Chenin Blanc is a grape of great and varied potential.
It can make wine that is very dry or very sweet, still or bubbly, impressively complex or simple. It can age beautifully in the bottle from 40 to an astounding 100 years or be consumed within months of production. In fact, wine guru Jancis Robinson calls chenin blanc "probably the world's most versatile grape."
From France to New Zealand, from California to South Africa, chenin blanc has its place on the international winemaking stage. But perhaps most emblematic of its versatility is Vouvray, down the road in France's Loire Valley from the grape's ancestral home of Anjou.
Vouvray grows and produces the most chenin blanc in the Loire Valley. It also likely produces the greatest range in quality of the grape.
Some relatively mass-market wine comes out of Vouvray, approachable and unchallenging, usually a little on the sweet side, drinkable but definitely nothing fancy. At the other end of the spectrum, Vouvray produces premium sweet chenin blanc that fetches premium prices and that shouldn't be consumed for at least two or three decades after production. And in the middle, a lot more wines are marketed that are dry and sweet, still and sparkling, perfect for everything from an aperitif, to dinner, to dessert.
2015 Charles Bove Vouvray ($20 for a 750-milliliter bottle) is too fine a wine to be considered commercial, but, although the quality is undeniably good and the wine is probably capable of aging, the bottle is fitted with a Stelvin closure (a screw cap), which is usually used for wines not intended to age. So I suppose it belongs in the immediate quaffing category of Vouvray.
Because chenin blanc is a grape with naturally high acidity, any Vouvray intended to be approachable while young should have a balance of residual sugar. Bove got the balance right, and the wine, reminiscent of a fresh, young Riesling, has bracing acidity as well as a pleasing touch of sweetness. Aromas of candied lemon and mineral dominate this wine, a great match for everything from cheese to spicy Asian dishes.
2014 Catherine & Pierre Breton Vouvray La Dilettante Sec ($32) is a price bracket up and is labeled as "sec, or dry, meaning it has the lowest proportion of residual sugar in the Vouvray hierarchy. It is distinctly drier than the Bove, and has an abundance of chenin blanc's signature aroma, what most people call lanolin, but which I call "sheep." (This term comes from my high school days, when I had a sheepskin coat, which could occasionally get wet on the way to school. When I opened up my locker later in the day, I was greeted with the smell of sheep, an aroma I would find again, many years later, in French chenin blanc.)
The palate is redolent of orange blossom, yellow flowers and mixed citrus curd. The acidity is very much a presence, but four years in the bottle has tamed it slightly. The wine comes across as bracing, complex, and refreshing.
2011 Domaine Pichot Brut Vouvray ($18) is a sparkling Vouvray, made by the same method as is Champagne. But we can't call it that because it's not from the region of Champagne. It is what is called a "zero dosage" wine, meaning that no extra sugar is added to the bottle before the second fermentation takes place, the one that makes the bubbles in the wine.
Nevertheless, some residual sugar remains in the wine, reminding me of a good demi-sec sparkler. The age of the wine is visible in the color, deep yellow, verging on gold, and vinous aromas are beginning to emerge as well. Some sheep aroma is here, yes, but rich flavors of honey and salted almond are more prevalent. You could enjoy this wine with a variety of savory foods, but I'd happily settle for a glass with (or for) dessert.
Sometimes as a sommelier, I find myself passing judgment on a wine before I've even tasted it. I have an idea of what a certain wine from a certain place will, or should, taste like. But chenin blanc, that chameleon of the Loire Valley, always keeps me guessing and rarely disappoints.