There was a time in my early years of wine collecting that I now refer to as the "BC" years. That is, "Before Chardonnay."
And what white wine was I drinking then? Why, Chenin Blanc!
|Chenin Blanc on the vine|
In the 1960s, the selection of California white wine was limited: French Colombard, Malvasia Bianca, Johannisberg Riesling, (California) Chablis. And, if you were in the right wine shop, you might find Hanzell Chardonnay or Wente Chardonnay and Weibel Chardonnay.
By 1980, California had only 18,000 acres of Chardonnay, but in the same year, there was more Chenin Blanc grown in California then in France. Today, there is more Chenin Blanc in South Africa then is grown in all of France, that being mostly the middle Loire regions of Touraine and Vouvray.
French Chenin Blanc
The proper name for the versatile Loire Valley grape is Pineau de la Loire, although it is not related to true pinots like Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Chenin Blanc, or simply Chenin, can be found further west in the Loire areas of Saumur and Anjou, but the grape is most closely associated with Vouvray.
Vouvray is 100% Chenin Blanc and the best examples have honeyed-mineral flavors, supported by zesty acidity. In fact, good acidity is one of the hallmarks of Chenin Blanc, but when the variety is grown in warmer climes, it tends to lack that crisp edge.
Vouvray is all about fruit and acid, thus oak barrels are rare in Vouvray cellars. And because Vouvray producers want to retain the grapes natural acidity, most winemakers avoid malolactic conversion, the wine making technique that converts harsher malic acid (think apples) to softer lactic acid, like that found in milk. The problem for Vouvray winemakers is that ML lowers total acidity.
Stylistically, Vouvray is dry, semi-dry, moelleux (medium sweet) and liquoreux (botrytised sweet wines). The sweeter versions are rare and demand a sacrifice on the part of the grower, to leave the grapes on the vine until they are infected with botrytis, concentrating the juice to a sweet honeyed nectar.
Domaine Huet is the leading producer in Vouvray, but there are many brands available at prices that range up to $50, while most are about $20 to $25.
Further west along the Loire River and then south of Angers is a cluster of areas known for white wines based on Chenin Blanc, such as Anjou, Quarts de Chaume, Coteaux de l'Aubance, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon and Savennieres.
Coteaux du Layon is a large area producing demi-sec (medium dry), moelleux or liquoreux wines, all 100% Chenin Blanc; within the area of Layon are two small appellations, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, generally thought to produce higher quality wine. As always, trust your own palate to determine the style and brand you like.
Other Chenin Blanc
Except for South Africa, the wine world beyond the Loire Valley, has pretty much relegated Chenin Blanc to a minor role, often in favor of more sexy wines like Chardonnay.
Chenin's brisk acidity attracted South African winemakers, to the extent that the variety became the most planted white wine grape in the Cape wine lands. In the early years of the SA wine industry, Chenin Blanc was so valued that Afrikaners, used the word Steen (from "hoeksteen"), as the cornerstone of the wine industry. Today, although some SA wineries still make Steen, most have adopted Chenin Blanc, a name with more traction in the international market.
Chile is beginning to ship a few Chenins to international markets including the United States. Other Southern Hemisphere countries with Chenin Blanc are Australia and New Zealand.
The biggest surge in the United States for Chenin Blanc has been in the Clarksburg area of California. The region lies at the cooler northern tip of the Central Valley and has become an important place for fruity Chenins with melon notes and good acidity. Clarksburg Chenins to look for include Sonoma's Dry Creek Vineyard, Kirchhoff, Beringer and Richard Bruno.
Other California Chenins worth a search include Chappellet Napa Valley, Pine Ridge Napa Valley Chenin Blanc/Viognier and Chalone Vineyard Chalone Estate. In the Santa Maria Valley, look for Foxen Chenin Blanc.
Washington state does not count Chenin Blanc as a major variety, but L'Ecole No. 41 makes two Old Vine Chenins, Covey Run has an off-dry bottling and Kiona makes a late-harvest Chenin.
Chenin Blanc has been in the Loire Valley for over a thousand years and it was a popular white wine long before Chardonnay captured the attention of wine drinkers. Next time you want a white wine, think of Chenin Blanc.
Next blog: My California Wine Adventures 6
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