Chenin Blanc is that magical animal of the wine world.
On a recent dinner out with my husband, I ordered a bottle of Savennières – a Chenin Blanc-based white from the Loire – that had long been a favorite of mine. I told him, in a way that came out sounding like it was a guilty secret, that I really love Savennières.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized it’s not just Savennières that I love. It’s Chenin Blanc wines from the many Loire Valley appellations that use Chenin as the sole grape. And—they’re all so different. I was reminded of the episode of The Simpsons when Lisa turns vegetarian. Homer, incredulous, asks, “Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon? Ham? Pork chops??” Lisa rolls her eyes, retorting that those all “come from the same animal,” and it’s Homer’s response that’s the kicker: “Yeah, right,” he says, “a wonderful, magical animal…”
Chenin Blanc is that magical animal of the wine world. Depending on the soil and micro-climate in which it’s grown (and give or take certain whims on the part of the winemaker), its expression is as varied as they come. Some versions are austere and mineral, like a Loire counterpart to dry German Riesling. Some are funky-fresh and fruity. Still other styles can be rich, honeyed, exotic, and layered. Yet, they’re all essentially made from the same stuff. These wines tickle the same pleasure zones as Homer’s favorite pork products. But as much as I crave the decadent savoriness of bacon, I crave the punchy fruit of Chenin-based glou even more.
Here, a starter sampling of the various shapes of Loire Chenin Blanc:
Vouvray is made from Chenin grapes that grow east of the city of Tours, on a plateau that rises above the river on its north bank. The wines are known for their pronounced minerality, which many associate with the tuffeau – a soft, chalky limestone – that covers the appellation (many of the local cellars are also carved out of the stuff). Look for the dry, or sec, style, like the 2014 Domaine Huet ‘Le Haut Lieu’ Vouvray Sec ($30), which emanates chalky coolness. There are also great sparkling wines to be had; Domaine François Pinon Vouvray Brut Non-Dosé ($23) boasts not only the acidity and the stuffing of great Champagne, but also a quince-like flavor that only Chenin Blanc could produce.
Opposite Vouvray is the grape-growing area of Montlouis, which forms a sort of wedge between the Loire and Cher rivers. Montlouis also lays claim to some prime tuffeau, and although its wines come across as more playful in their fruit-forwardness, there’s some serious acidity and mineral concentration behind that lacy exterior. The last decade has seen a surge of energy in the appellation, from biodynamic producers like François Chidaine, whose 2014 ‘Les Choisilles’ Montlouis-sur-Loire ($31) packs a huge punch of stoniness and pear-driven flavors.
Saumur is a large growing area comprised of gentle slopes, and while it’s possible to come across a transcendental bottle from the likes of Clos Rougeard or Domaine du Collier, most of the wines are simply good: pure, straightforward Chenin with no pretense or gimmick. The best growers have staked out plots on a hill known as Brézé, and there must be some magic there, because everything I’ve ever had with that one word on the label has been mouthwatering and memorable. As luck would have it, there’s a Château de Brézé that makes a whole range of cuvées from that very terroir that won’t break the bank. Their 2013 ‘Clos David’ Saumur ($28) was mouthwatering and mineral when I last tasted in this past January – ribbed with anise spice and salinity.
Then there’s the umbrella appellation for the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire, known simply as Anjou. Because it’s a catch-all, you might see its name emblazoned on the labels of the more rebellious of natural producers, many of whom are making Chenin Blanc in a way that accentuates its juiciness. Take, for example, the 2014 Domaine Agnès et René Mosse Anjou Blanc ($23). It’s bursting with exotic, tropical fruit – more silky than structured, and extraordinarily easy to drink.
Savennières may be the most cerebral of the Loire Chenins. The appellation is a minute hamlet within Anjou, protected from the elements by a surrounding cluster of hills – its soil more schist and sand than the limestone found further inland. The wines aren’t showy or flashy. Rather than ebullient fruit or mineral purity, they give off savory character. Beeswax, earth, and spice are common descriptors. The 2013 Domaine du Closel ‘Jalousie’ ($25) is delicious now; certain other Savennières require age (or air) to really shine.