The Trouble with Vouvray
In this in-depth look at the Loire Valley’s famous Vouvray appellation, Michael Apstein talks about grape, soils, climate and winemaker know-how, all of which make possible the many different Vouvray wine styles that exist.
Vouvray is home to a fabulous array of under-valued white wines. A major impediment to more widespread popularity is the confusion that surrounds their level of sweetness. (This confusion is surely a major reason the wines remain undervalued, so perhaps--for those of us who love the wines--I should stop here.) A superb trio of wines from Domaine Huet, perhaps the appellation’s greatest producer, puts the problem in clear relief. The three cuvées, each made from separate vineyards (Haut-Lieu, Le Mont and Clos du Bourg) in the superb 2014 vintage, were surprisingly different in sweetness despite all being labeled Vouvray Sec.
To make matters even more confusing, each of the vineyards is capable of producing wines labeled Sec, Demi-Sec, or Moëlleux (which represent increasing levels of sweetness) in the same year depending on when the grapes are harvested. The vintage typically determines the quantity of each style, with cooler years favoring the production of Sec, while the warmer vintages result in more Demi-Sec and Moëlleux. Regardless of the vintage, the hallmark of fine Vouvray is mouth-cleansing acidity from Chenin Blanc, a grape naturally high in acid, grown in this northern clime.
So…with all the potential for confusion, why bother with Vouvray? Because, in addition to their value, the wines are versatile, delivering a tension-filled balance of electrifying acidity and engaging sweetness without heaviness.
Chenin Blanc, virtually the only grape used in Vouvray, has a lot in common with Riesling, and like Riesling it produces wines for every occasion, from sparkling to sweet and everything in between. (The Arbois grape is allowed, but rarely used.) Vouvray can be great as a stand-alone aperitif. Other renditions are perfectly suited to accompany a meal, especially with food that presents a challenge for pairing with wine, such as pork. The characteristic tightrope balance of acidity and sweetness makes Vouvray an excellent choice with spicy Asian cuisine or more subtly spiced fare, such as beef sprinkled with a touch of smoked Spanish pimentón or Piment d’Esplette. Moëlleux versions of Vouvray are great with a cheese course or as desserts-in-themselves. (I advise against pairing them with dessert because the sweetness of the dessert will fight and detract from the lushness of the wine.)
Typically the level of residual sugar determines the labeling of the wine. Importantly, however, that number never tells the whole story, because it is the interplay between residual sugar and acidity that determines the balance and the quality of the wine. Furthermore, there is no regulation that dictates the amount of residual sugar (or acidity, for that matter) for each category. Wines labeled Sec typically have 4 to 5 grams per liter (0.4 - 0.5%) of residual sugar to round off the searing acidity found in Chenin Blanc grown in this unyielding northern climate. Demi-Sec (literally, “half-dry”) contains roughly 17 grams per liter of residual sugar and is the traditional style of Vouvray. As such, the designation is typically, but not invariably, omitted from the label. The Moëlleux (literally, “mellow”) style of Vouvray weighs in at 30 grams per liter of residual sugar, but most of these have such racy acidity that they are rarely heavy or cloying. The Demi-Sec and Moëlleux wines (especially from the top producers) have an extraordinary ability to develop wonderful complexity with extended bottle age--and we’re talking 50 years. Even the Vouvray Sec from top producers develop well: I just had a 1996 Vouvray Le Mont Sec from Huet that had a subtle dried apricot-y roundness that complemented the richness of a pan-roasted wild stripped bass.
With no official standard of residual sugar of level or perceived sweetness for wines labeled Sec or Demi-Sec, stylistic variation from producer to producer abounds. The 2012 Vouvray from Domaine d’Orfeuilles, “Les Coudraies” ($16, a Jeanne Marie de Champs Selection), provides a fine example. There’s no indication on the front label regarding level of sweetness, so the assumption is that it’s a Demi-Sec. The back label notes, “Medium Dry,” which is a rough translation of Demi-Sec, but is a term that is impossible to quantify or define. The wine, however, is easy to recommend because it shows an impeccable balance of fruitiness and invigorating energy. Fresh and lively, it cleans your palate with each sip. A waxy texture and a lingering, almost honeyed--yet not sweet--richness adds to its appeal. It’s actually racier than many Vouvray labeled Sec. If Savennières (another Loire white made from Chenin Blanc), with its earthy minerality, fits the definition of “dry,” then I suppose medium dry is an apt description of this rounder Vouvray from Domaine d’Orfeuilles. I just wish there were a more objective way to categorize it.
Vouvray, a smallish (5,000 acres) appellation, sits just east of Tours on the north bank of the Loire River. Although only about 100 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, its climate is mainly Continental, which means chilly, which in turn translates to a late harvest: Late October and often into November. The vineyards, a mixture of gravel and clay atop limestone (locally known as tuffeau), are situated on a plateau facing south towards the Loire.
Vouvray’s location often results in marginally ripe grapes, so it should come as no surprise that about half its production is sparkling wine. This being Vouvray, there are, of course, two styles of sparkling wines, both of which can be dry or slightly sweet: The lightly sparkling ones called pétillant or the fully pressurized ones labeled mousseux (not to be confused with Moëlleux). Lighter and fruitier than Champagne, they’re perfect casual summertime drinking. Even the sweeter styles are invigorating and zippy because the less-than-fully-ripe Chenin Blanc is full of acidity. François Pinon’s Non-Vintage Vouvray Brut Non Dosé ($23, imported by Louis Dressner Selection) is a fine example of the dry pétillant style, delivering cutting minerality.
Back to Huet
The trio of 2014s Sec from Domaine Huet, Haut-Lieu, Le Mont and Clos du Bourg (each $28, imported by The Rare Wine Company), are all easy to recommend. The vineyards, situated in what many experts believe is the best portion of the appellation, consist of the typical clay-over-limestone soil of the region. All three were tightly wound initially, expressing themselves far better after spending a night opened in the refrigerator. The Haut-Lieu was the most open and driest, whereas Le Mont and Clos du Bourg showed increasing levels of ripeness. Yet none were what I would describe as “dry,” at least in comparison to a Savennières. But as Vouvray goes, they were dry, although you wouldn’t be faulted for calling them Demi-Sec either--since 2014 was a ripe year in the Loire. Regardless of the label, they were fabulous, with energy and interplay of fruit, minerals and citrus that’s unique.
A Possible Solution
Vouvray reminds me of the great wine producing areas of Germany, where Riesling grown in the same vineyard produces everything from Kabinett to Trockenbeerenauslese, though not necessarily in the same quantities year to year. The Germans have specific labeling regulations that alert the consumer to the level of sweetness, such as Kabinett, Spätlese, or Auslese, which imparts a degree of consistency. Instead of having three broad categories--Sec, Demi-Sec and Moëlleux--that are not clearly defined and hence overlap, perhaps the Vouvray producers could adopt the German method of carefully delineated strata, such as Très-Sec (very dry), Sec, Sec-Rond (dry but round), Demi-Sec, Demi-Moëlleux, etc. Sure, the consumer would still need to be familiar with the producer’s style, but at least Sec or Demi-Sec would have more meaning. Until then, I’m content with the fact that less-than-robust consumer demand keeps the prices low and continues to make these wines a bargain.
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