Vouvray is another of those delicious and wonderful white wines, known to connoisseurs, often misunderstood by most, that breaks almost every wine stereotype. Vouvray can be bone dry, off dry (often labeled tendre) or nutty sweet. It is most often a still wine, but it can also be pettilant (just barely fizzy) or mousseau, sparkling. While the accepted wisdom is that white wines must be drunk while young, well-made Vouvrays can be cellared for unbelievable lengths of time, improving with age and changing in the bottle into incredibly complex and truly amazing treasures.
Vouvray is made only from the Chenin Blanc grape which along with Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne, is one of the great grapes of the Loire Valley. In the United States Chenin Blanc is treated seriously by only a rare few wine makers and it is most often seen in slightly sweet jug wines.
Too many places where it has been tried in California are simply too hot for this thin-skinned grape, and the intense heat and sunlight can result in grapes with a very high sugar level at harvest. During fermentation all that sugar can result in a wine with an uncomfortably high alcohol level or, if left unfermented, a sweet wine that is often out of balance due to a lack of acidity.
But oh, what a difference terroir can make! The Loire valley’s combination of soil, rainfall, sunlight and temperature yields a grape that is truly noble, and that makes wines worthy of any wine lover’s table. Here the Chenin Blanc is turned into a wine with enough delicacy to allow the unique signature of the soil to show through on the palate and enough flavor to produce a wine that holds up well with many dishes. These wines are meant to be at their best when enjoyed with food, either a light snack or a full meal.
The soil of Vouvray is only about 18 inches thick and underneath lies a thick layer of limestone tufa, a characteristic of the soil in several other grape growing areas known for their white wines. This soft, porous limestone can be easily dug, and there are ancient caves in the area, carved into the hillsides, that have been converted into modern dwellings. They are very much in demand as summer homes since they are naturally cool.
Most people think of Vouvrays as springtime and summer wines, but I have been known to enjoy one in the middle of winter: that fresh bouquet coming from the glass reminds me of the warmer weather to come. Wines this good shouldn’t be limited to only a few months of pleasure.
A few years ago, I brought a few cases of a Vouvray for Red White & Bubbly that was very much an “old fashioned” version of the wine: not dry but not sweet, either, with aromas of white flowers, fruit and a hint of honey. I decided to have it with my dinner that night. I pounded out a skinless chicken breast until it was evenly 1/2 inch thick and then I dredged it in flour to which I had added a pinch each of salt and pepper. I sautéed the chicken in a skillet with a bit of butter and added some chopped shallot and thinly sliced mushrooms. Next came a splash of the Vouvray to deglaze the pan (the bottle was open, as I was sipping a glass while I cooked, of course) and, after a minute, a few spoonfuls of cream. I ate this with egg noodles tossed with butter and a bit of chopped parsley, and steamed baby peas. The wine was delicious, and that bit of fruitiness was a wonderful flavor note that complemented the flavors on my plate. A big, oaky California Chardonnay would have been a disaster with the meal: there are times when something a bit lighter works best, when a whisper is much more alluring than a shout.