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Vouvray is the most famous and most respected appellation of the Loire Valley's Touraine district. The title covers white wines of various styles (sweet, dry, still and sparkling), from eight villages around the medieval town of Vouvray, on the northern banks of the Loire.

Vouvray is the flagship wine of the Chenin Blanc grape (or Pineau de la Loire as it is known there), followed ever-closer by Savennières and the sweet whites of Anjou. Few wine regions in the world use Chenin Blanc to the same extent, and none highlights the variety's organoleptic qualities with such focus and impressive diversity. South Africa's annual Chenin Blanc production far exceeds France's, and yet just a tiny number of South African Chenin Blancs have anything like the textural balance or aromatic depth or Vouvray.

One key characteristic of quality Vouvray wines is their remarkable long life; many bottles more than 30 years old often show stunning freshness and life. This is largely down to Chenin Blanc's naturally high level of acidity, which acts as a preservative and allows the wine to develop for decades. Also vital is Chenin Blanc's intense aromatic composition, which is sufficiently robust to survive extended ageing.

In their youth Vouvrays are characterised by aromas of acacia blossom, quince and green apples. Over time these evolve into tertiary aromas of honeysuckle, quince and lanolin. Much top Vouvray is unapproachable and unforgiving (not to mention unapologetic) in the first few years of its life, and only begins to open up and relax into drinkable maturity after five years or so. The rewards of a mature, good-quality Vouvray are well worth waiting for. This all makes Vouvray the ideal wine for those who have the patience (and cellaring capability) to store wines, but either a mystery or disappointment to those who don't. The emphasis here is firmly on quality Vouvray, however, as there are so many medium sweet, moderately acidic examples which are far from cellar-worthy. This dichotomy affects several of Europe's top white wines, notably grand cru Chablis, the best Rieslings from Germany and the wines of Montlouis, Vouvray's sister appellation just across the Loire. It is only after several years' patience that the best wines retreat from their aggressive, steely youth into the complex, honeyed liquids they ultimately become.

The vineyards around Vouvray have been producing quality white wines since the Middle Ages, so it isn't at all surprising that Vouvray was one of France's very earliest official appellation titles, created just after the INAO was founded back in 1936. With such a long history, it's surprising that the Vouvray appellation has managed to remain a single title, given the array of styles it covers. After all, the raison d'être of the appellation system is to communicate to consumers precisely what wine style they're buying.

Vouvray may be one of the Loire's most revered appellations, but it's almost certainly one of the most confusing, particularly when it comes to sweetness levels. Although its winemakers can use several official terms to indicate their wine's sweetness level (Sec, Sec-Tendre, Demi-Sec and Moelleux), these are rarely used on labels. Buying Vouvray can be something of a gamble. The only legally enforced label term here is Sec, which must appear on sparkling Vouvray labels when the wine contains less than 8g/l of residual sugar.

Happily, Vouvray sparkling wines are relatively easy to spot on the shelf, thanks to the foil-wrapped, wire-secured cork common to sparkling wines all over the world. But, in keeping with the appellation's diversity and baffling array of styles, there are two levels of sparkle to be found in Vouvray: pétillant (spritzy) and mousseux (fully sparkling). Quite which one you're buying is often as unclear from the label as the sweetness level. The official terms pétillant and mousseux are often abandoned in favour of more recognisable, more marketable terms such as brut and methode traditionelle.

As in so many French wine regions, terroir is key in Vouvray; the local vignerons maintain that it is as vital to the style of these wines as the Chenin Blanc grapes they are made from. The critical element of the local terroir is its tuffeau, the calcareous rock type found in various locations in the central Loire, most notably in Saumur and here in Vouvray. Tuffeau is a soft, porous limestone formed during the Cretaceous period, roughly 90 million years ago. It has two key forms: chalkier, firmer tuffeau blanc and softer, sandier tuffeau jaune. Both forms are geologically distinct from similarly named volcanic tufa on which the vineyards of Tufo, southern Italy, are planted. Due to its porosity, tuffeau strikes an excellent balance of drainage and water retention, saving vines from both waterlogging and drought.

Although Vouvray town is situated on a plateau, a number of nearby streams interrupt the flow of land, creating shallow valleys with sheltered south-facing slopes. It is on these slopes, around the northern side of the town, that the most prized vineyard sites are located. The climate here falls somewhere between maritime (even though the Atlantic a full 140 miles/226km away) and continental, and the topography (while not as obviously complex as in Burgundy or Alsace) is changeable enough to create variation in the local mesoclimates.

There is a strong parallel between Vouvray and the Loire's other Chenin Blanc specialist, Savennières. These two tiny wine towns are separated by 70 miles (110km) but each is located immediately outside the main town of its wine district (Tours and Angers respectively). The vineyards of both Vouvray and Savennières enjoy gravelly, free-draining topsoils above deep tuffeau. The key difference is that while Savennières wines are almost exclusively dry, still wines (although they were once much sweeter), Vouvray has retained its multiple personalities.