And nowhere does Chenin excel as it does along the Loire River, and in the valleys of its tributaries. The Loire is France’s longest river, flowing over 600 miles from its source in the Massif Central, north to Orléans, then west until it reaches the Atlantic. Chenin Blanc is grown in the vineyards of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, which lie in the central part of the Loire Valley, between Orléans and the river’s mouth. The Chenin Blanc grape has been cultivated in this area for over a thousand years and finds its best expression here.
Loire Chenin Blanc is hard to categorize because it’s made in a wide range of styles. It produces both sparkling wine (often blended with other grapes) and still wine. Still wines can be made at various levels of sweetness, depending upon the amount of residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation: sec (dry), sec-tendre (slightly dry), demi-sec (off dry – or, perhaps more accurately, semi-sweet), moelleux (sweet) and doux (really sweet). This versatility makes Chenin a great tasting adventure but can also be a source of frustration to consumers, as wine labels often fail to identify the sweetness level of the wine.
The dominant – but not the only -- flavor characteristic of a Loire Chenin Blanc, regardless of whether it is sweet or dry or something in between, is a distinctive floral “honeyed” quality which, coupled with Chenin’s natural high acidity, makes for a structured, balanced wine that can age for decades. This “honeyed” quality is present even in dry wines -- don’t expect a dry Chenin to taste like a Sancerre -- giving them a roundness and fullness not present in Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadet, the other two principal white wine grapes of the Loire. And to fully appreciate these wines, they should be drunk with minimum chilling so as not to mask their flavors and aromas. (If you don’t like the wine, then chill it!)
The districts of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine each produce excellent everyday chenins in a range of styles, but each excels in its own different way.
Anjou is renowned for its sweet wines, the best of which are produced on the south bank of the Loire, in the Coteaux du Layon, and its two grand cru appellations, Quarts-de-Chaume and Bonnezeaux. The microclimate in this area encourages the mists that are conducive to botrytis and the wines are lusciously sweet with a strong minerality. The neighboring Coteaux de l’Aubance also produces some fine sweet wines that are lighter in style than the Layon wines.
Across the river on the north side of the Loire, Anjou produces equally outstanding chenin at the dry end of the spectrum in the vineyards of Savennières and its two grand crus, Coulée de Serrant and La Roche aux Moines. Savennières chenins are dry but weighty, with flavors of honey and quince, and deep minerality. They have been described by Jacqueline Friedrich, in her "Wine and Food Guide to the Loire," as a wine that is cerebral and full of majesty, a wine not for the uninitiated.
Saumur lies between Anjou and the Touraine. Technically part of Anjou, its soils are more similar to the limestone/tufa soils of Touraine and its Chenins from the Coteaux de Saumur are similar in style to Vouvrays. Saumur, however, is primarily known for its sparkling wine, which can be made from a blend of grapes, and is the second largest producer of sparkling wine in France (running a distant second to Champagne). Look for Saumur mousseux or Crémant de Loire, which is regulated by a stricter set of rules than mousseux, such as lower yields, hand harvesting and longer bottle ageing.
Touraine is as known for its châteaux as its wine – and perhaps more so. Which is a pity because Touraine produces Chenins as lovely as its châteaux and the countryside that surrounds them.
Vouvray is Touraine’s best known appellation and perhaps the name most synonymous with Loire Chenin Blanc. Vouvray wines are rounded with a creamy texture, balanced by a flinty minerality and good acidity. They can be sweet, but are more likely to be sec, sec-tendre, or demi-sec. The lesser-known appellation of Montlouis, which lies on the south bank of the Loire just across from Vouvray and which used to be part of the Vouvray appellation, produces wines similar in style and quality to those of Vouvray.
Some tasting notes:
2005 Domaine des Aubuisières, Vouvray, “Les Girardières.” $22.99. Simply gorgeous. Honey flavors blend with notes of gooseberry and a racy minerality. A beautifully balanced and structured wine. Long creamy finish.
2006 Francois Chidaine Montlouis, “Les Tuffaux.” $14.99. Very similar to -- but lighter on the palate than -- the Domaine des Aubuisières.
2006 Château D’Epiré (Cuvée Speciale), Savennières. $18.99. Bone dry, but full-bodied. Honey flavors dominate but a there's distinct – and not entirely pleasing -- petrol-like taste.