Vouvray in the Loire is a wine region with a split personality. In France it is famous as a producer of sharply refreshing sparkling wine, and with good reason. About 60 per cent of the wine made in Vouvray is sparkling and most of that stays in France, although Yapp imports one if you are interested in trying it (Jean-Claude & Didier Aubert Vouvray Mousseux Brut, £16.50) and Les Caves de Pyrène has another (Domaine Champalou, Vouvray Brut, £19.60).
In Britain, by contrast, vouvray is known only as a still wine. Again, that’s not a surprise when you look at the region’s export figures: some 10 per cent of its sparkling wines make it out of France, while around two-thirds of its still ones do.
The image problem goes further; what sort of still wine do you think of when you think of vouvray? The one I encounter most often is the one I like the least; a sweetish (“demi-sec”), blandish, often negociant-made wine sold cheaply on supermarket shelves. It’s this that acts as the face of vouvray in this country and it does the place and its wines a disservice.
There’s just one grape in the region – chenin blanc – and here, as nowhere else on earth, it shows remarkable adaptability, with a capacity to make superb wines that might be dry (and just off-dry), demi-sec or very sweet, folded through with flavours of apple and pear orchards and the distinctive, autumnal floral scent of quince.
Vouvray isn’t huge. It sits on the Loire river, to the east of Tours, covering eight villages and 5,400 acres of vines. Thanks to the TGV, which puts Paris just over an hour from Tours, land here is valuable to developers.
“Tours has almost become a suburb of Paris, with commuters travelling to work in the city each day pre-Covid and Parisians looking for a country home here now,” says one local. It’s a threat for vineyards.
“The main project over the next few years is to protect the PDO because if we allow one [construction] project within [it] it will open up the [flood] gates,” says François Bouteille of the local Syndicat des Vignerons. Like many other regions across the world, there has been a recent focus on sustainability. Bouteille (yes, I know, nominative determinism in action) says the appellation has committed to eliminate herbicides by 2021 and that there is a “big focus on improving biodiversity”.
There is also a feeling – both from Bouteille and also some of the producers I spoke to – that vouvray has not yet achieved its full potential. This might sound odd given that we’re talking about one of the world’s most famous wine regions but as I’m so fond of quoting, “everything must change for everything to remain the same”.
Peter Hahn is a New Yorker whose first career was in finance. He bought land in Vouvray in 2002, almost by accident after searching all over France for the right vineyard, “I knew I wanted something very small that I could work myself. This was about creating something with my own hands. I just couldn’t find it. Then Vouvray came out of the blue. It was love at first sight. I bought it on the spot, which was probably a good thing because if I’d considered it a bit more carefully I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
Now in his twelfth vintage as one of Vouvray’s 150 growers, Hahn’s outsider-insider perspective is illuminating. He says he, “hadn’t even tasted much vouvray” before buying. Reading up, he was struck by the contrast between the region’s modern reputation and “the romantic image I was developing of vouvray – these great moelleux [sweet] wines served at court in Paris in the late 19th century, the tradition of vouvray demi-sec which can be unbelievably interesting and complex… My first thought was, ‘My God, what has vouvray become.’ But living here for the last 15 years, I feel I’ve witnessed a revolution.”
One producer that has stood for quality in Vouvray over the years is Huet – if you know the name of one producer it’s probably that one. The revolution Hahn talks of is of a new generation of smaller producers, about working the land with care, about making wines using grapes from single vineyards or from particular blocks so that they reflect the terroir and most of all about reintroducing drinkers to a better quality of vouvray than they might know.
Vincent Carême – one of Hahn’s professors at wine school – is one of the dynamic new wave of winemakers making beautiful, vibrant wines that gleam like freshly fallen snow under bright sunlight. Carême sees what he calls, “clean, pure, dry wines” as the future of the appellation. “Dry vouvray can be beautiful, but it’s going to take time to change the customers’ minds.”
I visited Domaine Vincent Carême a few years ago, and spoke to Vincent and his South African wife Tania via Zoom link in the summer, on a day when Vincent had been eel fishing with his sons. Both Vincent and Tania were keen to emphasise the work that is going on across the appellation to give wine growers and makers more information to help them refine their work. “We have a commission working on identifying old blocks of vines,” said Tania, “And then we want a study of the terroir,” continued Vincent.
What I would like to say to anyone who might have forgotten about vouvray, or never discovered it, is – try the wines. Chenin blanc has glorious, piercing acidity that brings a refreshing swoosh even to sweeter wines while the flavours in the grape are like a beautiful tapestry.
I know that uncertainty around sweetness is often an issue. No one likes to be surprised by it and it can be quite annoying when advocates insist, “It’s not about sweetness, it’s about balance,” and claim that “you can’t taste the sweetness when a wine is in balance”.
In my experience you usually can; but a vouvray with some sweetness, whether it’s just a tinge or a lot more, can be very satisfying.
Would you like a starting point? Vincent Carême Spring Vouvray Sec 2018 (Berry Bros & Rudd, £14.95; Waitrose, £14.99) is beautiful – lucid and lyrical. I also love Domaine Sébastien Brunet Renaissance Vouvray Sec 2016 (Lay & Wheeler, £15) which tastes of peach and pear skins, warm rain, honeysuckle and quince and is very uplifting – just what we need in these times.