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Tasting Corner: The Other Blanc

Posted on  | August 7, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Still Somewhat Obscure, Chenin Blanc has a Bright Future According to Diverse Advocates.

Vineyards of Philippe Caharel in Savenières

Many people aren’t familiar with it,” says JJ Williams, sales manager for Kiona Vineyards and Winery in Washington. “If they taste it and don’t read the label, they think it’s Riesling.” In Santa Barbara, Foxen Winery co-owner Dick Doré calls it “one of the most underappreciated grapes out there.”
It’s not Sauvignon Blanc. Not Pinot Blanc. It’s Chenin Blanc, and it’s making its case.

There’s nothing newfangled about it, of course; the Loire Valley has been cultivating Chenin seriously since the 15th century (that’s right—the 15th). Today the region has over 5,400 acres of Chenin planted, and the grape is featured in no less than 25 separate appellations within the Loire Valley, the most recognized being Vouvray and Savennières. Those wines don’t necessarily build awareness of the grape in wine drinkers, though: “We do not produce ‘grape varietal’ wines in France,” says Evelyne de Pontbriand, winemaker at Domaine du Closel in Savennières. “We produce ‘landscape taste’ wines with the most adapted tool—which is the local grape varietal. This is a totally different approach.”

Even if the grape name isn’t getting through, the wines are: Loire Valley wines exports to the U.S. were up 43% in 2010 over 2009 (that does include wines made from other varieties; Chenin-only statistics are not available). “The quality is there, more and more,” de Pontbriand adds. “Loire Valley wines and Chenin Blanc in particular have never been so good, in general. So reliability is not the problem.”

Slippery Style

But consistency—stylistic consistency—is. Loire Valley Chenin Blanc ranges from light-bodied to full, bone-dry to sweet, even sparkling (seven separate Loire appellations use Chenin in bubbly). In South Africa, some winemakers ferment and age it in oak barrels in a manner akin to Chardonnay. Ken Forrester, chairman of South Africa’s Chenin Blanc Association, says they are trying to develop an indication system similar to the International Riesling Foundation’s Sweetness Scale, which could help consumers understand in what style a Chenin was made in before they purchase it.

Kiona has gone ahead and simply used the IRF scale, where their Chenin falls in the medium-dry category. Their Chenin ice wine—a unique dessert wine, as most dessert Chenins are botritized rather than naturally frozen—is fully sweet, though balanced by what Williams calls, “off-the-chart acidity.” And therein, he adds, lies Chenin’s secret: it holds onto its acidity whether picked early or late.

In all of its guises, Chenin Blanc also retains its identity as a very aromatic grape, often with floral or mineral notes alongside evident fruit. The fruit foundation is also the reason that even when vinified dry, the wine can trick tasters into perceiving it as sweet.

Fans Around the Globe

South Africa is home to 53% of the world’s Chenin Blanc vineyards, even though acreage has been receding over the past ten years. Molly Choi, executive VP for sales & marketing at Cape Classics, a leading South African importer, has high hopes for the grape. “My ultimate goal is to have it rival Pinot Grigio, where consumers ask for it varietally.  When explaining what it is, something that has always worked well is referring to it as ‘Pinot Grigio with muscles, in a hula skirt’—it’s similarly approachable and quaffable, but has more tropical elements and oomph.”

Stellenbosch winemaker Bruwer Raats would like to see a little less  stylistic variety. He faults some producers in the warmer regions for “picking it too ripe, trying too hard—too obvious, too big. It provides instant gratification in the market, but I’d like to see a bit more restraint, more finesse.” Nonetheless, he feels it should become the country’s signature variety, likening it to Malbec in Argentina.

Identity Issues

Stylistic range is not Chenin’s only challenge; it still has identity issues to deal with. Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island grows the state’s best-known (and, as of now, only) Chenin Blanc. Winemaker Kareem Massoud says that aside from wine geeks and professionals who are in the know, the average consumer who has heard of Chenin generally associates it with sweet jug wines from  California’s Central Valley—a mainstay of the 1970s.

“Chenin was a jug wine source for many years,” says Dick Doré, but a great deal of it was ripped out when Chardonnay became popular and commanded higher prices. Even today much of California’s 7,200 acres of Chenin Blanc is overcropped—yielding as much as nine tons per acre—and still goes into sweet blends. Foxen is one of a handful of Californians making a drier style; “We initially encountered a lot of market resistance and were told by retailers it’s a hand-sell,” says Doré, “but we’ve made a name for it gradually over the years.”

Washington only has 207 acres of Chenin Blanc—one third what it had in 1993—but Williams says that while “most wineries don’t know how to sell it, those that do make it sell the snot out of it.” Dry Creek Vineyard, which makes what is likely the best-distributed and most-awarded American Chenin Blanc, has been undaunted by the grape’s underdog status for 40 vintages. Winery president Kim Stare Wallace admits the wine (theirs is sourced in Clarksburg and labeled “Dry Chenin Blanc”) is still “somewhat of a hand-sell, but once someone tastes it, they are sold, as there simply isn’t a better white wine out there for the price.” She attributes their success to the fact that it’s not treated as a “poor man’s Chardonnay” at Dry Creek Vineyard; it has been made consistently in a crisp, Loire-inspired style, never barrel-aged or blended. She is optimistic about Chenin’s future: “Flavor-wise, it appeals to knowledgeable wine drinkers as well as novices, which is nice. Not too many wines can bridge that gap.”

Food Factor

Chenin Blanc’s food-friendliness is a big help. Kareem Massoud’s father Charles calls it “a great island wine,” well suited to seafood, especially Long Island’s shellfish like oysters, clams or Peconic Bay mussels. “We have found an increased popularity in Japanese, Mexican and Chinese restaurants,” says  Sarah Hwang, assistant director of sales and marketing at Domaine Huet, producer of Vouvray in dry, demi-sec and sweet styles. She credits this affinity to the wine’s racy acidity. Pontbriand notes that it is more than acid driving the wine: “I would add that Chenin Blanc has some bitterness in its flavors, and that bitterness has practically disappeared from our food and drinks except for tonic water and dark chocolate. However, it is coming back with some cocktails.

It is going to be the fashionable taste of tomorrow.


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