Hail Vouvray, Aristocrat of the wine world


Just as The Aristocrats is the dirty joke that comedians tell each other after the punters have gone home, Vouvray is the tipple of choice among sommeliers once the ties have come off at the end of the evening.

Named after a small village in France’s Loire Valley, Vouvray is steely and vivacious when young — some even call it “nervous” — but it is also among the world’s longest-lived white wines. Vouvray can age magnificently for decades, and has been known to remain in prime condition for more than a century.

Indeed, in a recent Decanter Magazine feature on the 100 greatest wines ever made, a 1947 Huet Vouvray placed sixth, outranked among other whites only by the legendary 1921 Chateau d’Yquem.

Yet the great surprise to many first-time drinkers is that Vouvray is made entirely from Chenin Blanc, a grape that has not undeservedly fallen into disrepute in the New World.

Although grown quite successfully for centuries in the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc didn’t become popular in the United States until after World War II, possibly due to the fact that Allied Headquarters were in nearby Tours, and returning servicemen hankered for more of the crisp white wine they had enjoyed in France.

When planted in the hot, rich soils of California’s Central Valley, however, Chenin Blanc vines were able to produce as many as 170 hectoliters of wine per hectacre, versus less than the 34 hectoliters that the same vines yield per hectare when grown around the village of Vouvray. While these production levels were celebrated by the industrial alcohol conglomerates’ plans for screw-top gallon jug wines (the bag-in-box makers of the day), the taste, if any could be found at all, was best summed up by Jancis Robinson’s quip, “Chenin Bland.” Shelf life was measured not in decades, but in months.

So what is it about Chenin Blanc grown in the Loire Valley that makes Vouvray so great? The answer, as they say in real estate, is location, location, location.

The Loire River (known to some as “France’s Nile”) cuts a 900-km swath from the center of the country west to the Atlantic coast. The valleys surrounding the river and its tributaries form one of the northernmost grape growing regions in the world, and conditions are so marginal that viticulture is only viable on the warm, south-facing slopes.

In addition, the soils of the area around the town of Vouvray are composed almost entirely of acidic limestone. The combination of cool climate and poor soil means that Chenin Blanc planted here struggles to ripen. But out of adversity, greatness sometimes comes: Yields are low, flavors are concentrated, acids are high, and the result is not Chenin Blanc as Americans know it, but rather is glorious Vouvray.

Somewhat confusingly, Vouvray is made in three distinctly different styles. The most common is a completely dry wine known as sec (if it says Vouvray on the label without any other modifiers, it is most likely a dry wine). In particularly good years, semi-sweet wines (demi-sec) and sweet wines (moelleux, literally “full of marrow”) can also be produced, and these terms will almost always be indicated on the label.

Each of these styles of Vouvray is high in acid. Like Sauternes, the dynamic balance between acidity and sweetness can keep Vouvray alive almost indefinitely, but even the dry versions can not only age, but continue to improve, for decades.

The best news for wine lovers is that given Vouvray’s relative obscurity (not to mention a natural disinclination among many people to drink aged whites), prices for old bottles are shockingly cheap.

Specialist importer Bristol Japan offers a series of vintages of Marc Bredif Vouvray dating to the early 1980s for just 5,000 yen to 7,000 yen per bottle. For those with a larger budget, their library offerings stretch as far back as the 1946 vintage, a steal at 30,000 yen (for information on direct sales, please e-mail Mr. Hiyama at hiyama@bristol-japon.co.jp

In addition to Marc Bredif, top names to look for include Domaine Huet and Foreau’s Domaine du Clos Naudin. Great recent vintages are the 2002 and the triumvirates 95/96/97 and 88/89/90.

Although Vouvray is hard to find at wine stores in Japan, a surprising number of restaurants have a bottle or two hidden on their lists as a reward for adventurous treasure hunters.

The Gordon Ramsey restaurant in the new Conrad Hotel in Shinbashi even pours Foreau’s 2002 Vouvray Sec as a by-the-glass wine at lunch, which is certainly a brave choice, but sommelier James Devereux reports that it has been very well received.

Stellato in Shirogane offers Huet’s 2000 Le Mont Vouvray Sec as well as the ’96 Le Mont Moelleux. Stellato maitre d’ and man about town Aarin Teich laments that he recently served their last bottle of Huet’s ’57 Moelleux, which still had “shocking power and heft, and poured out like ribbons of liquid gold.”

The deepest sweet Vouvray list we could find was at Chinois Shibuya, which features Huet’s dessert bottlings from the 2003, ’90, ’89 and ’57 vintages. For a last meal on earth, one could certainly do worse than a double order of Chinois’ signature foie gras donburi and a bottle of ’57 Huet!

For those looking to try back vintages of dry Vouvray at a phenomenally good price, the Tokyo American Club offers ’83, ’88, ’90 and ’97 Marc Bredif Vouvray Sec at just 5,000 yen/bottle (definitely a deal worth convincing a member to get you in for).

Vouvray prices at all of the above restaurants are exceedingly reasonable considering the age and vibrancy of these wines (similar Bordeaux or Sauterne vintages can be had around Tokyo, but at prices which could easily necessitate a second mortgage). As one sommelier confided, “Vouvray is not on our list to make a profit, it’s there to delight real insiders.”

For those looking for an experience that is a lot more pleasant than telling, or for that matter listening to, The Aristocrats joke, the next time you see an old bottle of Vouvray on a wine list, flag down the sommelier and treat yourselves to a piece of living history.