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 email@example.com, for my policy on submitting wine samples. Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender.
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