I started my week in the Loire to update the Guide to the Loire for next year’s edition with visits to two top producers in Vouvray, located on the same street just out of the town. Domaine Huet (the accent was removed from Huët after the Hwang family took over from the founding family in 2003) is the flagship domain of Vouvray. Domaine du Clos Naudin, now in the fourth generation of the Foreau family under Vincent, who took over in 2017, is a bit smaller (12 ha versus 30 ha).
Similarities of approach are more evident than differences. Domaine Huet owns three vineyards on different terroirs, Le Haut Lieu (the origin of the estate with clay soil over the tufa rock), Le Mont (perruches), and Clos du Bourg (very shallow soil directly on tufa). Cuvées are made separately from each, at each sweetness level (Sec, Demi Sec, Moelleux, Liquoreux), giving 12 possible still wines. Clos Naudin’s vineyards are all on the famous perruches soils (greenish clay containing large flinty pebbles). “Because our soils are all similar, we don’t produce single vineyard wines,” Vincent Foreau explains, so there are (up to) 4 cuvées of still wines each year.
The domains have old, cold cellars coated in black mold, lined with empty barriques at this time of year. “For dry wines élevage is always only 6 months because we consider that aging occurs in the bottle. It takes around 10 years,” says Johan Le Calonnec at Domaine Huet. Vincent Foreau explained the practical problems in keeping the barriques empty for six months until the next harvest. They are all old, of course. “We buy three barriques a year,” Vincent says. This amounts to about 3% new oak.
Both domains are among the holdouts still harvesting by hand. “95% of Vouvray is machine-harvested, there are only 6 producers out of 151 who are committed to manual harvesting,” Johan says. “Chenin Blanc is a very specific variety; you can see adjacent vines at quite different stages of maturity. If you harvest vines where some are below maturity and some are above maturity, you will never achieve equilibrium. Manual harvest is crucial,” says Vincent Foreau.
Neither domain has any fixed objective with regards to the proportions of dry versus sweet wines. Winemaker Jean-Bernard Berthomé, when he retired from Domaine Huet in 2019, said, “In 40 years I have never made the same wine.” At Clos Naudin, Vincent Foreau says, “We don’t have a fixed objective for style. I will give you two extreme examples. 2013 was a very cold year and the wine was almost all dry. In 2003 or 2018 by contrast it was impossible to make dry wine, almost all the wine was sweet. There is no average for the ratio of dry to sweet.” Johan Le Calonnec explains that, “ It’s the climate, especially the conditions in September, that determines the proportion of dry and sweet wine.” That uncertainty extends to the style of moelleux sweet wines. “Usually the moelleux has 20% botrytis, but there is no objective to maintain a consistent style, every year is a new adventure.” Indeed, I tasted one moelleux with no botrytis and another vintage with 30% botrytis. Of course, variations in production create a problem for marketing. “Some buyers don’t understand why they can’t get a dry wine in some years. If sugar levels are too high we make sweet wine, we don’t want to make a dry wine at 14.5% alcohol,” Johan says.
There’s a common view of what constitutes dry wine. Both domains say Sec can be anything from 2g/l to 8 g/l of residual sugar. Now I’ve complained many times before about the derogation in European law that allows a wine to be called dry when it has more than 4g/l residual sugar (the level below which all wines are unambiguously dry) so long as acidity is high enough. Chenin Blanc typically has such high acidity that this can often be applicable. The unpredictability of whether a Sec Vouvray will in fact taste dry has put me off ordering it in restaurants, for example. However, on this visit I tasted very few wines where I could detect sweetness, even when the residual sugar was above the magic 4g/l limit. Usually the only giveaway was a certain softening of the texture.
The criterion in deciding how much sugar to leave is a matter of balancing the acidity. When you quiz producers or sommeliers in the region as to whether a wine is dry, the usual euphemism has been to say, “Well, it’s fruity,” but this recent tasting makes me feel more confident that Sec on the label is likely to mean a wine tastes dry, at least from the producers I visited.
In the past, I’ve found most interest in the wines at both ends of the spectrum, dry and liquoreux, with the demi-sec losing the typicity of dry wines, and the moelleux not fully showing the typicity of sweet wines. On this visit, both demi-sec and moelleux seemed better balanced, offering subtle variations of the typicity of Chenin Blanc, going from acidity supporting a savory fruit spectrum in dry wines, to white stone fruits in sweet wines, and (of course) honey and nuts in botrytized wines. Although wines at all sweetness levels can be enjoyed on release, people are familiar with the idea that sweet wines can age very long, I’m inclined to the view that it is just as important, perhaps even more so, to hold the dry wines. Most really come out after 5 or 6 years and don’t begin to peak until 10 years.
Tasting at Clos Naudin, vintages of Sec from 2021 to 2006 varied from 3g to 8g residual sugar. It wasn’t always always obvious which wines had the most residual sugar. A savory thread runs from recent to older vintages, segueing into tertiary notes after more than a decade. The demi-sec shows a rare delicacy for this sweetness level. Tasting moelleux vintages a decade apart, purity changes to truffles as the wine ages. Liquoreux varies from based exclusively on triage in 2020 (greater purity) to extensive botrytis in 2020 (viscous and honeyed). The Première Trie from 1989 (a fully botrytized cuvée) could challenge any top Sauternes.
At Domaine Huet, the tasting was more about comparing the different plots. At each level, Le Haut Lieu shows its freshness first. This can appear austere in the dry wine. There are rounder, deeper, impressions to Le Mont and Clos du Bourg. Clos du Bourg always has the most evident complexity, and I suspect the gap with the other cuvées may widen as the wines age.
Clos Naudin Tasting Notes
Quite appley on the nose, perhaps still a touch reduced. Very acid, very linear, with a hint of that sour character that can make the finish on Chenin Blanc. There’s a lot of underlying flavor variety that needs some time to come out. It is quite dry. When would this be ready? “It’s perfect right now, but it will hold for ten years.” 88 Drink 2024-2032
“This has lost a bit of fruit since its first youth,” Vincent said. Still it shows a ripe fruity impression tending to pears on the nose. The palate shows the pressing acidity of Chenin Blanc, but has that richness showing as pears. There’s lots of flavor with the promise of variety to develop. 5.0g 90 Drink -2032
“Now for a different one with malolactic fermentation,” Vincent says. The cold conditions of the year and the late harvest show in a faint touch of green apples, followed by some quasi-savory impressions. The sugar barely shows as sweetness, more really as increased texture on the palate. Even so, there is less obvious typicity than in drier vintages. “This has always been open, it never really closed up,” Vincent says. 6.0g 89 Drink –2028
Nose is a little spicy with some notes of quince followed by some quasi-savory notes. Sugar is not at all noticeable, in fact this shows less sweetness than some vintages with lower degrees of residual sugar, although after a while in the glass you can sense it on the texture. Nose is beginning to evolve, giving an impression of some tertiary notes in the background. 8.0g 90 Drink -2027
Developed nose shows some tertiary impressions. Palate shows some savory impressions, moving towards truffles, but cut by an underlying sense of richness. Flavor variety takes some time to come out in the glass, but is quite full as it opens. 3.0g 90 Drink -2028
2016 Demi sec
Nose is much fuller than the Sec, developing towards apricots with hints of more exotic fruits, including some lychees as it moves in a tertiary direction. Sweetness shows on the finish but seems less than the actual level of residual sugar, feeling more like the German halbtrocken. That sense of lychees accentuates in the glass. 20.0g 90 Drink -2027
2015 Demi sec
Nose is less developed than 2016, palate gives an impression of greater purity, you might say more delicate, with some hints of sweet/sour balance. Perhaps the sweetness is just a touch more evident than in 2016. Lovely balance for demi sec with very long aging potential. 23.0g 91 Drink -2032
“For us this is a Petit Moelleux,” Vincent says, referring to the moderate level of residual sugar. Nose and palate show lovely purity of fruits, followed by a transition to show some truffles in the background. Apricots and peaches come out on the palate, with the high acidity maintaining freshness. There’s a great sense of delicacy and precision for moelleux; the wine has not really developed much yet, but it has a long way to go. 60.0g 92 Drink -2034
Light golden color. Quite an evolved nose with tertiary notes running to truffles coming through, giving a very complex impression. Palate shows viscosity with a hint of honey. The sweetness is obvious but very well cut by refreshing acidity. 45.0g 93 Drink -2030
Extensive botrytis in this wine, making the nose more forceful than the 2018, with a sense of confiture of apricots and prunes (Vincent also sees red fruits). The palate is viscous and honeyed, with notes of caramel, marmalade, and bitter oranges – it’s hard to grab it all. Seems very young with much development to come. 145.0g 94 Drink –2040
There was no botrytis this year, it’s all triage. Nose is more subtle than the Moelleux. Very sweet on palate, especially as acidity is not so pressing, but good sense of fruit purity, showing as apricots and peaches, with just some faint tertiary hints, and a faint impression of bananas. I wonder if and when this will mature in a tertiary direction? 145.0g 92 Drink –2037
Premiere Trie 1989
Golden marmalade color. Evolved botrytized nose with some faint hints of truffles is very complex. Spicy on the palate, showing confiture of fruits and notes of dates, complexity lives up to promise of nose, with sweetness very well balanced by savory acidity. Very long finish. Classic botrytized cuvee very much showing the typicity of Chenin Blanc at this sweetness level. 210.0g 95 Drink –2037
Domaine Huet Tasting Notes
Le Haut Lieu sec, 2021
Austere impression to nose, with some typical savory impressions of Chenin Blanc. Quite a tang to the finish. 13.0% 89 Drink 2024-2032.
Clos du Bourg sec, 2021
A touch more fruit showing on the nose than Haut Lieu, a rounder impression on the palate with fruits poking through the acidity. There’s a sense here of flavor variety waiting to evolve. 13.5% 89 Drink now-2032.
Le Haut Lieu sec, 2019
Dry impression to nose with a faint suggestion of tobacco. Quite dry on palate with savory impressions, almost a sense of umami. Flavor variety slowly beginning to poke out. 89 Drink now-2032.
Le Haut Lieu, demi-sec, 2020
There was no dry wine this year, berries for the demi sec Haut Lieu were the first to be harvested. Muted nose, sweetness is nicely integrated with the fruits on the palate, ranging from citrus to apricots. Softens a bit in the glass. 13.5% 19g 89 Drink now-2030.
Clos du Bourg, demi-sec, 2020
From the plot planted in 1985. Muted nose. Not any sweeter than Haut Lieu but deeper. Slightly nutty overlay on finish compares with the greater freshness of Haut Lieu. Palate here tends more towards apricots than the citrus of Haut Lieu. The gap between the cuvees may widen as the Clos du Bourg develops. 13.5% 20g 91 Drink now-2032.
Le Mont moelleux, 2010
More of a meld of citrus with chocolate than the clear citrus of Haut Lieu on the nose, sweetness just a touch more evident, that chocolate coating showing on palate. The sense of concentration on the palate outranks Haut Lieu, with fruits turning towards a white fruit spectrum. A touch of bitterness shows at the end. 13.0% 49g 91 Drink now-2032.
Clos du Bourg moelleux, 2001
Medium gold color shows age. Faint sense of truffles is creeping in, acidity is high, and this tastes distinctly less sweet than a wine from a warm year. The sense of truffles continues through the palate to the finish. This is a good result for a difficult year (there was rain at harvest), but it does not show the overtly delicious character you expect from Moelleux. 12.0% 42g 89 Drink now-2028.
Le Haut Lieu première trie, 2003
There was no botrytis this year. Light-medium golden color. Faint truffles on nose. Sweet on palate with the truffles bringing a counterbalance that adds complexity. Palate shows fruits of apricots and sweet citrus with a faint touch of bitterness at end on long finish. 85g 91 Drink now-2028.
Le Mont première trie, 2005
There was 30% botrytis this year. Light-medium gold color. Nose is quite developed, redolent with truffles, balancing the apricot fruits dominating the finish. Palate has intriguing meld of apricot and other stone fruits against truffles melding into tobacco, 13.0% 78g 93 Drink now-2028.