Montlouis is an appellation of 400 hectares located directly across the river from Vouvray. In fact, until it was granted AOC status in 1937, Montlouis wines were produced under the Vouvray appellation. The soils in both places are quite similar: sandy clay on a base of tuffeau. Some say that a slightly higher percentage of sand and pebbles in the Montlouis soils makes the wines a bit leaner than the wines of Vouvray. For us, this trait adds to the charm of Montlouis's sec wines, giving them a lively crispness on the palate and outstanding minerality.
François Chidaine worked alongside his father Yves for many years before setting out on his own in 1989. Convinced of the potential of the teroirs of Montlouis and Vouvray, he purchased assorted parcels and expanded the estate to today's total of 30 hectares of Chenin Blanc, many of which are dominated by old vines of 40 to 80 years of age. During these years of growth, Chidaine earned a reputation as a leading natural viticulturalistin the region. Today, he is devoted to what is referred to in the U.S. as "regenerative agrcitulture", which involves implementing practices that are known to improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted into plant material and soil organic matter (squestering CO2 in the soils). At the heart of this approach is a practice of "no-till" farming. While plowing is an integral part of natural viticulture for many farmers and producers, this disruption of the soil is thought to interfere with the complex mycorrhizal network (funghi network) that actually connects individual plants together and transfers water, carbon, nitrogen and other nutrients and minerals between them. After years of working his soils, François developed a belief that by plowing he was sabotaging these important communication networks which help to give the vines what they need to flourish. An essential asopect of regenerative farming is the establishment of permanent cover crops between vine rows. Francois encourages biodiversity by embracing the growth of indigenous plants and sowing over 25 additional species among the vines. By mimicking nature, the vines find their place in a complex ecosystem, allowing them to better express their place of origin.
This progressive vision isn't simply about growing the best grapes possible, but rather a vision for the future. In François' words, "this is how we save the world" (not to mention other proponents, of course). It is estimated that as much as one-third of the surplus CO2 in the atmosphere that is causing climate change has come from agricultural and land management practices. Through organic and biodynamic farming, Francois never saw the results that he is now seeing in his soils and vineyards. But he admits that he is thankful he took those paths since they led him here, and he hopes others will join him.
At the Domaine, François is a true champion of the Chenin Blanc grape and touts its ability to produce vibrant wines that age gracefully. He is happiest in his vines, but being among his barrels is a close second. In many circles, François is as respected a vinifier as he is a vigneron. He produces an entry-level line of Touraine wines -- Clos de la Grange Sauvignon Blanc, Touraine Rosé and Touraine Rouge -- all of which overdeliver at their value price points. Two sparkling wines serve as an excellent introduction to Chidaine's various expressions of Chenin: a Méthode Traditionnelle made with grapes from younger vines in Montlouis that spend 12 months on the lees, as well as a Petillant made from Vouvray vines that aged 36 months sur lie. Below, our respeted colleague and long-time Chidaine fan, Peter Liem, beatifully outlines the Chidaine lineup wine-by-wine:
Montlouis Les Bournais - On a limestone plateau overlooking the Loire river sit Les Bournais, a vineyard Chidaine refers to as "a magical place". It had been abandoned for some time, but Chidaine was convinced that it was one of the very best sites in Montlouis, and planted vines here in 1999. Unlike most of Montlouis, which is on clay and silex, or flint, Bournais lies on clay and limestone, and the name Bournais refers to the particular type of limestone found here. Chidaine’s goal is to vinify this dry, barring the occasional aberration such as 2005, and the result is a powerful, full-bodied wine, probably the closest to Vouvray in profile of all Chidaine’s Montlouis wines.
Montlouis Clos du Breuil - Chidaine’s holdings here include several plots spread over 3.5 hectares, each varying slightly on a typical Montlouis theme of clay and silex over chalk. The vines average about 40 years of age, although the oldest ones are 80 years old, and this is always made as a dry wine (normally 2-4 g/l of sugar). It’s racy and extremely minerally, one of the classiest dry chenins of the area.
Montlouis Les Choisilles - Les Choisilles is a cuvée, usually blended from old vines in the vineyards of Les Epinais, La Taille aux Loups and Clos au Renard. It’s named after a type of black flint called (you guessed it) choisille. Les Choisilles is a concentrated, focused dry wine that often needs several years to develop.
Les Argiles (Vouvray vines) - This is a blend of various plots surrounding the Clos Baudoin, including L’Espagnole, Le Haut Lieu, La Chatterie, L’Homme and La Reugnières. The clay here is deeper than in the Clos, giving a broad, rich girth to the wine. Chidaine vinifies this dry, usually around 4 g/l of residual sugar.
Clos Baudoin (Vouvray vines) - The 2.7-hectare south-facing Clos Baudoin is one of Vouvray’s legendary sites. It had previously belonged to the Prince Poniatowski, but Chidaine had rented the vines since 2002, and has owned the plot outright since the end of 2006. There are vines up to 60 years old here, but unfortunately the entire vineyard will have to be replanted due to a virus in the soil, and Chidaine has already pulled up one hectare of vines. The small amount of wine that he does make from the rest of the Clos Baudoin is sleek and fine, with noticeably more complexity and dimension than his other Vouvrays. It’s always a dry wine, as he thinks this vineyard excels at classic Vouvray sec.
Montlouis Clos Habert - The Clos Habert lies adjacent to the Clos du Breuil, on clay and a type of silex called perruches. Part of the vineyard is about 25 years old, with the rest 60-80 years old, and Chidaine uses these vines to make a tendre style of Montlouis with a lovely balance and minerality, usually around 20 g/l of residual sugar.
Montlouis Les Tuffeaux - Les Tuffeaux is a cuvée blended from 30- to 70-year old vines from various vineyards on clay and silex, including the Clos du Volagray and Saint-Martin. Like the Clos Habert, this is intended to be around 15-20 g/l of residual sugar, but it’s usually slightly richer and larger in body.
Le Bouchet (Vouvray vines)- Le Bouchet is a north-facing vineyard adjacent to the Clos Baudoin, on the same clay and chalk terroir as its other neighbor, the Clos du Bourg of Domaine Huet (in fact, the Clos du Bourg was supposedly a part of Le Bouchet many years ago). Of Chidaine’s two hectares here, half of the vines are young, with the rest 70-80 years old. The resulting wine is a rich, dense and voluptuously textured demi-sec, and Chidaine notes that aromas of white truffle and iodine are typical of Le Bouchet.
As of the 2014 vintage, vines grown in Vouvray but produced and bottled outside of the village can no longer bear the name of the Vouvray appellation. François Chidaine and Jacky Blot are two Montlouis producers with vines in Vouvray who are affected by this ruling, which has stirred up a lot of controversy and emotion within the appellation and beyond its borders. Imagine if a Gevrey grower was banned from producing a wine from Chambolle vines that had been in the family for decades (or centuries for that matter)! Many believe the edict is in response to the growing popularity of Montlouis in Paris and other major European cities. We believe it will backfire; consumers and collectors will rally around these growers, not only because the ruling is unjust, but because François Chidaine makes some of the most compelling, terroir-transparent, ageworthy Chenin Blanc in the world.
If you have the pleasure of visiting the newly renovated and expanded domaine, don't miss stopping by La Cave Insolite, the Montlouis wine shop run by François' wife and force of nature Manuéla Chidaine. She has a well curated selection of wines from the Loire, both old guard and up and comers, as well as the 'best of the best' of small growers from regions throughout France. The sky is the limit with this dynamic duo.