable to sauternes, Delesvaux and the handful of other growers who share his approach are making wines that resemble a German Trockenbeerenauslese, that is, low alcohol but exceedingly high sugar levels.
Not everyone likes these wines. British importer Jason Yapp, a long-time Loire specialist, says: “In a good year growers are tempted to over-extract and make ’show’ wines which do well in tastings, but which I find exaggerated.”
Others, myself included, welcome such wines, because they demonstrate the amazing potential of the Loire. They can’t be made every year, but when conditions permit, they can and should be made as a vindication both of chenin blanc as a grape variety and of the Loire and its vineyards.
They are, in any case, the icing on the cake. Made in minute quantities and priced at around (or above) $100 per bottle, they will never be wines for a mass market. But then neither are the great Trockenbeerenauslesen, and nobody derides them as extreme or exaggerated.
However you look at it, a traditional style of sweet wine has undergone a wonderful renaissance. Those who were tempted to write off the Loire as a source of great sweet wine have been forced to think again. Apart from the super-concentrated wines, prices have remained very reasonable – half or less than those for sauternes from good estates – and the wines are quite widely distributed.