Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Chenin Blanc

Writing about light dry summer wines prompts me to take a look at one of the most ordinary of white vinifera grapes, Chenin Blanc, which only finds nobility in French Loire Valley Vouvray and, perhaps, in South African production. I am also prompted to write because Vouvrays seem to have been rediscovered here at the store this summer and our Friday evening tasting this week includes a South African. So it doesn't hurt to advertise what's current, right? But what about the quality question? Is Chenin Blanc good wine or isn't it?

First of all, this summer if it's cold and refreshing, as we have been saying here recently, it's good wine. But critically speaking? For most of my thirty years in the business, I would say not, largely because I have held to a hierarchical schema regarding grape types. Those that were historically proven to produce harmoniously complex wines occupied the top tier. Those that produced such quality only occasionally were at the next rung. The ordinary grapes were below that and at the bottom was, well, you don't want to know.

Michael McNeil, the highest ranking sommelier-credentialed connoisseur in the Atlanta wine business, took me to task about this approach recently. For him it's about wine improving in the bottle, i.e., if it improves in the bottle, it's noble. So for him, Chenin Blanc is a noble grape in those instances where the terroir allows for superior production to the extent that the wine improves in the cellar. I humbly stand corrected.

Now, I have always known of the great Vouvrays, having tasted them thirty years ago. I knew then that they were truly special cellar-worthy wines. I just always thought of those examples as an anomaly, an accident of nature. Chenin Blanc was just ordinary as a rule.

The most noble of red grapes is Pinot Noir and I learned that thirty years ago from my mentor, Jim Sanders, the father of the fine wine business in Atlanta and the French Burgundy expert of the southeastern United States at the time. Here's the rub though. Pinot Noir only produces nobly in Burgundy, France to my knowledge. What's the difference then between that and the Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley? I believe Mr. McNeil may have a point: nobility is an overlay that covers all wines with only a few examples of certain types standing out.

This Friday (5-7pm), along with the South African Chenin Blanc, we will taste some combination of new inventory in California Cabernets, Spanish dry rose, Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, and Argentine Pinot Noir. The wines we are offering at our tastings this summer really are special, after all, we do have to drive away the summer heat somehow. Please join us and say you read this article for a free Danish Dancake.

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