Man, I'm really bottom feeding now. Chenin Blanc. What could be more ordinary than that!
Being a prolific grapevine, Chenin Blanc often ends up as overproduced bulk wine in most new (and old) world venues. It's claim to fame in the standard white wine blend is the acidity it contributes to the finished product. With no special winemaking treatment, the wine itself is left quite bland with no distinction, no footprint reflecting a beneficial vintage or terroir.
This kind of Chenin Blanc thrives in the Central Valley of California and ends up in jugs named after classic European white wines. Lodi is a California wine appellation that used to produce just that kind of wine thirty years ago but has now evolved into a fine producer of Chenin Blanc. In general, Lodi has become the Languedoc of California with 20% of all varietal wines being sourced from there and not just as estate bottled Lodi brands. Prestigious wineries from Napa and elsewhere source premium Chenin from Lodi for their proprietary blends.
South Africa's claim to fame in white wine has always been Chenin Blanc or Steen as it is called there. Steen may go back to the 1600s in South Africa and is today the most widely planted grape in the country representing 20% of all plantings there. South African Chenin Blanc vineyard acreage is twice as large as that of France. While South African Chenin Blanc shares the common dry and off-dry styles with California, South African Chenin is usually superior to the California example.
In its finest expression found in Vouvray of the Loire Valley in northern France, Chenin Blanc may be made dry, off-dry, sweet, very sweet, and even sparkling. In cooler climates like Loire its sweet fruit predominates along with its acidity and full body and most Vouvrays show it all in an off-dry style. Ampelographers have determined that Chenin Blanc originated in the Loire Valley but not in Vouvray but rather two doors down in Anjou. Today Anjou stands as the finest example of the dry style of Chenin Blanc. If Vouvray shows a profile of floral honey, nuts, ginger, and fig; the Anjou would be quince and apple.
So why are we writing about Chenin Blanc here today? Well because it was to be our feature for the Thursday Wine 101 class here at the store. That had to be changed when I was presented with a package deal on New Zealand wines which had to take precedence. Since I had already done this research, well, you know...
Three final points though before ending this thing:
1. The late-harvest Chenin Blancs of Vouvray are among the finest dessert wines in the world and a must-taste for aficianados with pockets deep enough to afford them.
2. I started out by disparaging Chenin Blanc as a bulk wine blending grape and that, you now know, is misleading. The redemption for Chenin Blanc, like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, lies in its raison d'etre in the terroir of Vouvray. Pinot Noir achieves its noble bonafides in Burgundy; Chenin Blanc, likewise in Vouvray
3. This from a New York Times article: Vouvray's style versatility is possible because its acidity acts for wine structure like a fashion models bones make her frame the ideal structure for modeling different dresses. (Or something like that.)
This Thursday at the 7pm Wine 101 class we will be tasting four from Lawson's Dry Hills of New Zealand and two Italian sweet reds. On Friday David Rimmer of Lynda Allison Cellar Selection will be offering up examples of his newly arrived French wines and then next Friday Scott Beauchamp of Eagle Rocks offers us tastes of several new high end California varietals.