No football article this time. I need to work on my article on why Roger Goodell must go. Maybe next week… In the meantime, here is why Chenin Blanc could be your new favorite wine
Many people are members of the ABC club. That is, they are looking for anything but Chardonnay to drink. I actually love a great Chardonnay, but I understand how people can tire of it. It is one of the most planted white grapes in the world & much of it ranges from boring to awful. Chardonnay has some versatility though. It can be rich & oaky, or it can be light & fruity. It would be nice to find another grape that could fill that niche. I’m here to tell you that Chenin Blanc fits the bill.
Chenin Blanc, frequently just called Chenin, can make slightly sweet or dry crisp wines that have guava, peach, & pear flavors. At better quality, it can make dry smoky wines that age for decades. When oak barrel fermented, it can rival the best vanilla & butter textured Chardonnays. When picked as a late harvest grape or a noble rot infected grape, it makes a sweet wine that can age 50 years or more. It is also a great grape for sparkling wines. That is a versatile grape!
Like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc is grown in many places across the globe; unfortunately it is treated like a red headed stepchild in many of those growing regions. While solid Chenin Blanc is made in Australia, California (Chalone in particular), & Texas, it really only gets the respect it deserves in The Loire Valley in France & in South Africa.
Chenin Blanc is a grape that has naturally high acid. In particular, it is able to ripen well in a hot climate without losing too much acid. It also has a tendency towards high yields. It is susceptible to botrytis. It has good resistance to disease & wind. It buds early & ripens late. All of these factors affect the wines that are produced in the middle Loire & South Africa. I’ll write about the regions to give you more details, but you don’t really need to know all of this to pick out a good bottle. It doesn’t hurt though.
The Loire is a wine region in France that basically follows the Loire River. It runs from the Atlantic near Nantes east towards Burgundy. It is north of the wine region of Bordeaux, but South of Paris & the wines of Champagne. It has 4 distinct growing regions & really would be divided into 4 different appellations if not for the Loire & tradition. The middle 2 sections of the Loire are the great Chenin growing areas. The middle Loire has a basically continental climate. That means that it has short cold winters & long dry summers. Spring frost can be a problem, & sometimes it rains around harvest time. The Loire itself has the biggest effect on the local mesoclimates. The river reflects light & that helps grapes ripen even when it might normally be a bit too cool for full ripeness due to the latitude. It also provides cooling breezes that help the grapes retain acidity when it is hot. Finally, the river helps provide the moisture necessary for noble rot/botrytis.
The Loire produces several different styles of Chenin, from dry, to off dry, to luxurious sweet wines. The grape is so ubiquitous there that it was once called Franc Blanc. Today it is often called Pineau or Pineau de la Loire.
In the Loire, the grape is usually unblended, although in Anjou or Saumur it is possible to add 20% Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc & in wines labeled Touraine there can be a broader mixture. The best Chenin in the Loire will be unblended.
Mechanical harvesting is used in much of the Loire. It cannot be used for the production of the classic sweet Chenin Blancs. The best of these wines will be made from grapes infected by botrytis. This necessitates more than one harvesting session. These are called tries & 2 are required & sometimes 3 or 4 are used to make sure that only the grapes that have shriveled with botrytis are picked. It is a long process which risks a fall rain & the loss of crops. It results in higher priced wines, but they are still inexpensive compared to other botrytis wines such as Sauternes.
There are few hard & fast rules for the fermentation process & the treatment of the wine in the Loire. There are some common themes. There is generally no Malolactic fermentation for the wines. There is generally no new oak used or very little. Some lees contact is not uncommon. Because the climate is cool, it is normal to chaptalize the wine. Adding sugar up to a 2.5% alcohol increase is allowed & is common except for in warmer years. Most modern wineries have stainless steel tanks with temperature control. In the Loire it is sometimes necessary to warm the must before & during fermentation to get the wine to finish fermentation. There are some people experimenting with new oak & malolactic fermentation in the hopes of capturing some of the market for oaked Chardonnay. This is a tiny minority of the market.
Basic Chenin Blanc from the Loire has flavors of apple & pear, nuts, & mineral. They can be tight & acidic with a chalky minerality when first bottled. Time in the bottle is necessary for the full range of flavors to appear. The best wines can age for 50 years or more. During that time they develop secondary characteristics of honey & beeswax. As the wines become sweeter, they show sweeter jellied fruits with the same notes. The botrytis infected wines show the honey & beeswax much more quickly & have more luscious apple & pear marmalade notes. Great Loire Chenin Blanc can be one of the best & most long lived wines in the world.
In Savennières, Chenin is almost always dry. They wait later than average to harvest the grapes, allowing them to achieve greater ripeness. Then they ferment them completely dry. That results in a wine with richness & a bit higher alcohol. These wines can be somewhat austere in the first few years after bottling. The best examples will last as long as 50 years & develop complex flavors. The first thing I notice about a good Savennières is the combination of minerality & smokiness. This is one of those wines that can fool you. You might swear it had oak in it, but it doesn’t. That smoky flavor is from the fruit. Good examples also tend to show beeswax & honey. If you are looking for a fruity & easy drinking wine, this isn’t for you. If you want a great wine to pair with food & one that offers unexpected delights, give it a try. I think Savennières pairs well with a wide variety of food. Probably only Riesling is more versatile. It isn’t the easiest wine to find. It doesn’t look like Total Wine or Bev Mo ever stock it. I picked up a bottle of Domaine des Baumard at Specs in Houston & at a little shop in Santa Fe. I found Domaine de Baumard’s Clos du Papillon at a Whole Foods. Check with your local store.
The wines of Anjou, Coteaux de l’Aubance, Jasnières, Montlouis, Saumur, and Vouvray have a wide range of sweetness levels. In Vouvray the wine generally has some sweetness. The labels will sometimes guide you, but not always. Tim Atkin MW says that the Loire producers favor a BBC management approach to labeling, “tell the public nothing.” Generally you can expect the wine to be off dry. Sometimes they will say something like “Vouvray Sec” & you will know it is dry. Experimentation is probably your best bet here. These wines can be great with spicy food. The drier versions make great poolside wines on a hot day.
The high acidity of Chenin Blanc makes it a great candidate for sparkling wine. In the Loire, it is used to make Crémant de Loire & sparkling Vouvray. Crémant is just a French word for Champagne style sparkling wine that is not from Champagne. Outside of the Loire it is also used in Crémant de Limoux in Southern France. These wines may not be as refined as Champagne, but they can be vibrant wines showing peach & honey notes. As with the wines, these can be dry or slightly sweet. Most of the time, a dry sparkling wine will be labeled as “Brut” or “Sec”, while a slightly sweet sparkler will be labeled as “off-dry” or “demi-sec.”
The wines of the Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, and Quarts de Chaume are best known for their sweet Chenin Blanc. Where the wine is labeled according to sweetness it will be sec (dry), demi-sec (medium dry), or moelleux (sweet). Top producers include Claude Papin, Domaine Richou, & Huet. The best of these wines are produced with grapes that have been infected by botrytis cinerea. Botrytis is also called noble rot (marketing!). Essentially it is a fungus that in just the right conditions (damp in the morning, dry in the afternoon) grows on the grapes & sucks the water from them. That concentrates the sugar in the wine, making the grapes sweeter. It also gives the fruit interesting honey & marmalade flavors. It sounds, & truthfully looks a bit disgusting, but it makes great wine. Anyone who eats mushrooms or yogurt should be able to handle a little fungus being involved in the production of their wine. As I mentioned, these grapes all have to be hand-picked. Pickers go through the vineyard & hand select the infected grapes, leaving the rest. They will sometimes make 2 or 3 tries through the vineyard to get enough to make the wine. That costs money, but it is worth it. These are luscious wines with honey & jam & marmalade notes. The cool thing about them is that they still have a backbone of acidity. These wines last for decades & improve as they go. Many people think of them as strictly dessert wines, but I prefer them with pâté or blue cheese. I think that is one of the great wine pairings of all time.
I drank a bottle of Chateau de Fesles Bonnezeaux 1998 over the course of about 3 days. It was just as fresh & wonderful on the 3rd day as it was the first. Even though it was almost 17 years old, it seemed youthful. I probably could have left this in my wine rack for another 30 years. It was everything that I mentioned above & more. La Revue du Vin de France has called Fesles the “Yquem of the Loire Valley.” I paid $38 for my bottle & I have seen it at around $60 online. That’s pretty cheap in the grand scheme of things for a world class wine.
South Africa has been growing Chenin Blanc for centuries, but only relatively recently have they tried to make high quality wine with it. Initially the grape was planted to produce brandy due to its ability to get a large crop with good sugar & still retain acid. It also has good resistance to disease & wind. Wind can be a real issue in South Africa & can cause transpiration issues. In fact it wasn’t even known as Chenin Blanc until the 1960’s. It was called Steen. Chenin is still the most planted grape in South Africa, but at around 18% of the total crop, it has fallen off quite a bit.
There is still plenty of over cropped bland Chenin Blanc produced in South Africa. It is sometimes sold under a varietal name or blended with Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc & sold with a fanciful name. These wines tend to have green fruit flavors with melon & mango. They aren’t necessarily bad wines. They just aren’t memorable.
Since the 1990’s there has been a revolution in quality at the top end of the spectrum for South African wines. Growers have been encouraged to reduce yields. Top producers like De Trafford, Morgenhof, & Anura (my favorite) are using old vines to make big bold Chenin Blancs that can last as much as 10 years.
Most top quality producers have air conditioned production facilities. Some Chenin is fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks. Some producers ferment at least a portion of their Chenin in French or American oak barrels. These barrels are in cold rooms due to the heat in South Africa combined with the heat of fermentation. Some Chenin is fermented in stainless steel & then aged in barrel for up to 24 months.
These wines show more tropical fruit than the wines of the Loire due to the warmer climate. Melon, mango, pineapple, & grapefruit are common flavors. The wines that are fermented or aged in barrel will show the toast or nut notes from the oak. American oak seems to be a current favorite. It adds coconut flavors that work well with the other tropical flavors in the wines.
South African Chenin Blanc does not yet show the aging potential of Loire Chenin. Unoaked Chenin in South Africa, which ranges from sweet to dry generally, is drinkable for 1-3 years. The oaked Chenin usually is good for 3-5 years, but there are some examples that work for 10 years.
Chenin Blanc in South Africa generally does not show botrytis notes. The heavy winds and arid climate make it unlikely for the fungus to survive in most of the wine region.
Though the wines are very different, both South Africa & the Loire produce high quality Chenin Blanc. The next time you feel the need to satisfy your ABC desires, try a Chenin Blanc. It could be your new favorite.