There are many grape varieties which have less name recognition than Chenin Blanc, but few which are viewed with as much distain in a producing region like California. The reason is simple. Most California Chenin Blanc sucks! It is grown as a bulk resource for jug wines in hot, fertile Central Valley vineyards where tons per acre almost always run to double figures. There are slightly more than 7,000 acres of Chenin Blanc in California, and 65,000 tons were crushed in 2010. The grape is naturally vigorous, with a tendency to over-crop. If encouraged in that direction, the resulting wine is, at best, non-descript. It does have good acidity though, and that trait makes it a good blending candidate for our 25,000 acres of French Colombard, although both end up together in $9 retail gallons with the varietal aroma of newsprint. It’s a flavorless universe where the phrase “alcoholic” is viewed as a compliment. California is not alone in this shabby treatment of the grape which has made the middle-Loire Valley district of Vouvray famous. Twenty percent of South Africa’s vineyard acreage is devoted to Chenin Blanc, which they call Steen. Much of that gets distilled into brandy.
It doesn’t have to be that way. And there are dramatic exceptions to this broad generalization.
Chenin Blanc is capable of making magnificent wine which pairs wonderfully well with many types of food. Jancis Robinson MW says Chenin Blanc is France’s answer to German Riesling. A handful of the best wines coming out of South Africa are made with Chenin Blanc, and have been since the end of the 1600’s when it probably arrived there in the hands of Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic persecution in France. At its best Chenin Blanc balances a cleansing natural acidity with luxurious honey and almond scents. If allowed to ripen slowly, but fully, it can add guava and quince notes to the aroma. It can fairly be labeled as delicate, without being accused of shyness. There is no better foil for fresh-caught trout. Although finding fresh trout and a pristine bottle of Chenin Blanc in close proximity is a bit of a trick. Hiking the bottle into the cold mountain stream shakes the wine, rendering the aroma mute. While hiking the trout out of the mountains doesn’t do the fish any favors. The answer, of course, is to hike the wine in, cache it in the stream, and come back two weeks later to catch the trout. Believe me; that’s a recipe for intense wine-food appreciation.
Grown at 3 to 4 tons per acre, and fermented cool to retain tropical aromatic properties, Chenin Blanc’s bracing acidity makes a stunning refresher. Maritime districts along California’s coast could be the perfect sites ~ better even than France’s Loire Valley. Chenin Blanc pushes buds early. That makes it subject to Spring frost in high latitudes. Tours, in the middle of the Loire Valley, where Rabelais wrote so glowingly of Chenin Blanc’s restorative properties in the 17th Century, is over 47ᵒ north latitude. They get snow in May. Soledad in California’s Salinas Valley is at about 35ᵒ of latitude. Soledad never gets snow, and grapes often start to bud in early March. Chenin Blanc also ripens late. Obviously it is a grape built for long hang-time. French growers often remark that their best vintages are the ones in which they have 100 days of sunshine between flowering and harvest. The Salinas Valley routinely gets 180 days. In Monterey they rarely have a compelling reason to pick prematurely, even into November.
One of the best reasons to take a look at Chenin Blanc is the price. Really good ones can be had for less than $10, and world-class examples with track records going back decades usually come in around $20. The other major reason, at least here on North America’s Left Coast, is that Chenin Blanc frequently surprises as the go- to-match with many ethnic cuisines, especially if the wine has a little residual sugar to balance its sharp acidity (Spätlesen-style), and to simultaneously tame the capsaicin burn of a Thai curry or a Vindaloo chicken dish. I tried six different wines with a Peruvian ceviche that had been lit up with habanero the other night. Nothing seemed to work. That is until we got to the South African Chenin Blanc. Perfect. And the same wine went well with a roasted pumpkin and rice dish the next night at an Afghan restaurant. I can’t wait to deploy a couple Chenin Blancs in my favorite sushi boite.
Here’s a good line-up of Chenin Blancs. Try a few side-by-side to appreciate the wide range of styles:
blue plate ~ $10 ~ From Clarksburg in the Delta. Something about the terroir in Clarksburg is magic with Chenin Blanc. No less a connoisseur than Gerald Asher wrote in Gourmet magazine many years ago, “Clarksburg is California’s Vouvray.” Full Disclosure: Jeff Anderson, one of the partners in Picnic Wine Company, is also Marketing Director of the new self-guided wine touring smart-phone app on which I am now working. But he’s not the partner who made the wine, and I do like it.
Ventana ~ $14 ~ Doug Meador doesn’t own Ventana Vineyard, near Soledad in the Arroyo Seco AVA, any more. Doug was a great innovator, and remains (I’m sure) a very entertaining personality. He had scores of ground breaking projects. But year-in and year-out, over fifteen vintages, I always thought his best wine was his Chenin Blanc. It was invariably a head-snapping success; miles ahead of the competition.
Husch~ $12 ~ from Anderson Valley on the coastal side of the mountains in Mendocino. Dry. Lovely Juicy Fruit nose, without seeming cosmetic. Good consistency over a couple vintages. Big winner at the CA State Fair.
Pine Ridge ~ $18 ~ Blended with Viognier. Real nice combination. Evidence this Disclosure concept can run amuck ~ Lisa Goff took a couple of my wine classes years ago. That experience, and her Harvard MBA, helped get her a job as VP of marketing for Crimson Wine Group, which owns Pine Ridge.
Domaine des Aubuisieres ~ $16 ~ A classic Vouvray. Usually made with just a little residual sugar to balance the acid. More full-bodied and flavorful than Montlouis, although generally fermented at fairly warm temperatures, which de-emphasizes aromatic properties as the centerpiece.
Francois Chidane ~ $22 ~ Montlouis is on the south side of the Loire, right across the river from Vouvray. As such the vineyards do not get as much direct sun exposure, and the grapes have more trouble ripening. So the natural acidic character of the Chenin Blanc takes center stage. These are usually inexpensive wines paired with oysters or freshwater eels. In a hot vintage they can be very good value.
Indaba~ $10 ~ Fragrant, full-bodied, supple. An excellent representative of what should be a national tradition in South Africa, but isn’t. That could be because Afrikaners don’t see the wine as sufficiently virile. Perhaps if you imagine serving it with mussels you’ve harvested yourself, in shark-infested waters, using only snorkel gear. Serve the mussels in a manner the Dutch-descended Afrikaners brought back from Indonesia: with rice and a selection of sambals or chutneys.
Philippe Delesvaux ~ $70 ~ Coteaux du Layon. Botrytized Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley west of Tours. A dessert wine. Agreeable. Very honey-like. Serve with an apple Tart Tatin.
NV Louis de Grenelle Saumur Mousseux Chevalier de Grenelle ~ $20 ~ Sparkling Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley west of Tours. Generally not very aromatic, certainly not compared to Asti Spumante, but can be excellent value when compared side-by-side with Champagne.