Chinon is generally considered to be the top red wine appellation of the Loire. Bourgueil and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil are the main competitors, both of them within the same Touraine region, but Chinon's wines are generally considered more balanced and accessible. However, the best cuvées offer Bourgueil-like depth and complexity, and roughly the same ageability, and are much easier to drink.
Part of the appellation's charm, and a major contributor to the reason Chinons are so often exported, is the fact that it does well at combining size with quality. Only a few 5,000-acre appellations have quality this rock-solid, and the appellation's annual 500,000-case production is quite low compared to some similarly sized appellations that produce millions of cases--especially in the Loire, where vineyards are overly thick with vines.
Chinons display top technical mastery, amazing density, and flavors that run the gamut from red fruit to dark fruit to earth to meat. Prices on some of the exclusive cuvées are high, but for the most part they remain in the reasonable $15-$30 range. In short, these are very impressive wines that appeal to everyone and show that the Loire isn't just a region for white wines. Interestingly, white wines are allowed here, and Chinon Blanc can be an interesting drink, but the few bottles produced are rarely exported. The rosé is more promising, with dry, pungent red and pink fruit flavors.
Chinon has among the longest and most impressive histories of the Loire's cities. Despite being an average 15 square miles and not particularly scenic, the city was selected in the 13th century as a spot for royal estates to be built. Over the next few hundred years, it became a regional hub and major attraction for its gorgeous palaces, and remained so for at least two centuries. The massive palaces still overlook the entire town.
Henry II, the King of England who was fond of France, took a liking to the Chinon castle. The king was a fan of wine, later having a major influence in the development of the Bordeaux wine region. It is not known what part Henry played in the development of early Chinon wines, but it is likely that he helped this appellation to become prominent. For hundreds of years now it has been considered the Loire's best appellation for red wine, and it was one of the first Loire appellations to be created, in 1937.
Climate and Viticulture
The difference between Chinon and Bourgueil climatewise is negligible. In both regions, all the variables are there for perfect red wine production: rainfall, general temperature, lack of snowy or unexpectedly rainy seasons, and perfect drainage from the hilly vineyards. Chinon's vineyards lie on the banks of the Vienne river, a beautiful location and great for wine production.
The main difference between the two appellations is in the soil: while Bourgueil's soils are sand over limestone (surprising, since sandy soils don't usually make for very good wines), Chinon is limestone under gravel. The limestone is extremely old and hard, and the gravels are also solid and tightly concentrated. As a result, the wines are more balanced and complex, although many people prefer the masculine, earthy Bourgueil style.
- Cabernet Franc: Though Cabernet Franc is at its most powerful in Bourgueil and, to a lesser extent, the neighboring St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, here it reaches a pinnacle of finesse. Famous for its application in the wines of the Right Bank of Bordeaux, particularly those of châteaux Ausone and Cheval Blanc, Cabernet Franc is also responsible for making the best red wines of the Loire. Chinon Cabernet Francs aren't necessarily light, and most of them are deep and complex, but they have appealing fruity flavors that make them easily drinkable. Red fruits like cherry, damsonberry, and red currant are set against mildly smoky aromas of spice and herbs. Burgundian in their silky texture and elegance, these wines can be drunk early on but gain complexity and depth with 5-10 years of age.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet Sauvignon is used here, but is only allowed to make up 10% of the red blend, and most producers use even less. But the king of red grapes can often make an interesting rosé drink here.
- Chenin Blanc: Chenin Blanc used to make mediocre wines here, but recently a few very intriguing Chinon Blancs have been released. These are dry, often austere wines, but they have sufficient complexity to develop with age.
Despite having over 5,000 acres of planted land, Chinon is one of the best appellations in the Loire in terms of general quality. Nevertheless, we can determine seven producers who make especially avant-garde and remarkable wines.
- Philippe Alliet: The Vieilles Vignes showcases vibrant but complex notes of slightly bitter red cherry fruit and earth. The best cuvée is the Coteau de Noire, which has deeper, more intense, yet still elegant flavors. The wines have good aging potential and are reasonably priced at $20-$30.
- Domaine Bernard Baudry: Baudry makes good wines of all three colors. Intense, vibrant yellow fruit characterizes the whites, which are some of the best in the region, and the wild, floral, amazingly layered rosé is also top-notch. And yet the reds are even better: the dark but sweet, almost liqueurish La Croix Boisée Rouge, the thick, earthy Les Granges, and the most energetic and sweet example, the Les Grezeaux.
- Domaine de Beauséjour: Very good Chinons, although they aren't too often available in the United States. Made entirely from Cabernet Franc, the wines manifest the typical flavors of the appellation, with characteristic energy, clarity, and subtle depth. Just the basic wine is probably the best here.
- Couly-Dutheil: This widespread producer has recently become a leader in the Chinon region. Their white wine, Les Chanteaux, is about $25 and is much more characterful than most of the whites in this appellation. The red Clos de l'Echo is bitter but powerful, and has a significant following in the wine world. Gravières is much more smoky and earthy with red fruit and spice flavors that typify Chinon. Most of the reds are under $30.
- Charles Joguet: On both quantity and quality Joguet is a highly ranked producer in Chinon. They produce almost too many cuvées to list here, so we single out four of the best reds. Les Varennes du Grand Clos is an essence of Chinon, with fresh and light red fruit and floral notes, but the wine has an additional subtle depth that most Chinons don't. Within the Varennes vineyard, the pompously titled Les Varennes du Grand Clos Franc de Pied is more exotic, spicy, and Burgundian, with smoother fruit flavors and a more intense floral note. Clos de la Dioterie is denser and darker, with powerful smoky, earthy flavors. Clos du Chêne Vert is probably Joguet's easiest wine to find, and also probably their most consistent: It never fails to deliver a mix of flavors of bright red fruit, spice, wood, and minerals, and has a rich, silky texture. At around $25 it is also cheaper than the Varennes wines, which are $40 and up. Also, the rosé can be a real treat, with a combination of Cabernet-like red fruit flavors and more white wine-like citrus and mineral notes. All the wines can be drunk early, but will develop with age.
- Domaine de la Noblaie: This domaine is most known for their Les Chiens Chiens, which has intense but energetic floral scents. The Pierre de Tuf has similar flavors, but this wine is much more powerful. The vibrant Chinon Blanc and the complex, floral rosé are also good here.
- Jean-Maurice Raffault: Raffault's basic Chinon shows notes of dark fruit and spice; an essence of the appellation. Clos de Capucins is soft and sweet but the flavors are penetrating and powerful; a unique style. Les Galuches and Picasses are two other good cuvées. This producer also makes a Chinon Blanc, which is bitter but pungent. The rosé is less powerful but has good earthy flavors.
There are no officially designated subregions; it is a rare occurrence that an appellation this large has such high quality with no official vineyards at all. But the producer-driven Chinon system certainly seems to be working.