When wine expert Jancis Robinson includes chenin blanc in her “classic” grapes category, she has in mind “its finest incarnation, as extraordinarily long-lived, uniquely flavored botrytised sweet wines in the Loire Valley.”
I’ve never tasted one of these wines and probably wouldn’t properly appreciate them anyway. Even the finest and most succulent sweet wines give me an instant headache, so I generally avoid them.
But dry chenin blanc, as Robinson concedes, can be wonderful as well. “(T)here are fine dry (Sec) Loire Chenin Blancs too, most famously Savennières, a tiny appellation famous for making stern whites that can take a decade to be approachable but have so much mineral extract that they can make great partners for quite flavorful foods. Jasnières and Anjou are both names that can be found on bottles of serious dry Chenin Blanc, too.”
And, of course Vouvray, in its sweet, semi-sweet, off-dry, and dry incarnations is made from the chenin blanc grape.
Chenin blanc is, too, the main grape in many delicious French sparklers like Cremant de Loire and sparkling Vouvray. In other words, it’s an incredibly versatile grape, one that can age beautifully thanks in part to its very high acidity. Interestingly, the three areas of the world in which it really flourishes are the Loire Valley, South Africa and Clarksburg, California. Lucky us.
Yes, in the 1970s and ’80s every cheap wine producer in California used it to create awful sweet white plonk, but now many serious wineries treat this ancient and delicious grape with the respect it deserves.
One of them, as I have suggested in earlier columns, is our very own Clarksburg Wine Company, which makes three different versions of dry chenin blanc — a regular chenin, a chenin-viognier blend and a special Vouvray-style (VS). I’ve had occasion in the last couple of weeks to re-taste these wines and, if anything, I liked them even more time around. I wrote about the 2011 bottling about a year ago and they are still as good, if not better, as they were then.
All three wines taste of tropical fruit, melon and pear and have crisp citrus finishes. The blend has a distinct pineapple flavor up front and then more mineral and spice notes than the regular chenin, a plus for me. But my favorite of the three remains the VS. Less alcohol than the others — 11 percent to their 12.5 percent — and equally food-friendly (though I might choose the blend to accompany a spicy Thai meal), it’s a bit more complex with the initial sharp citrus giving way to an intriguing vegetal layer with lots of minerals on the way. I served it one recent evening with a number of “things,” including braised carrots, sharp provolone, beet flan and smoked trout salad. Perfect.
All of the chenins pair beautifully with spring bounty, including asparagus, and go very well with fish and appetizers of all sorts. The first two retail for $16, the VS, alas, is $24 (only 66 cases were made) — all available at the Clarksburg Wine Company tasting room at the Old Sugar Mill.
An added attraction of all three is their heavy glass bottles (which I usually don’t approve of, but since these have so few miles to travel …) and elegant labels. Any one would make a really impressive gift — especially to introduce someone to the best wines of Yolo.
A more easily available Yolo County chenin blanc comes from Dry Creek Vineyards. This year’s is even better than last’s. One critic said, “I always love Dry Creek’s Chenin Blanc, but this year’s from a cool-to-cold vintage is angular and crisp, with dramatic mineral notes and lemony character that makes this a perfect wine for oysters or mussels. And the wine’s faint trace of residual sugar (0.6 percent) makes it a superb patio sipper as well.”
Amen. I served it with a chick pea-sauced pasta, and it worked even better than I expected. Its very slight sweetness partnered perfectly with the sauce that itself had just a touch of sweetness from ts sun-dried tomatoes and red onions. An excellent bargain, it sells for around $11 at the Co-op and Nugget.
According to wine experts, it’s the soil as well as the hot days and cool nights that makes the chenin grape so happy in our area. And this is not particularly recent news — Gerald Asher of Gourmet many years ago titled his essay about chenin blanc “Clarksburg: The right grape in the right place.” And Darrell Corti wrote an article called “Chenin Blanc Loves Delta Soil.”
We should celebrate this local triumph as often as possible — make a resolution to drink chenin blanc this summer.
South African has been producing excellent dry-style chenin blanc (also called Steen) for decades. I wrote recently about Mulderbosch rosé, but the company is most well-known for its reliable and reasonably priced chenin blanc ($10 at the Co-op). I tasted the most recent release last week and liked it, as did the tasters for whom I was pouring it. But it’s a little heavy (“opulent,” according to Mulderbosch) for me and less refreshing than my Clarksburg friends, so I’d happily spend a dollar more to get the Dry Creek.
For seriously inexpensive local wine — though not, right now, any chenin blanc — try out the new Cork It Again at 802 Fourth St. I’ll be writing more about it soon; meanwhile stop by and taste (free) and let me know what you think. Currently they have four wines, all selling for $5.99 a bottle (with $1 off your next bottle with the return of a previous one). Jake will explain it all — tell him I sent you.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com