I drove some friends over to Vouvray yesterday to buy wine at the Aubert winery. H. is a friend from my grad school days in Illinois. She lived in France in the '70s when I did, and now has long lived in California. H. will be hosting a wine tasting for her school district, where she's a principal, when she gets back in September.
She wanted to get a bottle or two of a nice dessert wine to add to the drier reds and whites she'll be offering for the tasting, which is a fund-raising event. Vouvray is the right place to find such wines. The Auberts (like all of the Vouvray producers) make white wines exclusively from Chenin Blanc grapes, and they run the gamut from dry, to semi-dry, to sweet, to syrupy.
In French that's sec, demi-sec, moelleux, and liquoreux. I think the word moelleux in French gave us the term "mellow" in English. Liquoreux means "like a liqueur" — sweet and syrupy. I believe moelleux might be a term applied specifically for Loire Valley wines, because the Robert dictionary gives this example of its use as a noun: « le moelleux des vins de Touraine » — the mellow character of the wines of Touraine.
Dry and semi-dry Vouvray wines are made every year. Moelleux wines can be made only in years where the autumn weather cooperates and allows growers to leave the grapes on the vine into mid-October or later. In those years, the grapes reach a high degree of ripeness. Only in very hot, dry years — 2003, the year of the Great Heat Wave, la canicule, for example, and 2005 — do Vouvray wines reach the stage you might call liquoreux.
In English, we use the term "sweet" to describe dessert wines. In French, the most obvious equivalent term is « sucré » — but it is misleading when applied to these wines, because it can give the impression that you think sugar is added in the wine-making process. It is not. The grapes are allowed to ripen to such a degree that they start to look like raisins. The natural sugar in the grapes becomes highly concentrated as their water evaporates. Better terms to describe such wines are doux (tender) and of course moelleux.
If the weather turns rainy and chilly in October, the late harvest grapes are ruined. In 2007, we had a very rainy summer. But then the weather turned dry and sunny in September and October, allowing for a fine late harvest and some good mellow white wines. The 2008 demi-sec wine made by the Auberts is also delicious.
By the way, we learned that the current operator of the Aubert winery, whose father is now semi-retired, is the 6th generation of his family to run the place. The caves where the wines are made and aged were created in the Renaissance when big blocks of limestone was carved out of the cliffsides for chateau-building.
I'm not sure that it's easy to find excellent Vouvray wines in the U.S. Maybe they don't travel well. Maybe only the lower-quality ones are exported. The fact is, French wines and foods always taste much better when you have them in France. It's the air, the light, the beauty of the place. It's tasting and buying them right at the winery. Who knows why it's like that.