Vouvray is the greatest appellation of the Loire and one of the greatest in France. It isn't just high quality that gives Vouvray an advantage over other appellations, it's diversity. It is doubtful that any other similarly sized region in the world produces so many kinds of white wines. From the underrated grape of Chenin Blanc, Vouvray produces not only wines of all different levels of sweetness--from richer than Sauternes to bone-dry--but also Champagne-style fizz.
Everything depends on the vintage in Vouvray: in vintages conducive to sweet wines, producers wheel out extremely rich and flavorful botrytis-affected sweet wines. It is these styles that are the most acclaimed of the region. The critics like them not only for their distinctive, vibrant flavors, but also for their purported aging ability of over 100 years. Nobody has lived long enough to prove that the great Vouvrays are better after a century, but even if the maximum aging ability is 30-50 years, these are clearly some of the most ageable wines in the world.
The region's semi-sweet (aka off-dry) wines shouldn't be underestimated. From other regions, off-dry wines are often cloying, awkward mixtures of dry-wine flavors with anomalous residual sugar. In Vouvray, the semi-sweet styles are remarkably mellow; though they have the same flavors as the sweet wines, the flavors are more restrained in a natural way. The dry wines are usually bone-dry, and contrast impressively with the sweetest of the sweet here. And then there are the bubblies, which, like Champagne, vary significantly in sweetness and style.
At approximately 4,500 acres, Vouvray is a fairly large and climatically diverse region. It is, in fact, almost the exact same size as one of its main competitors, the great Sauternes. Interestingly, there are some smaller regions that are more exclusive in terms of acreage and production numbers than Sauternes and Vouvray, but despite the massive advantage of smaller size, none of them exceed these two mainstays in general quality.
As such, Vouvray's main competitor is Sauternes. Though pure quality might favor Sauternes, Vouvray is a tremendously more versatile appellation, making a million cases a year of wines of varying styles as opposed to 375,000 of only sweet wines. Also, some sweet Vouvrays can be as inexpensive as $20. So what Vouvray's wines accomplish at their best is a combination of the practicality and reasonable prices of Loire wines with the lusciousness and richness of the world's great sweet wines.
Winemaking has existed in Vouvray since the 700s. Originally, abbeys owned the vineyards but no one was sure how to make wines, as the technology was still in its infancy across the world. As time went on, winemakers realized Chenin Blanc's potential in the region, and by the time Champagne was popular were making their own impressive sparkling wines from the grape. Only in the 20th century did sweet wine really take off, and the century had many landmark sweet Vouvray vintages.
By 1936, Vouvray was considered the best appellation in the Loire, and, fittingly, was the first to receive AOC status. Four styles of sweet wines were authenticated: Doux (the highest in sugar; this designation is rarely used), Moelleux (literally mellow, but this encompasses most of the wines known to the world as sweet), Demi-sec (off-dry, for slightly sugary but not too strong wines), and Sec (the dry wines that can be surprisingly bitter).
Climate and Viticulture
Vouvray's vineyards are planted facing south on a plateau that overlooks the right bank of the Loire river. The characteristic mist and all other weather conditions are highly conducive to noble-rotted wines, but only in years that are warm enough; in cold years the rot will not form, and dry wines or Champagne-like sparkling wines must be manufactured.
The topsoil of gravel here is fairly normal, but what the gravel lies on top of is neither limestone, sand, nor marl. It's a special, very drainable kind of rock called Tuffeau stone, which is only found in the Loire Valley and has its highest deposits in the Vouvray appellation. The porous, beautiful rock makes for outstanding wine production, and also forms many underground caves in which Vouvray producers age their wines.
- Chenin Blanc: Vouvray is unquestionably the best appellation in the world for Chenin Blanc. With the exception of a bit of Arbois, which is very occasionally blended in, the wines produced here are 100% varietal Chenin Blanc. There's simply no other appellation in the world where the same grape produces dry wines, off-dry wines, sweet wines, and sparkling wines...and they're all considered top-notch! Chenin shows amazing variety in Vouvray. The dry wines show flavors of ripe green fruit and floral essences of white flowers, acacia, and blossoms. These wines will last about 25 years. The Demi-Secs are very impressive, with yellow pear fruit flavors; they can be a little thick due to a lack of acidity, but the flavors are light and vibrant. They can also probably age for up to 25 years, but are better after a decade. The Champagne-style sparklies are flavored like Champagne, with white fruit flavors and floral scents on the nose plus an elegant body and a long finish. The sweet wines, which are the cream of the crop, are Sauternes-like, with pure floral scents and honeyed, powerful, thick orchard fruit flavors. They have a projected aging span of close to 100 years; though this is not proven, these fabulous wines at the very least can continue developing remarkably for half a century.
- Arbois: Arbois is second fiddle here; while usage was once fairly common, the grape's general popularity has declined over the last few decades and its usage in Vouvray is very uncommon now. Its soft, fat characteristics are used to tame the natural acidity of the Chenin Blanc grape.
Many of Vouvray's producers have existed in the appellation for decades, even centuries. As a result, quality is quite reliable here. The following eight producers generally charge reasonable prices (not counting Huet), have good availability outside France, and make above-average Vouvrays.
- Domaine des Aubuisières: This well-known domaine, headed by Bernard Fouquet, makes all four types of Vouvray: dry, off-dry, sweet, and sparkling. The bubbly is crisp and refreshing, but also surprisingly smooth; definitely above average. The dry wine is the Cuvée de Silex, made from the silica soil that generally makes resonantly powerful, often brutally metallic wines. But this wine is honeyed and rich yet not at all sweet, with bright mint and herb flavors but also a good core of yellow fruit. The Le Marigny isn't quite as impressive in the first few years, but shows good aging potential. The demi-sec, Les Girardières, is even better, with powerful peach flavors that are neither too sweet nor too acidic.
- Bourillon-Dorleans: The demi-sec style here, La Bourdonnerie, is fresh and honeyed, with all kinds of citrus fruit flavors but a liberal amount of residual sugar to keep the wine pleasant. The true highlight is the dry style, Vieilles Vignes la Coulée d'Argent, which is known for its exquisite, almost entirely floral flavors and mellow richness. This is a great cuvée available for under $20.
- Domaine Georges Brunet: These non-cuvées are better than their pedigree: the off-dry version offers complex pit fruit and spice flavors, while the dry version is less exciting but has the same honeyed flavor core. Though fine for drinking early, these wines are firm and structured, and thus meant for aging.
- Domaine Vincent Careme: This domaine produces one of the most impressive Vouvray Bruts, which has flavors of fruit skin and herbs...quite unusual! Their cuvées are more conventional: the honeyed, highly floral Le Clos, the ripe, surprisingly stony and spicy Le Peu Morier, and the creamy, luxurious, but still not sweet Tendre. The impressively structured wines have layered complexity and distinct but not offputting flavors.
- François Chidaine: Stony, mineral-driven, and powerful, with all kinds of citrus and mineral fruit flavors, the Les Argiles is one of the best dry Vouvrays. The Clos Baudoin is less complex but more zesty and fun to drink. The off-dry Le Bouchet is this domaine's masterpiece, smoothly combining tropical fruit flavors and strong minerality. All the wines here are highly ageworthy.
- Domaine du Clos Naudin/Philippe Foreau: One of the more expensive producers of Vouvray, Naudin/Foreau prices their wines at $30-$100, but offers great reliability and consistency in their lineup. The sparkling wine is a good example here. The basic dry Sec is the lowest-priced of the wines, with surprisingly honeyed fruit flavors and powerful minerality, and a long-lasting floral note. The Moelleux is significantly better, with dazzling flavors of lush yellow fruit and a sublime floral element. The Reserve and the Reserve 1er Trie add on even higher levels of quality and price. All wines should definitely be cellared for a decade or more.
- Domaine Huet: The famous Domaine Huet is to Vouvray what Château d'Yquem is to Sauternes: it makes by far the best wines of the appellation, but with a significant price premium. Huet makes a variety of cuvées from several vineyards. From the Le Haut Lieu vineyard the demi-sec and sec styles are the best, with lively but rather austere mineral and fruit flavors. From the Le Mont vineyard the ripe and spicy Moelleux is noteworthy, in addition to Huet's best dry style, which is powerful and smoky but has refreshingly vibrant fruit flavors. From their famous Clos du Bourg vineyard the domaine makes the sublime 1er Trie Moelleux, which for under $80 has an amazing range of vibrant, powerful exotic fruit notes. Honeyed, spicy, and amazingly flavorful, this wine is one of the most ageworthy in the appellation. The demi-sec and sec Clos du Bourgs are much less well-known, but also have good flavors of fresh fruit and floral honey. The best wine, however, is the Cuvée Constance Moelleux; the best vintages, like 1997, are among the best wines ever made. These wines are nearly impossible to describe young and further develop over their 50-100 year aging lifespan. Headspinning flavors of yellow and orange fruit and a deep, long, mellow finish are among what avid tasters have cited in mature examples. Prices are over $150.
- François Pinon: This domaine makes an occasional sweet Cuvée Botrytis but it's hard to find. The Champagne-style bubbly is fun and unconventional, with flavors of brisk fruit and vibrant, focused minerality. The Silex Noir, made from silica soils, is exotic and surprisingly deep with every yellow and tropical fruit flavor imaginable. The Cuvée Tradition is the most reliable wine and for under $20 offers great flavors of peach, minerals, and flowers.
There are no officially designated Vouvray subregions or official vineyards, but all sweet wine aficionados should become familiar with the names of the three vineyards Huet uses to make their wines: Le Mont, Le Haut Lieu, and especially, the famous Clos du Bourg.