The introduction to my first blog on Beaujolais, stated that the format of "Gerald D Boyd On Wine" is a work in progress. I received some good suggestions on the design of the format and plan to experiment with them over the next couple of postings.
Chenin Blanc: Whatever Happened to it?
Winemakers in France's Middle Loire Valley, where Chenin Blanc is THE grape would tell you that nothing has happened to Chenin Blanc.
In California, though,Chenin Blanc sales are slow, while in Washington state, Chenin Blanc is growing in popularity. We can speculate on why this is happening, and a little background and gee-whiz facts may help.
Although France is not the largest grower of Chenin Blanc, the middle Loire sub-regions of Vouvray, Anjou and Saumur are the ancestral home of the popular variety. These three Loire appellations are synonymous with Chenin Blanc.
The Loire Valley, often called the "Garden of France," runs from Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume in the east to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way are such noted wines as Vouvray, Anjou, Saumur and Muscadet. With the exception of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume, few of these delightful wines are known outside France. T
Vouvray's versatility ranges from dry to semi-dry, to sweet (molleux) to sparkling. Production of Vouvray Molleux requires the development of "noble rot," but since harvest in the Loire is one of the latest in France, making a sweet wine can be risky, with the risk being passed along to the wine buyer in higher prices.
Surprisingly, more Chenin Blanc is grown in the Cape wine lands of South Africa than in France. In fact, Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted wine grape in South Africa.
(South Africa Search: In the post apartheid early 1990s, I went to South Africa to see what some say is the most beautiful wine region in the world. It is, indeed, beautiful and not at all what many Americans think of when they think of Africa. However, the brutal years under apartheid had done great moral and economic damage to South Africa. I was shocked to see how far behind the rest of the wine world the South African wine industry was. Apartheid policies restricted the import of wine making technology, thus throughout the decade of the eighties, while wine making and grape growing were taking major steps forward in other parts of the wine world, South Africa was standing still.
A big surprise, though, was the popularity of Chenin Blanc. Coming from California, where Chenin Blanc was still being made by only a handful of wineries, it was encouraging to see the enthusiasm and passion that South Africans showed for Chenin Blanc. I had never tasted as many chenins, including a few Steen (the old name for Chenin Blanc in South Africa), outside of France, as I did on my visits to the Cape. And I was introduced to a small group of winemakers would had banded together to share their love of Chenin Blanc.)
At one time, California also had more Chenin Blanc planted than France. Now, though, there are fewer than 10,000 acres statewide and few wineries are rushing to make and promote Chenin Blanc. Chappellet and Pine Ridge, are two noted Napa Valley holdouts, while Sonoma's Dry Creek Vineyard continues to make Chenin Blanc, as does Husch in Mendocino.
There is a large acreage of chenin planted in California's hot and dry southern Central Valley, but the grapes are used mainly as a component in blends. The state's best Chenin Blanc is grown in the Clarksburg area in the cooler northern end of the Central Valley. Here the chenins have a distinct ripe musk melon flavors with a hint of honey, the result, say Clarksburg advocates of a unique terroir. If that uniqueness is true, then it should be easy to tell a Clarksburg Chenin Blanc from other chenins?
(Clarksburg Terroir: Gerry Warren, a good friend, wine enthusiast and active person in the Slow Food program, contacted me recently asking if I had heard of Goss Creek California Chenin Blanc. Gerry had found the wine in a grocery store, liked it, and was trying to track down what winery made it and where the grapes were grown. His aim was to get Clarksburg Chenin Blanc into the Slow Food Ark of Taste.
So, I set to work attempting to track the mysterious identity of Goss Creek. No such label could be found and the wine buyer at the grocery store where the wine was found, didn't know anything about Goss Creek.
Meanwhile, Gerry had put together a blind tasting (where the wine's identity is not known to the tasters) of six California Chenin Blancs, three of which carried a Clarksburg appellation. The five judges ranked the wines, from last to first, in this order: Elevation Ten Clarksburg, Husch and Chappellet tied, Muddy Boot Clarksburg, Goss Creek California.
Following some unsuccessful research by Gerry Warren and me about the origins of the grapes in Goss Creek, it was finally disclosed that "the grapes are primarily from the Clarksburg area." So, it was concluded that since Muddy Boot and Goss Creek were made from Clarksburg grapes, the Clarksburg style (terroir) can be picked out from others.)
Fresh out of the fermenter, new Chenin Blanc is hard to distinguish from new Chardonnay. But give chenin a little time and it matures nicely, offering plenty of well defined melon, green apple, honey and floral flavors, balanced with crisp refreshing acidity. Chenin's high-profile fruit can give the impression of sweetness, but stylistically Chenin Blanc runs the gamut from dry to sweet, and sparkling.
Chenin Blanc is just the ticket for light al fresco meals, so welcome during the hot days of summer. In general, prices for Chenin Blanc range from $12 to $20, but expect to pay a few dollars more for top-end Loire chenins. A noted Chenin Blanc from Savennieres, Coullee de Serant from Nicolas Joly, sells for more than $100.00
California Chenin Blanc producers of note include Chappellet, Pine Ridge, Dash Cellars, Chalone Estate, Husch Vineyards and Dry Creek Vineyard. Washington Chenin Blancs to look for include Orr Wines and L'Ecole No, 41. A Pair of Vouvrays to try: Domaine du Petit and Sylvain Gaudon South Africa Chenins: A.A. Badenhorst, Kloof Street.
Please contact Gerald at firstname.lastname@example.org, for my policy on submitting wine samples. Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender.
Next Blog: What do Bordeaux five red grapes add to the blend?
I don't enter the blogosphere often, but on a recent foray, I noticed that few wine bloggers actually were writing about wine. Most wine blogs seem to step around the essential information about the vast world of wine.
With that in mind, I am introducing Gerald D Boyd On Wine, a wine primer for newcomers to wine and those fans of wine wanting more background information. No wine politics, wine gossip, wine technology and other assorted topics that are covered by other wine bloggers and wine publications.
Gerald D Boyd On Wine will cover the basics like "The Pleasures of Beaujolais" and "The Essential Differences between Napa Valley and Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
The final format is still a work in progress. For now, each weekly posting will include a major wine topic, an abbreviated list of producers I believe best show that wine's character and a related personal aside (when appropriate), drawn from my own experiences or those of friends and colleagues I have known over the years.
So, welcome to Gerald D Boyd On Wine and the first posting:
The Pleasures of Beaujolais
There is something easy-going, tasty and inviting about Beaujolais. The distinct character and depth of sound Beaujolais, draws you in. Beaujolais is not a complicated red wine, nor does it demand long aging in the way that Bordeaux or Burgundy does. You approach a glass of Beaujolais knowing that immediate pleasure lies with the first sip.
Geography and the Gamay grape have a lot to do with the instant appeal of Beaujolais.
The region of Beaujolais lies in east central France, bordered by Maconnais, the Challonais and Burgundy's Cote d'Or to the north, with the Rhone Valley in the south. Politically, Beaujolais falls within the department of the Rhone, although Beaujolais wines are not Rhone wines. The administration is a bit confusing, but for the wine drinker, what matters is the wine.
Gamay noir au jus blanc (black Gamay with white juice) is the dominant grape (98%) in Beaujolais. The remainder is the white Aligote and surprisingly, Chardonnay. Officially, up to 15% of Beaujolais may be white wine, however, the best Beaujolais, especially the ten crus, are made solely from Gamay.
The best Gamay is grown in the northern hills of Beaujolais on granitic soils, with traces of limestone. Further north, in the Cote d'Or, Pinot Noir thrives on limestone.
There is also a Gamay grape with red juice, one of the few wine grapes in a set known as teinturiers. California old timers are familiar with Alicante Bouschet with its deep red juice, a favored black grape for adding color to many blends in the early and mid 20th century.
Basic Beaujolais accounts for about half of the annual production, but that varies depending on the conditions of the vintage. A step up is Beaujolais Villages, a little fuller and richer than Beaujolais.To be labeled Beaujolais Villages, the wine must be made from one of the 100 villages. "Village" wines usually demand a small premium over basic Beaujolais.
No essay on Beaujolais would be complete without mention of Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine beloved by some and dismissed by others. Basically, nouveau (new) wines are made by using a technique known as carbonic maceration where grapes become their own fermentation vessel with the help of carbon dioxide. The process is more involved, but for the consumer, the most important thing is the resulting wine that is highly fruity and grapy. Beaujolais Nouveau is best consumed before the next release, or sooner.
Beaujolais ne plus ultra are the ten individual northern commune/village wines, known as "crus." In order, from north to south, the crus are St. Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly. The style, weight and aging potential are quite different,
St. Amour is earthier, with flavors closer to Burgundy. St. Amour shares limestone soils with southern Burgundy, thus the flavors are closer to Cote de Beaune reds. Much of the Beaujolais Blanc comes from this northern area.
Julienas wines are sturdier with more stuffing and, say some fans of the Julienas style, have a touch of sophistication.
Chenas is the smallest of the ten Beaujolais crus and shares some of the same characteristics with its better known neighbor Moulin-a-Vent. Fans of Chenas admit that although the wines are lighter than those of Moulin-a-Vent, they truly represent the character of cru Beaujolais.
Moulin-a-Vent (French for "windmill") is perhaps the best known and most expensive of the Beaujolais crus. The wines are concentrated and tend to age longer which, of course, means they are atypical of Beaujolais. With age, Moulin-a-Vent can taste more like Pinot Noir than Gamay.
Fleurie wines often compete in price with Moulin-a-Vent, but stylistically they vary in weight from lighter to heavier, with more body and substance, due to the higher percentages of clay in the soils. The lighter wines reflect floral (fleurie) tones.
Chiroubles wines are among the lightest of the Beaujolais crus and bear some similarities to Fleurie. The best show the intense grapy aromas and flavors of Gamay. Chiroubles is best enjoyed when young.
Morgon wines are deeper and longer-lived than most cru Beaujolais, characteristics shared with Moulin-a-Vent. The wines can tend toward over-ripeness and when aged drink more like Burgundy than Beaujolais.
Regnie is a mid-weight cru with forward grapy flavors and earthy back notes. In 1988, following decades of lobbying, the vintners around the village of Regnie Durette finally won the right to the appellation Regnie Beaujolais cru.
Brouilly, the largest of the ten crus, is known for its robust reds due to the volcanic soils in the area. Brouilly, along with Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent, has a reputation for being meaty and full-bodied.
Cote de Brouilly is a separate hillside (cote) appellation producing more concentrated wines than Brouilly. Smaller production means that Cote de Brouilly wines are not seen as frequently, especially in U.S. markets.
Beaujolais producers of interest: Chateau Thivin, Domaine Chiguard, Domaine Jean-Michel Dupre, Daniel Bouland, Georges Duboeuf, Mommessin.
A Personal Aside on Beaujolais
Most wine drinkers, at some time in their passion, have an epiphany, that moment when you taste a wine that resets your exploration and appreciation of wine.
Many young drinkers experiment first with beer, some never going further. The more fortunate among us luck into wine at a dinner, a tasting, or through the kindness of a friend where a bottle of wine is opened with the invitation to give it a try, especially if you’ve never had wine before. It doesn’t have to be a chateau bottled Bordeaux or a top-end Barossa Valley Shiraz. I know because my wine epiphany happened In France.
In the early 1950s, I was in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Germany. My unit was selected to participate in a NATO exercise centered in France. So we packed up our trucks and communications vans and started the long drive from Bavaria to Chaumont Air Base, not too far north Dijon and the Burgundy region.
I was a beer drinker then and didn’t know anything about wine. One evening, a friend and I went into town to escape the hum-drum offerings in the chow hall. A Frenchman who worked in our squadron area said our best bet was the train station restaurant. In those days, train station restaurants were white tablecloth operations, with good chefs and professional waiters.
There were only one or two tables occupied in the dining room when we arrived; bad news for the restaurant, but good news for us. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the maitre d’ immediately recognized us as Americans, guiding us to a table tended by a slow-moving garcon who looked ancient to us. He introduced himself and began explaining the menu and the carte d’vin, in heavily accented but understandable English.
Sensing our lack of sophistication in all things food and wine, our waiter patiently helped us with the food choices and then asked: “And for the wine?”
My friend and I looked at each other, hoping the other would say something, fake it if necessary, but order some wine, any wine. Again, the waiter came to the rescue. “Gentlemen, while we are waiting for the food, why don’t we go look at our wines and, perhaps, I can help you make a choice.”
Under the restaurant, but far enough from the tracks to avoid vibrations, was a small room lined with racks of wines, many encrusted with the dust of long aging. The waiter stood by quietly while we looked around, but then said, “Here’s a wine I think you will enjoy with your food.” And with that, we returned to the table while the waiter went to the sideboard to dust the bottle off.
“So, gentlemen,” the waiter said, holding the bottle so we could read the label. It looked impressive, so we nodded our approval and he deftly cut the capsule, pulled the cork and smelled it, then removed it from the corkscrew and placed the cork on the table between my friend and me. The waiter then stepped back from the table. And after a brief pause, since we didn't know what to do with the wine-stained cork, we nodded again and the waiter poured a small amount of the wine in both our glasses. “May I suggest you smell the wine first then take a small sip,” he said.
I don’t remember my friend’s comments, but for me, that first sniff was unlike anything I had ever smelled before; crushed grapes and flowers with a hint of spice. Although I don't recall the appellation or the producer, I like to think that in his wisdom the waiter sensed we needed an introductory wine, like Beaujolais.My friend and I returned to the base only slightly aware that we had just had a life-changing experience, thanks to the generosity of a kindly old waiter who wanted to use his rusty English while easing two neophytes into the international wine community. I didn’t realize it at the time,but my adventure in Chaumont opened the door for me to the pleasures of all wine.
Start your adventure in wine with a Beaujolais Nouveau, or a standard Beaujolais, or if you can find it, Beaujolais Villages. Then, move up to one of the nine Beaujolais Crus. Salute!