28 July 2009

Sweet Vouvray wines

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.

Late July skies at sunrise in the Loire Valley

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.

Morning clouds over the vineyards

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.

Big wide paths through the Touraine vineyards
make them a good place to walk with a dog.

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.

Seen from this angle, it looks like the vines are
swallowing up the houses at La Renaudière.

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.

Une fleur

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.


  1. Those sky photos are amazing.

  2. Back in '81, I knew very little about wine, other than a vague concept of "white wine with fish and chicken, red wine with beef". So, when Aimee, Jane and I were going to have a Thanksgiving dinner at Jane's -- she was roasting a big chicken in her "family's" oven-- I went to Inno and bought a bottle of white wine. I had no idea what the labels' wording meant in French. I came home with a white labeled "moelleux", and when M. Lacombe saw it, he just rolled his eyes and shook his head and told me that it simply wouldn't do for me to take that wine to my friend's dinner with roast chicken! He gave me a bottle of their St. Emilion dry red (explaining, among other things, that dry reds are great with anything that is roasted), and told me to save the white for dessert :)) Whew! Saved by Monsieur le (knowledgeable) Frenchy :)


  3. Ken

    I saw bottles of "La Craie Vouvray" at Hannaford in Scarborough Maine last week. Didn't buy any because we were "focussing" on the Burgundy and Australian Shiraz :-)

  4. We are waiting for a case of Vouvray moelleux to arrive. I can't remember the name but when it's here, I'll post about it.

    Lovely post on the delicious Vouvray wines!

  5. Lovely photos (Japanese amenone, by the way, one of my favourites).

  6. I love that H. is buying wines in France for a fund raiser in California. Can she write off her vacation? ;-)

    I always learn from your posts, Ken, thanks.

    The sky photos are fantastic, especially the first one.


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