There are the noble grape types and then there are all of the rest, as the man once said to me. Chenin Blanc decidedly belongs to the latter category but with the same caveat shared with many other types - in the right terroir it performs admirably. So why is it any different than the noble Pinot Noir which is a stinker in most venues but sublime in Burgundy? It isn't any different and therein lies the fallacy in the noble/ignoble hierarchy. Virtually all vinifera grapes just need to find the right terroir to excel.
Vouvray (voov-ray) is a 5,000 acre AOC (1936) located in the Touraine district on the north side of the Loire River. It is just east of the city of Tours, a hundred forty miles east of the Atlantic Ocean, almost half way to Burgundy. It is also the home of the finest Chenin Blanc in the world and for that reason no other grape is allowed there.
What makes the Vouvray terroir so perfect for Chenin Blanc? Soil primarily. The calcareous soil (tuffeau) of Vouvray developed ninety million years ago during the Cretaceous Period. At that time the area was a seabed comprised of everything that fell to the floor from above and, of course, sand. Today this rocky soil provides a perfect balance of drainage and water retention for grape vines.
Chenin Blanc grapes also thrive in the northern climate of the Loire Valley, which is partly maritime and partly continental. When it's more maritime (cool) the wines tend to be drier and when more continental, the wines end up sweeter. Also when it's cool more sparkling wine is made there and when it's warm, more lush dessert wines are made.
Ampelographers have determined Chenin Blanc got its start in the ninth century in Anjou, fifty miles to the west. With that long of a history you could imagine that every possible style of wine making was explored. Today six styles prevail:
1. Sec - the driest at .4% residual sugar
2. Demi-Sec - off-dry .4-1.2%
3. Moelleux - noticably sweeter 1.2-4.5%
4. Doux - very sweet 4.5%+
5. Petillant - slightly sparkling
6. Mousseux - fully sparkling
In a typical year 52% of production will be sparkling and 48% still, but percentages change with the weather. The typical yield for a Vouvray vintage is one million cases. No wines see any oak or malolactic fermentation. The typical flavor profile includes some combination of honey, nuts, ginger, fig, apple, apricot, white flowers, or candied fruit. The aroma shows rose, quince, acacia, or green apple.
The wine color is straw yellow when young and more amber as it ages and aging is something Vouvray does very well. Sec (dry) Vouvrays can hold for fifteen to twenty years while sweet Vouvrays can last a hundred years. A good average for Vouvrays from superior vintages is forty years. So what accounts for this ageability? Acidity. Chenin Blanc grapes have a naturally high acidity which acts as a preservative when the wine is laid down.