The Loire Valley: Vouvray

Posted on Nov 11, 2018 by



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Finally got round to visiting Vouvray, the Chenin Blanc capital of the world. Wines here are made from the white grape Chenin Blanc (also known also as Pineau de la Loire) and only from Chenin Blanc.

I had been wanting to visit ever since I read about Monsieur Gaston Huet in Wine & War by Don and Petie Kladstrup.

Domaine Huet is one of fifty-one wine producers in Vouvray. Probably because of the fame of Gaston Huet it appears to be the best documented. It is also the only wine producer from the area to have headlined a Christie’s auction.

Gaston’s father, Victor Huet, a bistro owner, was gassed during the Great War. After the war feeling restless he wanted a change in lifestyle. In 1928, his wife, Constance, saw that Le Haut-Lieu (the high place) was on the market in Vouvray. They went to see it, fell in love with it and moved in. Their son Gaston, eighteen, was about to study agronomy. They bought the house, the vineyard and its stocks of wine you could say lock, stock and barrel. In 1981 Gaston was still enjoying the 1913 and 1921 vintages. His son-in-law and successor, Noel Pinguet, celebrated his 60th birthday with an 1893 Haut-Lieu. In 2017 a bottle of Domaine Huet Vouvray ‘Le Haut Lieu’ Moelleux 1919 was sold for £547.

The Estate comprises of three vineyards Le Haut-Lieu, Le Clos du Bourg and Le Mont in eighty-five acres, The original vineyard, Le Haut-Lieu, surrounds the house. Le Clos du Bourg, bought by Gaston Huet in 1953, the oldest site in the appellation of Vouvray, dates to the 1700s. Its three vineyards give rise to pétillant, sec, demi-sec, and moelleux wines.

Chenin Blanc is said to be the world’s most versatile grape. It produces wines of varying dryness and sweetness, including dessert wines and sparkling wines made according to the Méthode Champenoise.

The ageing ability of Chenin Blanc is among the longest in the world of wine. Some vintages last for a hundred years. The longevity is due to the grape’s high acidity, which acts as a natural preservative.

Those who know about these things say that Vouvray has to pass through its teenage years before it matures. Sec and demi-sec need ten years before they are at peak level and continue to develop for another twenty to thirty. Wines from good vintages have astonishing longevity levels not usually associated with white wine.

For the uninitiated (us) demi-sec and moelleux are confusing. We have bought Moelleux which turned out to be drier than a demi-sec and demi-sec sweeter than a moelleux. It all depends, apparently, on the vintage, vineyard or even what the winemaker considers to be demi-sec or moelleux (inexplicably this adjective means ‘like bone-marrow’).

In good years, grapes are left on the vines to develop noble rot to make Moelleux, a dessert wine which also improves with age. The problem is by the time you have tasted it, it’s too late to let it improve with age. Once the cork is out you are advised to quaff it.

The history of Vouvray goes much further back than Domaine Huet of course.

In the 300s, under Roman rule, parts of Vouvray belonged to the collegiate church of Saint-Martin of Tours. Martin is credited with spreading the tradition of wine-making on  a large scale in this region. He is also credited with introducing the Chenin Blanc grape to Vouvray.

The myth that the Greek god Aristaeus discovered the concept of hard pruning vines to improve the yield after a goat ate the foliage is now also attributed to Martin, the young Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and became a monk. The most famous legend concerning him was that he once cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar.

As the son of an officer, Martin was obliged to join the cavalry. At eighteen, when he was stationed in Amiens in northern France, he told his superior officer: ‘I am the soldier of Christ: it is not lawful for me to fight.’ Charged with cowardice and jailed, he offered to go into battle unarmed but the enemy sued for peace and Martin was released from military service.

In 371 Martin was tricked into visiting Tours. Asked to cure a sick man, instead he was invited to be Bishop of Tours. According to legend he was so horrified by the idea, he hid in a goose pen until their cackling gave him away. In the end, he reluctantly agreed to be ordained. This is why the goose is his symbol.

When Martin went to Candès near Saumur to convert the residents to Christianity, he died there in 397. The town was renamed Candès-Saint-Martin in his honour.

November 11, Martinmas, was traditionally when geese were killed. As with Christ Mass, Martin Mass literally means Mass of Martin, the day when he is honoured. It was the custom to eat goose on this day to honour the saint. It is also when newly produced wine is ready for drinking. Today his feast day is more associated with the Armistice.

Saint Martin is the patron saint of beggars, geese, vintners, wine growers and wine makers.

His shrine in Tours was popular with pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. They walked the via turonensis connecting Vouvray with Tours.

The cult of Saint Martin inspired French nationalism during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. As a consequence he was made patron saint of France during the Third Republic.

In the 12th century Vouvray was known as Vovroi. in 1209 in the Charter of the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours, it was written Vovreium. The French form, Vovray appears in 1284. In the 1500s Rabelais honoured Chenin Blanc when writing about the eat, drink and be merry life of his hero Pantagruel. In the 1600s we see the name, Vouvray sur Loire for the first time.

From its earliest days, Vouvray, close to a navigable river, the Loire, traded in wine all over France and further afield.

In 1936, when the Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) guaranteed the preservation of the identity of the terroir, Charles Vavasseur, mayor of Vouvray, founded La Confrérie des Chevaliers de la Chantepleure.  Their hero is Rabelais.

La chantepleure is the wooden tap put in the barrel to draw the wine. ‘When we turn the key, she sings, when the wine flows, she cries tears of joy’. Chante (sing) pleure(cry). A coat of arms with three gold chantepleures is the insignia of the Brotherhood. Their dress was inspired by medieval costumes.

Today, the Knights of Chantepleure still promote the wines of the Touraine, especially those of Vouvray. They also maintain and revive local customs and festivals.

During WWII, Domaine Huet, was inside the German-controlled zone. M. Huet used his caves along the Loire to hide his wine, then planted weeds and bushes to cover the entrance. His brother-in-law, Andre Foreau, buried his wines under his potager.

The Mayor of Vouvray, Charles Vavasseur, asked a local artist to produce a forged document saying the wines of Vouvray were ‘reserved for the Wehrmacht’. When German troops arrived, the only place large enough to hold them were in the caves.  When Vavasseur asked whether they could be trusted not to drink the wines, they were billeted elsewhere.

Huet, an officer in the French army, was interred for the duration in a German prisoner-of- war camp. Many of his fellow POWs were also wine producers, so somehow Huet organised tasting sessions in the barracks, smuggling samples past the guards. ‘It saved our sanity’ he said. ‘Talking about wine and sharing it made all of us feel closer to home. It was only a thimble full but it was glorious – the best wine I ever drank’.

Released following the German surrender in 1945, Gaston Huet walked back to Vouvray. Following in his parents footsteps, he and his wife built up a Domaine with a formidable reputation. They produced his first vintage since the war began in 1939. He went on to be one of the greatest of winemakers.

Charles Vavasseur lived long enough – he died in 1950 – to see Gaston Huet revive the pre-war Confrérie des Chevaliers de la Chantepleure and give it a national and international dimension. Recognised by his peers throughout the world, a cultured man, he loved using the old French language of his hero François Rabelais.

He and Michel Debré, mayor of Amboise, founded the wine school of Amboise, which he chaired and was on the board of directors until he died. A college in Vouvray is named in his honour.

The uncontested mayor of Vouvray (1947-1989) for forty-two years, Huet successfully fought the government plan to run the high speed TGV line through Vouvray, insisted a tunnel was built below his property and that special rubber sleepers be used to prevent his precious wine from being disturbed. No wonder he is a legend and a local hero.

He took his duties as a veteran POW seriously, meeting up every year with fellow prisoners, until he was the only one left.

Dubbed the ‘Pope of Vouvray’ and ‘the Grandfather of Vouvray’ the much loved mayor managed the family Domaine from 1947 until he died in 2002 at the age of ninety-two.

At the time of writing, Gaston Huet’s Le Mont Moelleux 1961,  Le Mont Moelleux 1971 and Clos du Bourg Moelleux 1971 are £180 a bottle. His Le Mont Première Trie Moelleux 1961 goes for a whopping £215.

Gaston Huet had no sons to carry on the Huet name.

His daughter married a mathematician, Noël Pinguet, son of the local butcher. In 1976 Noël started helping his father-in-law run the Domaine. His forty years with the Huet Estate is now the stuff of legends. He took a revered producer of wine to even greater heights by converting the Domaine to biodynamics. By 1990 the Domaine was farmed according to phases of the moon and without chemicals in the vineyard.

At harvest time, pickers went through the vineyards three times. Selection was made in situ at the vines. Pinguet personally directed bunches of grapes to different presses. In good years, the finest wine came from the first picking but some years Pinguet did not pick the last grapes until November when they were shrivelled to super-sweet raisins. He preferred shrivelling to noble rot for his sweet Moelleux.

Bottling took place in March or April following the harvest.

Pinguet made wines for himself, not for the market. Anything left over was then offered for sale. He was known to call time on the sales of a vintage, returning the stock to the cellars to see the light only when he considered them old enough to be appreciated. While he produced on average 150,000 bottles annually, there was always four years’ stock stored in the ancient, dark, humid tuffeau stone cellars hewn out of the banks of the Loire. His bottles had no screw tops. The humidity would rust them.

In 2002 when Gaston Huet died, the death duties were onerous. In 2003, to pay the tax, a major share of Domaine Huet was sold to Filipino-American billionaire businessman Anthony Hwang. Knowing little about wine, his son and daughter left New York for Vouvray as President and Managing Director.

The Huet family set up a new Company, SARL Gaston Huet to retain control of the entire wine stock 1975 to 1921 as well as the remaining stocks of the great 1989 vintage. They are family heritage. Domaine Huet has a large reserve of old wine because Gaston Huet held back quantities of the greatest vintages for ageing.

The Hwangs assumed they had exclusive distribution rights of the stock but Noel Pinguet decided otherwise. In 2004 Domaine Huet headlined an auction at Christie’s. Lot 236 was for five bottles of Vouvray Le Haut-Lieu, Moelleux – Vintage 1924. It was expected to realise USD 1500 but reached USD 3,600.

There was ill feeling, accentuated by Pinguet sensing the Hwangs were putting pressure on him to concentrate on dry wines. It was reported in the newspapers that he was told not to take the risks involved in making the demi-sec and sweet wines for which the estate is internationally famous, he was to concentrate on dry wines, for which grapes are picked earlier, at greater yield and less risk of losing the crop. He was discouraged from taking the risks required to make great Vouvray Moelleux, the risk of waiting for the right moment while risking the weather will remain favourable.

In 2005 Decanter Magazine created a list of the Hundred Greatest Wines ever made.  Le Haut Lieu Moelleux 1947 was ranked 6, the second-highest ranking for any white wine behind only the 1921 vintage of Chateau d’Yquem. At the time of writing it fetches over £3000 (not a misprint).

The last Pinguet vintage was 2011.

February 2012 was very sad for Vouvray. Poignant. End of an era. Noel Pinguet, one of the Loire’s greatest winemakers left Domaine Huet. He resigned quite suddenly and quite unexpectedly.

It was reported in the papers that he had to involve the Hwang family in day to day decisions so was obsolete. Indications were that disagreements had to do with the commercial side of the business and that the Hwang’s intended that their largest importers could have more wine at the expense of smaller importers, Domaine Huet’s oldest, valued, most loyal customers.

That year, 2012, the Domaine suffered 50% frost and hail damage.

Our visit to La Cave des Producteurs de Vouvray was a disappointment. Not at all what we expected. No coup de foudre. No ancient casks covered in mould. No chap in a beret reverently handing out thimblefuls of his precious nectar. The outside resembles one of those bland, characterless, hotels  part of large chains in England. You could be anywhere on the planet.

You get what it says on the tin. For tin read website. It is what it is, a factory producing wine.

Inside was no better. Bland. No atmosphere. Taste bypass. The modern Reception/Tasting/Shop is  soul less, entirely out of keeping with the spirit of wine tasting in France.

We took the short, uninspiring, guided tour but it left us cold.

There is a golden opportunity for the other fifty wine producers in Vouvray to offer tasting in the traditional French way. Low or no light by candles in ancient cobwebby wine bottles in an ancient cave with ancient casks covered in ancient mould served by an ancient Frenchman reverently handing out thimblefuls of his precious nectar.

Still. All was not lost. We came away with a grand selection for our very own tasting at home. By candle-light?  Bien sûr!



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