Flatiron's Guide to the wines of Chinon
Chinon is one of the great wines of France. Historically it was one of the most sought after wines in the world too.
As Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson write in their classic, The World Atlas of Wine, “A hundred years ago Chinon’s wine was rated the equal of Margaux. In charm, if not in force or structure, it can come surprisingly close today… For its quality it is absurdly undervalued”
“Absurdly undervalued”! If that sounds like something you need more of in your life, read on for the keys to this land of value!
Chinon: The Basics
Chinon wine comes from an appellation named after the Loire Valley town, Chnon, which is located in the Touraine Region.
Map: Chinon in the Loire Valley
Chinon is the Loire’s largest red wine appellation (by volume) and one of France’s most fascinating. It mostly makes red wines from Cabernet Franc, in a range of styles from light and accessible “picnic” wines, to complex and tannic wines that require years of aging to really show their stuff.
Chinon also makes small amounts of delicious rosée and teeny-tiny amounts of some truly mesmerizing white wines from Chenin Blanc.
But what makes it so fascinating to wine geeks the world over is that it is one of the most striking examples of the effect of terroir on wine in all of France.
The Terroir of Chinon
The first key to understanding Chinon’s wines is the climate.
Looking at the map above, Chinon may look like just another stop on the Loire’s eastward journey to the sea. But it actually sits at the magical point where the climate begins to get just enough maritime influence to moderate the harsher continental climate to the east.
The result is a climate that allows the Cabernet Franc to ripen -- but just barely. In Chinon, the grape never dominates the terroir.
Chinon’s Soils make Chinon's Wines
And what terroir! Chinon covers the area where the Vienne river meets the Loire (see the map below). There are two common types of soils. Near the river the soils tend to be gravelly, with some sand or clay. But upslope from the river, the vineyards sit on hills and slopes made of giant beds of the local limestone, known as tuffeau.
This is the second key to understanding Chinon: the two basic types of soils make very different types of wines.
Gravel Soils make lighter Chinons. The gravelly soils, sometimes with some clay or sand in them, tend to make wines on the lighter side. These are the sorts of wines you can drink young, maybe even chilled, while you hang out with friends. Delicious, affordable and not requiring much fussing or thought on your part.
Sure, the wines have some complexity (in addition to the red and black fruit flavors, there will often be a mineral note and some herbaceous Cab Franc accents). These are the kinds of wines that will support a wide range of foods but will never distract you from what you’re eating.
Limestone soils make fuller-bodied wines. The limestone soils, on the other hand, can make wines that are more powerful, more structured, and worthy of contemplation. Especially when the wine comes from old vines that have dug deep into the limestone, they can have layers of flavors, a wide range of textures, and the ability to evolve over time in the glass -- or years in the cellar.
A myriad of terroirs Of course, the basic Gravel/Limestone distinction doesn't do justice to the incredible variety of soils you will find in Chinon.
For starters, in addition to the two basic categories, there are also vineyards with more flint or silica in the clay and less limestone. These can also produce richer and more ageworthy wines than the gravelly sites.
And naturally, as you travel uphill from the river to the highest sites you will find vineyards -- terraces and slopes -- that express many combinations of these basic elements, with various combinations of sediments and subsoils.
A lifetime of exploration Yes, once you have a feel for the two main soil types you can really start to go deep into the weeds, investigating how a limestone and clay vineyard differs from one dominated by siliceous chalk & clay. Wine geeks rejoice!
Check out this cross-section of the Chinon appellation to get more of a sense of the lay of this wonderful land.
Of course, none of this wonderful terroir would make it to our picnics or dinner tables here in America if there weren’t top notch vigneron’s laboring in those vines, and working in the cellars. Luckily for us, Chinon has many devoted, and very individualistic vignerons, carrying on traditions -- and experimenting to adapt to new challenges -- each in their own way.
Olga Raffault has been a Flatiron favorite forever. The Domaine’s top red wine is from Chinon’s most famous limestone site, Les Picasses. It’s delicious when young, full of intense flavors of mineral and hints of game as well as red or black fruits (depending on the vintage). It’s so elegant you can drink it on its own, but it has the structure to pair beautifully with meat, like a roast lamb with root vegetables on a late fall night.
But with a little time, the wine becomes something else. After, say, five years, it develops more layers of spice and the mineral and game notes become even clearer. And if you have a bottle from a good vintage (and there have been a lot of them, lately) and the patience to give it a good long rest in the cellar, you’ll find something very special.
Because the best Chinons from limestone sites are wines that can age twenty, thirty or forty+ years. With time the tannins mellow and sweeten, the gamey hints become layers of leather and animal. The hints of herbaceousness become intoxicating forest floor. And all the while, the fruit survives, as pretty as ever.
Some of Chinon’s finest growers have vineyards in many of the appellation’s different terroirs. Charles Joguet, for instance, one of Kermit Lynch’s classic producers, makes a range of Chinons that would put many a Burgundian grower to shame, running the gamut from simple, juicy and fun wines, up to some of the greatest, longest lived Chinons of all. This gives us the chance to see all these different terroirs through the lens of a single producer’s style -- the sort of insight into terroir that we get more often in the Mosel and in Burgundy.
Winemaking varies from producer to producer, too. Raffault makes Les Picasses in a very traditional way, including being aged slowly in large barrels, sometimes even super-old fashioned chestnut barrels. But other producers make absolutely delicious Chinons using smaller barrels for a shorter period of time, some age their wine in concrete, and others, like Phillip Alliet, do all three!
This is the third key to Chinon: the devoted producers add a further layer of complexity by interpreting what nature gives them -- each in their own way.
Pink and White: Chinon's other Colors
Although Chinon is almost entirely planted to Cabernet Franc today, it wasn’t always so. Starting during the renaissance period Chinon became a center of white wine production, probably from the Chenin Blanc grape. Dutch and English merchants developed and served large foreign markets for the white wine.
While Chenin is a rarity in Chinon today -- it makes a mere 4% of the wines of Chinon -- it does make some truly spectacular wines. Olga Raffault, for instance, makes a Chinon Blanc, Champ Chenin, which is a stunning, dry white wine that ages effortlessly for 20 years or more. The wine’s name also gives you a sense of just how deep Chenin Blanc’s roots are in the appellation: “Champ Chenin” is French for “Chenin Field.”
Chenin does particularly well in the similar limestone soils to those that give Chinon’s longest lived reds. Domaine Bernard Baudry, for instance, makes both a red and a white wine from their Croix Boisses vineyard. (Both are delicious but the white is one of our favorite white wines from anywhere in the world, many years.)
Chinon Rosé is another wonderful overperformer. Like fellow Loire standout, Sancerre Rosé, Chinon Rosé conveys both the straight up pleasures we all want when we think of rosée, as well as the sense of terroir that makes Chinon more than just a simple pleasure. Although Chinon Rosé makes up only about 10% of the region’s production, many of our favorite growers bottle some -- so there’s no shortage of great examples in America -- in the summer months, at least.
Going deeper on Chinon: Tasting the Wines
Of course, the only way to really come to understand the terroirs, producers and wines of Chinon is to drink them!