The most versatile of all grapes?

By Celia Strong

Well, it’s long over due, but we’re going to do it this week. Another visit with Chenin Blanc. A white grape variety that can do great things, and, yet, we seem to keep missing it. And its wines. Obviously all my fault. I guess I just gravitate toward other wines more often. But, every time I do get some Chenin Blanc in my glass, I remember how nice it is and how good its wines are. And how wonderful these wines are with certain foods. My fault, but today we fix it. A bit.

The theory on the origins of this grape claims it comes from the Loire Valley, in western France. Supposedly, Chenin Blanc originated in the Anjou area of this river valley, in the ninth century,  and traveled west to the Tours area by the fifteenth century. Chenin Blanc was established as the main white variety of Loire Valley wines by the sixteenth century. DNA tests have shown that Chenin Blanc is an offspring of Savagnin, a variety from the Jura area of southern France. Sauvignon Blanc is also from Savagnin, so Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are cousins. How sweet! When growing, Chenin buds early and ripens mid- to late in the harvest year. In the Loire Valley, in warmer years, it can produce wines with great complexity and finesse. We are going to look at what it can do in this area, because, here in its homeland, it produces extraordinary dry (“sec”), off-dry (“demi-sec”), doux (sweet, “mousseux”) and sparkling (“pétillant”) wines. Specifically, we’re going to learn about Vouvray. A perfect example of what Chenin Blanc can do and why it is considered the most versatile of all white varieties.

Vouvray is a town located in the Touraine district (the part of the Loire River Valley around the city of Tours). In addition, Vouvray is an AC that is given exclusively to Chenin Blanc wines from the town. (Technically, it’s almost exclusively Chenin. Tiny amounts of a white grape called Arbois can also be called Vouvray, but I’m still waiting to see and taste one. There or here.) Grape growing and winemaking has existed in Vouvray since the Middle Ages. Many of the vineyards were maintained by local monasteries. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Dutch merchants who shipped their goods on the Loire River maintained many vine plantings. Grapes were collected from all over Touraine and mass produced as Vouvray wines for shipping to England, Paris and Rotterdam. Many wines cellars in the valley were built into caves that had been formed by excavating for stones for all the chateaux up and down the river. (These chateaux were summer residences for much of the French royal family – close enough to Paris to keep in touch, cooler during hot summer months than Paris, and far enough away from the Dukes of Burgundy to be left alone. Political and creature comforts.)  Most of the vineyards of Vouvray are planted on a plateau and are south-facing, towards the river. The harvest in Vouvray can often be the last in all of France. And, it can be very labor-intensive. The grapes are picked by hand, sometimes with three or more passes through a vineyard. Picking individual ripe grapes, not bunches.

There are over a million cases of Vouvray produced every year. Traditionally, most of these wines are made with little added to them. Stainless steel fermentation and bottled early, with no barrel aging. These wines are characterized by their grapes’ natural acidity. A Vouvray with high acids levels, meaning mostly drier, can age for ten years or more. These wines have flavors of honey, honeydew and other melons, quince, nuts, ginger, fig, apples, passionfruit, pears, peaches, mild grasses, white tea, apple blossoms, orange blossoms, jasmine,  and white flowers.

For our Vouvray this week, we have one brand new one. To add to the other four we have already. This new one is Rue de Perle. Literally translated as “Pearl Street.” Rue de Perle is a negociant firm, meaning they buy many of the grapes with which they make their wines. But, they have the advantage of not having to use grapes that aren’t good enough – not ripe enough or whatever. Their Vouvray is one hundred percent Chenin Blanc. It has soft fig and crisp pear flavors. Also hints of ginger with green apple notes. White peach and citrus and, the best, a soft honey. This is a very beautifully balanced wine, with plenty of acidity to support all its flavors. Think of it with Asian flavors, like soy sauce, sushi, lemongrass, lime, coriander. Try it with some spiciness too! Thai or Mexican. And poultry dinners – roasted chicken, turkey. Veal in white sauces. Seafood in mild sauces. And sharp cheeses – gruyere, aged cheddar, brie and camembert. And, one of my favorites with a Vouvray? Pesto. Totally atypical, but it works. For $12.99. So, maybe Chenin Blanc is a pretty versatile grape, afterall. And its Vouvray wines. Enjoy.

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