The Many Moods of Chenin Blanc

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It makes no sense that Chenin Blanc, a temperamental, difficult-to-ripen grape, should thrive in the cool, northern folds of France’s Loire River Valley, a region meteorologically challenged for growing any type of vines. Chenin likes to flower early in the spring, exposing its tender buds to not-uncommon frosts, and takes its own sweet time ripening in the fall, complicating harvests by not doing so at the same time. But thrive here it does, and it has for centuries, according to ampelographers who can trace its origins to the 9th century.

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Chenin owes its livelihood to a tongue-tingling level of acidity, which in turn gives the grape a surprising amount of versatility, not unlike Riesling. Depending on where it’s grown (both climate and soil are factors) and the weather conditions at harvest, winemakers can make any style of wine they deem best, from bone dry to luscious dessert wines and everything in between. In Savennières (part of Anjou) the style is dry with waxy, floral notes, but just across the river the specialty is botrytized dessert wines from Coteaux du Layon, Quarts du Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Upstream in the region of Vouvray the predominant style is demi-sec, although dry and dessert wines are made as well.

One producer who does it all is Domaine Huet, the preeminent star of the Loire, whose wine has become the standard bearer for Chenin-based wines. In 1928, when Victor Huet bought his home and attached vineyard Le Haut Lieu just outside of the town of Vouvray, he did so with the hope that a quiet life in the country would ease the debilitating effects of the mustard gas poisoning he’d suffered in WWI. His son Gaston Huet, however, himself a WWII hero, put his heart and soul into the winery and set the bar for producing exceptional wines. He eventually bought two more vineyards (Le Mont and Clos de Bourg) and in the late 80s began farming biodynamically. Gaston and his wife had three children, but the only one to show any interest in the winery was his son-in-law Noël Pinguet, who took the helm in 1976. By then Gaston’s duties as mayor of Vouvray, which he’d been since 1947, were demanding more of his attention.

During the subsequent decades, Pinguet and Huet’s wines became the benchmark for the Loire, topping out best-of lists year after year. Then, in 2002 Gaston Huet died, and the winery was sold to Anthony Hwang, a Filipino-American businessman who also owns the Tokaji estate Királyudva in Hungary. Pinguet was supposed to stay on to make the wine until 2015 but, as with so many other buyouts where the winemaker remains, there was a falling out. Hwang had recently put his daughter, Sarah, in charge and press reports indicate that she (and presumably with her father’s blessing) wanted to focus more on the dry styles. Producing the sweeter styles of wine is a far more hazardous endeavor since the grapes need to stay on the vine longer, ideally until they’ve shriveled to raisins or succumbed to botrytis, in the case of the moelleux. But these were the wines that made Huet famous, and in October of 2011 Pinguet abruptly resigned.

It’s too soon to tell the exact impact Pinquet’s absence will have on wine quality or the styles produces. Huet did make demi-secs in 2012 and 2013, but no moelleux. Hail damaged a good portion of the crop in both years so that might be all the explanation there is. Even Pinguet only made moelleux in years when the conditions were right. Remaining at the winery are Benjamin Joliveau, who had been under Pinguet’s tutelage before he left, and Jean-Bernard Berthomé, the chef de cave, who will be in charge of both the winemaking and the vineyards. Berthomé has been at Huet for 35 years, and one would expect that some of Pinguet’s and the late Gaston Huet’s methods and philosophy were deeply instilled in him. For now there’s no reason to suspect that they won’t continue the high standards that earned Domaine Huet its esteemed reputation in the first place. But let’s hope that they and the Hwangs have the fortitude to continue making the demi-sec and moelleux wines and let Chenin Blanc show its full range of magic.

Although some producers in the Loire have experimented with new oak, traditionally wines from Chenin Blanc are fermented in neutral vessels and aged in bottle. Huet’s wines never spend time in new oak nor do they go through malolactic fermentation. Chenin’s high acidity requires the softening touch sugar even for the dry wines. Huet secs have sugar levels of 6-7 g/l, compared to 2 g/l for most dry wines, while demi-sec typically has 20-25 g/l. The high acidity, however, makes these wines taste merely off-dry. The sweetest style is moelleux (meaning “marrow” for the unctuous texture), which has 40 to 60 g/l of sugar. Moelleux wines labeled Premiére Trie, such as this one from 2005, are wines comprised of grapes picked from an individual pass through the vineyard at harvest. What they all have in common is a bracingly high level of acidity, which enables them to improve in the bottle for decades.