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François Pinon Vouvray Sec 1990

François Pinon Vouvray Sec 1990

I spent Saturday morning putting the finishing touches to my guide to Goulaine, one of the latest Muscadet Crus Communaux to have been ratified, to be published later this week. Saturday afternoon I spent fashioning a turkey and ham pie, surely one of the more delicious ways to use up Christmas leftovers (which, in case there are any food hygienists reading, have been in the freezer for the last few weeks). Cutting into it, its creamy shallot- and leek-laden sauce oozed out into the dish; it cried out for something special.

I knew just the bottle. This 1990 Vouvray Sec from François Pinon has been languishing far too long on the top shelf of my wine fridge, waiting for a suitable moment. I pulled the cork with ease; quite compact, with a little sheen to the sides, it slid out in one piece with just a gentle pull. In the glass the wine displays a light golden hue, quite modest taking into account the age of this wine, now over thirty years. Sticking my nose in, I was immediately transported in time, back to some of my earliest encounters with mature Chenin Blanc, whether from Vouvray or from Savennières.

It was that old friend, wet wool.

François Pinon Vouvray Sec 1990

Wet wool is an intriguing characteristic of Loire Valley Chenin Blanc. Having said that, I am yet to be convinced by anyone who states with certainty they know the exact origin of this very peculiar aroma. A number of different theories exist. The most commonly encountered is that it is quite simply a feature of the variety, perhaps exacerbated by early picking, before full phenolic ripeness. I’ve never really bought into this theory, for two reasons. First, if it is simply a feature of the variety, why is it (in my experience) so much rarer today than it once was? And secondly, if it is simply a feature of Chenin Blanc, why do wines made from other varieties also develop, less commonly admittedly, wet wool aromas?

I have also heard ‘wet wool’ ascribed to volatile sulphur compounds, which – depending on the exact compound, and its concentration – can bless or curse a wine with the aromas of smoke, gunflint, matchstick (all the terms often referred to as ‘reduction’), sweet fruit aromas such as passion fruit and blackcurrant, or less charming scents of cooked vegetables, cabbage, garlic and rubber. It’s not hard to imagine wet wool sitting somewhere in such a list, with methanethiol cited by some as the culprit. Of note, light strike in wine – where the damage has been done by UV light – also causes a ‘wet wool’ aroma which is ascribed to volatile sulphur compounds and widely accepted as a fault.

François Pinon Vouvray Sec 1990

Those that dislike wet wool in their wines are unsurprisingly more ready to think of it as a fault, and both oxidation and grey rot have been mooted as possible causes. Oxidation is suggested as a cause by the Australian Wine Research Institute, so it deserves some consideration, although again I remain unconvinced. I have long thought grey rot a possibility though, as I find an organoleptic resemblance between the wet wool and grey rot aromas, but again it doesn’t always fit the story of the wine. Grey rot in an sec from a dry and benevolent vintage such as 1990? It hardly seems likely.

Personally I have shifted my thinking over the years, probably as I have learnt more about wine and winemaking, away from grey rot and towards volatile sulphur compounds as a likely cause for wet wool in wine. This leaves us free to enjoy or despise it, depending on our individual tastes, much as some people revel in the aromas of ‘reduction’, while others regard it as a fault. Personally I am not a fan of wet wool in wine (I should pause here, to allow diehard Chenin Blanc fans to process this revelation), although neither do I despise it. It all depends on the context; is it subtle, or is it overwhelming?

This 1990 Vouvray Sec from François Pinon is very old-school on the nose, where the wet wool feels quite prominent. There are other more appealing aromas, with some nuances of cooked orchard fruits, as well as a touch of toasted brioche and candied peel, but these remain quite subtle, and it is that wet wool note which takes the lead. The palate feels more convincing from the outset, choosing to serve up a little stewed peach and apple, set upon a bed of toasted brioche just like the nose, but also with suggestions of Brazil nut (so perhaps a touch of oxidation creeping in here) as well as rather tart and griddled orange rind. I still find that wet wool note here, but it is no longer dominant, content to wend and weave its way within the other flavours. Structurally, I should say, I can’t fault it; it has a sinewy density I like, with a convincing fine-grained substance, not to mention a good sense of drive. Fresh, with nice acidity, there is nothing shrill or out of place here, just a sense of taut harmony. In other words it feels balanced and bright. It has a great length too, with a sense of charged energy. To score such a wine is challenging, as there are some facets I adore, while others detract from the experience, but I did a good job of finishing the bottle, so that surely says something. I suspect fans of old-school woolly Chenin would score this higher than me. The alcohol is 12%, a last minute addition to the label (as can be seen above), scribbled in biro presumably as the bottle left the cellars, perhaps by François himself. 91/100 (17/1/22)

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