Friday, June 12 is Chenin Blanc Day, a day to appreciate and learn more about this remarkable grape. Chenin Blanc, originating in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley in Northwestern France, unfortunately became known as a bland grape used mainly for blending into jug wines in America in the early years of its production here.
Chenin Blanc is well known primarily for its high acidity. It also is notorious for its very high vigor and tendency to overproduce. When this happens, the wine becomes bland, neutral, and uninteresting. Consequently, when its growth is unchecked and the vines are grown on fertile soils, large numbers of grapes are produced. This is what occurred in California, resulting in large amounts of cheap neutral juice to blend with other white varietals to increase the acidity of the resulting wine.
When the soils are less fertile, especially those consisting of limestone and silex, and growth is controlled by grafting vines onto less productive rootstock and/or with generous early pruning, production drops to less than a fifth of what is possible, producing much more concentrated and complex flavors. This is how things are done in the Loire Valley, where excellent winemaking techniques, terroir, and climate come together to produce the world’s most well known, and arguably the best, Chenin Blanc.
Because of the high acidity, Chenin Blanc can be made into a variety of styles, from sparkling to dry, off dry, and even well balanced sweet dessert wines. To get the proper balance of fruit and acidity in the rather unpredictable cool climate of the Loire, the grapes are often harvested in stages with three to six passes made through the vineyards, extending the harvest season to up to a length of four to six weeks.
Chenin Blanc is grown in other regions of the world, but today, major plantings occur mostly in South Africa with some plantings still in California, South America, and a small amount in New Zealand. It is the most planted varietal in South Africa, where it is known as Steen. Like California, original plantings were geared towards high production, mainly to be a cheap source of wine to combat scurvy among sailors rounding the Cape of Good Hope on their way back and forth from Asia. Production has since been controlled, and the wines are now much more complex and interesting.
Chenin Blanc at its best produces wines with aromas of acacia, quince, and honey, with flavors of apple, quince, and pear, a bracing acidity, and wonderful chalky minerality. The Loire Valley seems to do it best with the appellations of Anjou, Vouvray, and especially Savennieres, producing beautiful examples. Winemakers in California have now turned from quantity to quality with some excellent single varietal wines being made from the grape, and good ones are coming from South Africa as well. In New Zealand, where Sauvignon Blanc plantings are very small and dwindling, there are a few producers on the North Island that are making outstanding examples.
There are several great Chenin Blancs to look for when exploring your wine shop aisle. Francois Pinon makes an outstanding Sparkling Vouvray. Made by the methode traditionelle, it rivals any mid level Champagne for half the price at $22.99. From the same producer is Vouvray Les Trois Argilles, at $19.99, a slightly sweet wine with great depth on the palate with honeyed and herbal notes that linger on the finish. There is a perfect underlying acidity to balance the delicate sweetness. Clos Le Vigneau is a dry Vouvray that is delicious at $19.99. Domain du Closel La Jalousie 2013 from Savennieres, is from one of the Loire’s very finest estates with mineral driven aromas and flavors of peach, fresh herbs and citrus. This is an awesome wine that is well worth the $31.99 price tag.
Millton is a producer in New Zealand that makes Chenin Blancs that rival those of the Loire Valley. The entry level Crazy By Nature is a flinty mouthful of rich stone fruit and citrus, with honey and flowers on the nose, and is a steal at $19.99. The Te Arai from the same maker is a single vineyard example that is packed with intense flavors of pear, citrus, and fresh cream and honey wrapped in a full, opulent texture. This is a stunning wine at $30.99.
California chimes in with a couple of good value wines. Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier is a blend that is one of my best selling event wines when ABC (anything but Chardonnay) people are looking for medium bodied wines. Beautiful floral aromas and stone fruit on the palate with just the right acidity make this a great value at $10.99. Dry Creek does a great job with Chenin Blanc as a single varietal for only $12.99, showing the world that California CAN do a good job with this grape if it wants to.
We are celebrating Chenin Blanc Day with a tasting at the store including several of the wines mentioned here. So if you are in town from four until six p.m., stop in and see us. If you are not, organize your own tasting…and come to appreciate this great varietal.