The Last Affordable Great Wines
Like cheap housing, the good old days of affordable classic wine is gone.
Well, maybe not completely gone.
There is one great wine region that for unexplained reasons of popular fashion, has yet to be fully discovered. World class producers, lauded by their peers, celebrated by experienced wine writers, are making great-tasting wines that simultaneously possess the capacity to age 20-30-40 years and more. It is the last classic wine region where wines from the best producers can be purchased under $40!
I’m talking about the great white wines of the Touraine in France’s Loire Valley. More specifically, the wines of Vouvray (pronounced voo-VRAY) and Montlouis (pronounced moan-loo-EE), two tiny appellations that straddle the Loire River east of the historic city of Tours. It is here that Chenin Blanc attains near-perfection, where the wines approach immortality due to the ideal confluence of soil, climate and vine variety.
They are wonderful food wines. One would be hard-pressed to find any wines more versatile.
Today, the world’s mainstream wine consumers are simply looking the other way, just as they did with Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie through the early 80s, and Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo just before that. That is fantastic news for us, because we can still afford to drink Montlouis' and Vouvray's greatest wines on a semi-regular basis.
Most American wine consumers dismiss Chenin Blanc with a shrug of disdain. Of course, most of them only have familiarity with California Chenin Blanc, a somewhat charming and pleasant wine that originates neither from a chilly climate nor from limestone vineyards. Fifty years ago, Chenin Blanc was so popular in the U.S., its best wines were allocated. Today, no major California vintner specializes in the variety; the Chardonnay juggernaut has so dominated that space, only the most dedicated advocates still make the wine in California. Perhaps that's why the American wine press has really only given lip service to the variety, wherever it's grown, including the regions where Chenin Blanc receives its greatest expression, in the wines of northern France's Touraine region, in Vouvray and Montlouis-sur-Loire.
Vouvray and Montlouis Chenin Blancs are wines for grownups. They are intelligent wines, full of interesting, complex, appealing, thought-provoking aromas and flavors, with the kind of penetrating acidity that gives these whites a backbone of steel, not Styrofoam.
When made by the best producers, they can be bone-dry (Sec), off-dry (Demi-Sec), semi-sweet (Moelleux—pronounced mwah-LYOO), super-sweet and syrupy (Liquoreux) and sparkling (Mousseux). They are wines that can age a lifetime, placing them smack dab near the top of the list of the most durable wines in the world.
The best Vouvrays and Montlouis are terroir-driven, possessing a honeyed, stony character that reflects the creamy colored limestone “tuffeaux” visable in the Loire’s towering cliffs. When drinking these wines, one experiences brilliance in a variety at its very finest.
Due to fashion, bad luck, changing tastes, or just plain unfamiliarity, the wines of Vouvray and Montlouis are the last great wines to have avoided the runaway wine pricing runup of the past three decades. It is only a matter of time before the wine-loving public catches on to their excellence. One day we will read in future newsletters how cheap they once were. In the good old days of 2021.
By law, all Vouvray and Montlouis wines must be made from Chenin Blanc, which is sometimes referred to by its local name, Pineau de la Loire. As I mentioned before, they are categorized according to their sweetness: sec, demi-sec, moelleux and liquoreux. Pétillant is a sometimes-used designation that refers to a natural sparkle in some wines, and Mousseux is the region’s popular, if not critically-acclaimed sparkling wine.
“Vouvray is a refreshing antidote to chardonnay, and one of the wine world’s best kept, most delicious secrets…offering a panoply of fruit, flower, and mineral flavors when young, highlighted with suggestions of various nuts, fennel, beeswax, orange marmalade, and assorted spices as they mature.”-Saveur
Consumers who have had merely a passing familiarity with Vouvray might have only encountered slightly sweet commercial wines that are pleasant to sip, but hardly memorable. The full range of wines must be experienced to fully appreciate how varied they are, and how well they perform at each level.
That doesn’t mean that satisfying young Vouvray doesn’t exist. That is far from the case. Vouvray, like any young great wine, has its charms, and several top producers make accessible, delicious wines which show very well at an early stage of development. The transformative character of Vouvray, however, occurs only after years in the cellar, as do all the great wines of the world.
In her excellent book A Wine and Food Guide to the Loire, Jacqueline Friedrich writes that Vouvray is, “as thrilling a wine as exists and one of the most complex whites in the world.” She describes a 1947 Huet moelleux:
“It is a truly glorious wine, one that makes tasters giddy. It is the wine that made me fall in love with Vouvray, with Chenin Blanc, and with the Loire.”
Friedrich reminisces, “I recall a gorgeous ’62 pétillant from Huet, with flavors of toast and honey and caramel. A ’49 from Daniel Allias was a crisp, exciting wine with layers of honey, lemon, and toffee. Even his fresh ’82 was elegant, bready and full.”
In The World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson speak of Vouvray’s incredible aging potential:
“What distinguishes it more than anything, however, is its long life. For a comparatively light wine its longevity is astonishing. You may expect port to live for half a century, but in a pale, firm, rather delicate wine the ability to improve and go on improving for so long in bottle is matched only occasionally in Germany. Acidity is the key.”
Jancis Robinson further describes the astonishing durability of Vouvray in The Oxford Companion to Wine. “Some of the finest Vouvrays can still taste lively, and richly fruity, at nearly a century.”
This is real Chenin Blanc, folks! As fine as any great white wine in all the world!
“As Thrilling a Wine as Exists”
Vouvray’s vignerons who practice natural winemaking will let each fermenting cask decide for itself which category it will become. During the winter, the cold Touraine cellars will cause some barrels to stop fermenting, and when the temperature warms in the spring, some, but not all barrels resume their bubbling. The winemaker will then sample through all the barrels to determine which have fermented totally dry, which have fermented medium-dry and so on. Different styles may be bottled separately with specific designations on the label, or they may be blended together to form a single house style, or both.
To find out if a particular Vouvray is sweet, dry or in-between, it is necessary to learn a little something about the house making the wine. That is where your neighborhood wine merchant—namely The Wine Country—can be of help. The fact that Vouvray has not yet been discovered by the general wine drinking public means that prices are much less costly, enabling us to experiment liberally and discover for ourselves which wines will be suitable to our changing needs. It is admittedly a problem when a consumer doesn't have more guidance as to the sweetness in his wines beyond Sec, Demi-Sec and Moelleux on the label. There is no official category for the slightly sweet, sec tendre (tender dry) style.
Vouvray is the cooper’s worst nightmare. It is one of the few great wine regions of the world whose best wines don’t use new oak barrels. Although there is some “barrel creep” among some winemakers, there is an increasing backlash against screwing up the natural purity of Chenin Blanc with the taste of lumber.
Good Vouvray has a sexy and luxurious mouthfeel, not unlike that of an accomplished white Burgundy. What's more, the acidity and the minerality of Vouvray allows the wine to age for a long time in the bottle. When planted in other regions, Chenin Blanc is merely pleasing. In Vouvray, it is profound.
The appellation Montlouis is located south of the Loire River, just about directly across from the more famous wine town of Vouvray. The soils of Montlouis are made of limestone known locally as tuffeaux, but are a bit sandier than the soils of Vouvray. As in Vouvray, the different degrees of sweetness—sec, demi-sec and moelleux—are determined naturally according to the weather and at which point of residual sweetness the fermentation decides to cease.
Montlouis is depicted by Jacqueline Friedrich as nearly Vouvray’s twin. She writes, “Only an intrepid taster would claim to distinguish them blind. They do seem leaner, which makes the mineral aspect stand out in bolder relief. They age beautifully, however.”
If one were to characterize any differences between Vouvray and Montlouis, it might be that Montlouis wines are a bit less powerful and may not cellar quite as long as Vouvray. But when you are encountering the wines of François Chidaine, Montlouis' acknowledged leader, it's time to throw the book out. For his mastery of Chenin Blanc, he stands shoulder to shoulder with the finest producers in France, and his wines appear on the greatest wine lists, although in the past decade, Americans have finally began to recognize the estate's greatness as wines become more scarce.