Savennières! Say Va-What?

click to enlarge Savennières! Say Va-What?
Dave Nelson

The Loire Valley in France is home to some terrific wines, with some of the most horrific names in all of winedom. Bourgeuil, Bonnezeaux, Pouilly-Fumé, Saumur-Champigny -- all can be tongue twisters. (Even Chinon and Muscadet can present some pronunciation challenges.) That said, the sheer quality and versatility of these wines deserves a few moments of French language lessons so that you can order, discuss or demand them proudly and without fear.

Today's lesson in pedantry is Savennières (say it with us: sah-veh-NYAIR), a tiny appellation on the Loire near the city of Angers, just 80 miles from the Atlantic. How tiny? The portion of the appellation actually planted with vines is about half the size of Forest Park. Despite its diminutive size, Savennières produces a benchmark, powerful dry white wine.

Let's pop a cork, shall we?

2005 Domaine Baumard Savennières ($22 - the Wine Merchant)

Pale. Make that pale gold. The first whiff is of fresh rain, but that opens up to add beeswax and pungent floral notes. The body's there but not obtrusive, the flavor smacks of beeswax with a hint of honey. The acidity's lively enough to hold the alcohol in check.

With pan-sautéed trout from Troutdale Farms and a mixed grain salad, this wine was superb. It could easily age further in the cellar.

Verdict: Thrill

Savennières is made from the chenin blanc grape, which within the confines of the Loire Valley is an incredibly versatile variety. From terrific sparkling wines to lush sweet wines to powerful dry whites to delicate off-dry floral masterpieces, chenin blanc seemingly does no wrong. But when it's planted anywhere else in the world, it falls flat: dull, overly alcoholic, shrill, watery -- such downfalls all plague chenin blancs from other locales.

Chenin blanc grapes on the vine -- ain't they purty? - image credit
image credit
Chenin blanc grapes on the vine -- ain't they purty?

Many chenin blancs from the Loire fall into that rare category of white wines that can age and develop for decades. Savennières, for example, doesn't really start rolling until about five years of age, after which it's good to go till its tenth or fifteenth birthday. Vouvray is similar, though it has even a longer aging curve: top examples from the '40s, '50s and even a few from the '20s still provide thrills for those lucky enough to stumble across them.

"Thrill or Swill?" aims to expand wine drinkers' horizons -- including Gut Check's. If you have been curious about a grape or wine and want Gut Check to try it, let us know via the comments thread. If we can find it (and if we can afford it), we'll buy us a bottle, yank the cork and report back.

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