How Montlouis and Vouvray Became a Chenin Blanc Battleground

For at least a decade, two of the greatest white wine terroirs have been quietly locked in a sort of Kanye vs. Wiz Khalifa-style feud. Jon Bonné on Montlouis vs. Vouvray and how their battle symbolizes the past and future of the Loire's greatest white grape, chenin blanc.

The villages of Montlouis-sur-Loire and Vouvray face each other across a particularly appealing stretch of the Loire River, just east of the city of Tours. This is the land of grand châteaux and tranquil countryside—the clean fuel powering the myth of la belle France. Picturesque cliffs of the chalky limestone known as tuffeau line each side and, for centuries, caves have been carved into these cliff walls—for homes, wine cellars, safe haven. In fact, one of my favorite words, “troglodyte” (“cave-dweller”), is often used here, although not as a putdown. In these parts, people literally dwell in caves.

Quite often, the local troglodytes are drinking chenin blanc. Both Vouvray and Montlouis built their reputations on this most versatile grape—Vouvray, especially—and on either side of the river, the villages interpret the grape in diverse forms: both sparkling and still, sweet and dry.

For at least a decade, the two have been quietly locked in a sort of Kanye vs. Wiz Khalifa-style feud. Vouvray fired the most stinging shot in 2009: a new rule decreeing that, after 2013, anyone wanting to make a wine called Vouvray had to vinify it inside the appellation’s boundaries, which encompass eight villages, or in the neighboring town of Nazelles-Négron.

The notable omission? Montlouis, which happens to be where two exceptional talents working with chenin blanc, Jacky Blot of Domaine de la Taille Aux Loups and François Chidaine, have their wineries. That both men owned land in Vouvray didn’t much impress local officials, who finally visited their cellars last year and made clear: Rules were rules. Blot and Chidaine vowed to fight back, but as of the 2014 vintage, their Vouvrays—some of the most profound examples of that wine—now wear the lowly “vin de France” label.

French wine usually thrives on just this sort of idiocy; it contributes to the mystique. But this one was a whopper. Even by French standards, l’affaire Vouvray seemed illogical. In other regions, including the Rhône, Bordeaux and even Burgundy, small domaines routinely make wines from other appellations located 15 or 30 miles away. And as Chidaine pointed out, it was no big thing for his fellow Loire winemakers to produce Chinon in the nearby town of Bourgueil.

Montlouis is charging forward, happy to rally, while Vouvray, as Jacky Blot puts it, has been “sleeping on its laurels.”

The new law seemed bizarre, especially considering the two towns had long been culturally entwined, with Vouvray playing the posh older brother, Montlouis the ragtag little sister. Perhaps local nabobs had forgotten their own history: For several years before it received its own appellation in 1938, Montlouis was bottled under the Vouvray name. And when Blot began acquiring parcels of Vouvray in 1998, including the Clos de Venise with its 80-year-old vines, he easily received permission to vinify his wines across the river. As he put it to me, when he wakes up in the morning in Montlouis, his Vouvray plots are “the only vines I see from my window.”

So why had this most obvious thing become such a battle?

The answer is, of course, that this was payback—one of those Gallic twists of the dagger meant to put two strivers, two egoïstes, in their places. But really, the spat represents something more stark: the divide between France’s uglier bureaucratic tendencies, which have kept many appellations almost frozen in time, and a need for progress that acknowledges the future without throwing away tradition.

At their best, both villages show the full possibility of chenin blanc—one of the world’s most versatile grapes. Montlouis is typically fully dry, and in past times was considered the more carefree and simple of the two; Vouvray is variable in its style, from dry to slightly sweet (or very sweet, for its dessert wines). Sparkling versions proliferate on both riverbanks. And the best examples, regardless of sugar, always reveal the presence of fresh fruit—autumn apples in particular—alongside a more subtle, earthier side that leans on flavors of pine resin and what is sometimes described as a “woolly” note, a scent you might recognize as that of a sweater in the rain. If some chenin expressions made farther west, like in Savennières, today can be a bit too ripe and alcoholic, good Vouvray and Montlouis thrive on their freshness.

Of the two, Vouvray is certainly more famous; its wines are virtually a household name, nearly as well-known as Sancerre—that other standard-bearer of Loire popularity. It is home to some of the Loire’s greatest wines, from the likes of Domaine Huet, the most legendary of Vouvrays, which still produces examples from parcels like Le Mont and Le Haut-Lieu that will age up to a half-century. Huet’s success, built on the hard work of the inveterately old-school Gaston Huet, continued after its 2003 purchase by an American, Anthony Hwang. (Although it faced a ruffle when longtime winemaker Noël Pinguet left in 2012, citing differences with the owners.) The appellation is similarly home to quality-minded producers like Catherine et Pierre Breton and pioneers like François Pinon, an early advocate for organic farming. Pinon’s wines, grown in the slightly colder Vallée de Cousse, show off a different, vivacious side of Vouvray.

But Vouvray’s fortunes have changed, and not for the better. That conclusion cuts rather deep for me; at age 13, during a family tour of the Loire, Vouvray was the first place I visited. My sips of local wine with a seafood lunch remain a seminal taste memory. I’m not alone in this sentimental fondness. Sommeliers rhapsodize over still-kicking bottles of 1950s Vouvray. But in a way, even those ancient bottles of Foreau or Huet (or producers now gone, like Prince Poniatowski) making the rounds reinforce a sense that Vouvray’s happiest years may be in the past.

Nearly 40 percent of Montlouis’ 385 hectares are organically farmed, compared to an estimated five percent of Vouvray’s more expansive 2,200 planted hectares. And while Montlouis is mostly home to small producers, much of Vouvray’s 110,000-hectoliter annual harvest is bought and distributed by large producers, including most of the 60 percent of Vouvray that’s made into middlebrow sparkling wine. In 1924, the wine authority H. Warner Allen was prophetic when he warned that demand for simple sparkling Vouvray was subsuming its dry wines, which he considered a shame, because the wines “lose their distinctive qualities and most of their charm when they are [C]hampagnised.”

I don’t think things are nearly so dire—Pinon’s Vouvray Brut with Korean fried chicken is one of the world’s great pairings—but the proliferation of cheap sparkling Vouvray has definitely dragged down its reputation. Meanwhile, Montlouis is charging forward, happy to rally, while Vouvray, as Jacky Blot puts it, has been “sleeping on its laurels.”

His wines, including his not-anymore Vouvray, are the perfect example: They’re bone-dry, less fruity than complex and austere. He believes sugar blurs chenin’s ability to transparently reveal its best qualities, which is why his winemaking is almost fanatically Burgundian, although he prefers to describe it as “the school of Montlouis.” He ferments all his whites in barrels. And rather than a cold, quick fermentation meant to highlight aromas, he borrows from Burgundy’s elite cadre, winemakers like Jean-François Coche (of Coche-Dury) and Jean-Marc Roulot (of Domaine Roulot): he exposes the grape must to oxygen before a long, slow fermentation and leaves the finished wine in steel tanks for months before bottling, which firms up the texture.

The resulting wines have little in common with old fruity Vouvrays or perky Montlouis. They are something new altogether. His Clos Michet exudes an austere chalkiness, while the opulent Clos de Mosny has such dense and complex fruit flavors that you’re almost deceived into believing it tastes sweet. (It’s fully dry.)

I found equally determined efforts all over Montlouis—in the cellar of Frantz Saumon, for instance, another vigneron devoted to dry wines. Saumon uses inert gas to minimize his sulfur use and a special curved concrete tank (not an egg!) to enrich the wines’ texture, and dabbles in forgotten local grapes like menu pineau. And, of course, there is Chidaine, perhaps Montlouis’ most visible presence, who pioneered biodynamics and built a reputation for single-vineyard bottlings (as Huet did in Vouvray). There’s a raft of young talent, too, including Lise & Bertrand Jousset, and Damien and Coralie Delecheneau, who make wine at La Grange Tiphaine in nearby Amboise.

Montlouis’ most symbolic move toward the future came nine years ago, when the French government approved the bottling of Montlouis pétillant original—one of France’s only appellations for what we would come to call pét-nat, a wine with no sugar or yeast added to make it sparkle. Pushed by vignerons like Jousset and Chidaine, it was a perfect example of how you could succeed within an often broken French system, all while Vouvray was busy churning out tanker-truck bubbles.

To be clear, this is not meant as an opportunity to pick on Vouvray. It remains vitally important to French wine, and even today a great Vouvray is an immensely pleasurable thing, full of energy and that woolly, earthbound side that makes chenin, chenin. The last thing I’d want is for the wines to slip into the stasis that has turned appellations like Sancerre into museum pieces.

But the question of whether it can truly become current remains. There is at least a partial answer in Vincent Carême, who inherited a bit of land from his parents and, in 1999, and began building his own organically farmed domaine, which now encompasses 17 hectares. Before that, Carême was an itinerant winemaker, traveling as far afield as South Africa.

He has brought to Vouvray the same forward-thinking techniques—some malolactic fermentation, which is all but unheard of there; using an amphora made from sandstone—that proliferate across the river. Along with a handful of other ambitious young winemakers, like Sebastien Brunet and François Pinon’s son Julien, Carême is confident that Vouvray can turn its gaze forward.

One afternoon last October, he insisted on showing me his prized parcel, Le Clos, above the town of Vernou-sur-Brenne, a vineyard that yields wines with intense, autumnal flavors. We drove up past his cellar, crested one of the yellow tuffeau cliffs and located a plot of his 70-year-old vines, poised over the Loire, which rippled back reflections of the late afternoon sun. The vines had, sadly, just endured their final vintage; come spring, it would be time to replant. Carême was wistful, but he also knew that he couldn’t wait any longer. Even in Vouvray, the time comes when the past needs to be left in the past.