Saumur: Home to Fabulous Dry Chenin Blanc

The Chenin Blanc grape can be transformed into fabulous wine.  It makes sensationally riveting dry wines and lusciously sweet ones.  In this column, I want to focus on the dry ones.  They are exceptionally versatile, equally well suited to stand-alone as an aperitif or with a meal, especially with those foods that can pose a challenge for matching with wine, such as sushi, spicy Asian fare or roast pork.  Flavorful, yet lightweight and refreshing, they are perfect in the summer.  In truth, they are wonderful regardless of the season.

Indeed, often when in doubt as to what to serve with a meal, choosing a dry Chenin Blanc is the answer.  (Remember this advice at Thanksgiving.)  So, if this is such a wonderful wine that has been embraced by wine geeks and sommeliers, why hasn’t it captured the attention of the usual, dare I say, normal, wine drinker?  Because, like Riesling, when you see the grape name on the label, you often can’t tell whether the wine will be one of those riveting dry ones or a sweet one.

All wines made from Riesling, even in France with its chauvinism regarding appellation, are labeled with the grape name.  (In Germany, it is assumed the wine is made from Riesling unless otherwise noted.)  In the U.S. and South Africa, the latter with more Chenin Blanc planted than anywhere else in the world, the wines are labeled with the grape name, so there is plenty of potential for confusion.  As a result, the consumer rarely knows from the label whether the Chenin Blanc will be dry or sweet.

Thankfully, not all Chenin Blanc-based wines are labeled by the grape name, so consumers can know in advance what they are getting.  In France, the appellation system focuses on geography, not the grape name and the appellation indicates which ones are the enlivening and dry Chenin Blanc-based wines and which ones are sweet.  In France’s Loire Valley, where the greatest amount of Chenin Blanc is grown, there can be clarity.  Wines from Savennières, Jasnières and the white wines from the Saumur and Chinon appellations will be dry.  Wines from Côteaux du Layon and its subzones will be sweet.  Vouvray, sadly, remains a conundrum because they can be either dry or sweet and often times without a clear indication on the label, although recently I’ve seen more and more of them labeled as “dry” or “doux” (sweet) to help the consumer.

In the past, Saumur Blanc was not a particularly noteworthy or memorable appellation.  Most Chenin Blanc planted there went into bubbly wines, which, by the way, can be very good.  There was hardly any focus on quality dry still white wines.  Over the last decade that has changed and now some positively thrilling dry whites come from the chalky limestone soil of the appellation.  Just from a brief drive through Saumur, a village on the southern border of the Loire about equidistance from Angers and Tours, you can predict the soil of the surrounding vineyards just by looking at the surrounding architecture.  All the structures, buildings, castles, and bridges, are made from white limestone, which was quarried locally.

Theirry Germain, the enthusiastic and passionate owner of Domaine Roche Neuves, makes whites that are both rich and mineral-y, with gorgeous acidity and penetrating length.  One, Clos Romans, comes from a walled vineyard that dates from the 11th century that had been neglected.  He resurrected it by using the modern high-density formula (4,000 vines per acre) for planting, which he and other growers tell me produces better fruit.  He farms it biodynamically and although the vines are only 15 years old, the wines are stunning and sought after.  (The current release, 2017, vintage sells for $88).  So far, he produces only about 600 bottles annually.  He told me when I visited him in 2015 that Jean-Claude Ramonet traded him one-for-one:  His 2014 Clos Romans for Ramonet’s Le Montrachet.

Germain is not the only one shinning a bright light on the potential of Saumur Blanc.  There’s also Philippe Porché’s Domaine de Rocheville, where they make two versions of Saumur Blanc that highlight the diversity even within the appellation.  Their Le Clos de la Thibaudière, from Brézé, the most renowned village in the appellation, makes your mouth water with its striking saline minerality and contrasts beautifully with the riper and rounder Saumur Blanc, La Dame, from Parnay, the home base of the domaine.  Though the oak treatment is slightly different, Porché attributes the dramatic difference between the wines to the differences in the soil between the villages. I predict that in another decade the names of seemingly obscure villages in Saumur will be familiar to wine lovers as the villages of the Côte de Beaune.

Other top-notch producers whose wines I can recommend are Domaine Guiberteau and Domaine Arnaud Lambert, both of whom bottle wines from Brézé, Domaine du Collier, Domaine Filliatreau, and Chateau Yvonne.

Domaine Guiberteau, another family domaine, has roughly half of their organically farmed 24 acres planted to Chenin Blanc, 70 percent of it in Brézé.   Clos des Carmes is their top Chenin Blanc cuvée, but my advice is to buy any of their wines–reds included.

With almost 100 acres, Domaine Arnaud Lambert is large by comparison.  They, too, like all the forward-thinking producers in this area, farm organically.  The domaine bottles three Chenin Blanc-based cuvées from Brézé, Clos David, Clos de la Rue, and Clos de Midi, but frankly all of the wines–white and red–are exceptional.

Antoine Foucault, son of legendary Loire producer, Charly Foucault of Clos Rougeard, almost certainly the most famous red wine Loire producer, started Domaine Collier with Caroline Boireau.  Breaking from his father’s tradition, two-thirds of their roughly 17-acre estate is planted to Chenin Blanc. They make two whites, one blended from their vineyards and one, called La Charpentrie, from the vineyard of the same name, many of whose vines are over 100 years old. Their whites are tight when young and, like great wines everywhere, need time in the bottle of evolve.

Though Domaine Filliatreau, a family domaine started in 1967 by Maurice Filliatreau, focuses on red wine, which, by the way, are consistently excellent, they make a small amount of superb white Saumur called L’Imago that can stand with the best of them.

Château Yvonne, with just over a quarter of their roughly 28 acres devoted to Chenin Blanc, farm using a biodynamic philosophy, the current trend among forward thinking vignerons. Their 2017 Saumur Blanc is tightly wound, but mineral-y and balanced with an underlying creaminess.

These are consistently superb producers who, unfortunately, make only small quantities of various cuvées, so, I suggest you snatch up whichever of their wines you find.

Saumur is an area where young producers see an opportunity to make unique wine, and a name for themselves, because the raw materials–the soil, the weather, and grape variety fit together perfectly here–so expect to see many new names.  And rush to try them before the wines command triple digit price tags.

Of course, you can find excellent dry Chenin Blanc closer to home.  Two I recommend heartily are from Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma and from Paumanok Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island.  The crisp 2018 Paumanok Chenin Blanc ($25) delivers flinty hints.  It finishes dry and refreshing because of its vibrant acidity.

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Email me your thoughts about Chenin Blanc in general or ones from Saumur in particular at [email protected] and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

August 14, 2019