Chenin Blanc

Free tasting | Saturday, August 11, 2018 | 4-6PM

When I think of Chenin Blanc I think of three things: high acidity, honeysuckle, and versatility. Alike to Riesling, Chenin Blanc has the rare ability to produce the whole gamut of wine – from still to sparkling to dry or sweet wine. It is universally versatile, very vigorous and fertile, and susceptible (for better or for worse) to botrytis rot, mildew and other diseases.

The earliest mention of Chenin Blanc was in 845 A.D. in land grants issued by Charles the Bald (not joking), Charlemagne's grandson. Chenin's name is possibly derived from Chenonceau, the name of a château where Chenin Blanc was planted by Thomas Bohier at the end of the 15th century. It is also possible that Chenin could derive from the French chien (‘dog’), because wild canines would munch on fallen berries from the local grapevines. Lucky dogs! The earliest literary mention of Chenin dates back to 1534 in Gargantua written by medieval French poet François Rabelais: ‘And with large chenin grapes they carefully covered Forgiez’s legs, so that he soon recovered.’ Now that’s my kind of medicine!

Chenin grows primarily in the middle of the Loire Valley in France and is the most important base wine for the Loire’s sparkling wines, such as Crémant de Loire. Chenin can be made into very sweet wine like the magical wines of Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, in which high sugar levels, concentrated by botrytis, are counterbalanced by high acidity. Chenin from other appellations in the Loire, like Savenniéres, Vouvray, Saumur, and Anjou, can range from bone-dry to medium-sweet and have flavors of honey, straw and apples.

Other areas of the world that grow Chenin include California, Washington State, much of South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. South Africa has the largest overall plantings of Chenin Blanc in the world at just under 47,000 acres, with 18.6% of this ‘workhorse’ grape making up South Africa’s total plantings. Chenin in South Africa is also referred to as ‘Steen,’ and its natural high acidity is highly advantageous in the warm Cape climate. Chenin Blanc first appeared on the Californian wine scene in the 1970s when there was a serious shortage of white grapes, and it was used as a substitute for Chardonnay. 

Describing Chenin, Rabelais wrote, ‘Oh the nice white wine! And for my soul, it is nothing else than taffeta.’ Chenin Blanc – it’s good for the soul! Come taste Chenin tomorrow at the shop, in all of its many soulful forms!

Chenin Blanc Line-up

2015 Nicolas Joly, Savennières les Vieux Clos (Loire Valley, France) | Eric Asimov describes Savennières in the New York Times as ‘The Thinking Person’s White Wine,’ and we can’t say it any better than that. You’ll ruminate over a glass of Nicolas Joly’s Chenin Blanc, and think, “How can Chenin Blanc be thisgood and thisinteresting?” The first time I had Joly was one of the ‘aha!’ moments – eyes wide, total submission to what’s in the glass, weak knees. It’s a bit like falling in love. Simply put, Joly is a legend, and a Chenin biodynamic magician. Joly harvests grapes when they’re right on the brink, or have developed botrytis, and vinifies using all biodynamic methods and a strict ‘hands-off’ dogma. Joly disapproves of the term ‘winemaker’ and his business card purportedly reads ‘Nicolas Joly, Gérant de la Sociéte’ (Nature assistant and not a winemaker). The area of Savenniéres is pretty damn special too, as it was one of the first appellations in the Loire to produce fine dry Chenin, and it’s explosive minerality is like no other Chenin from anywhere in the world. 

2016 Patrice Colin, Côteaux du Vendômois, Vieilles vignes (Loire Valley, France| 8th generation Patrice and Valérie run their organic estate in the Côteaux du Vendômois and make a total production of less than 2000 cases. The AOP of Côteaux du Vendômois was officially formed in 2001, but the history of wine production goes back as far as the 11th century. Large cooperatives produce 60% of total AOP production and there are only 13 private producers growing their own grapes, including the Colin family. ‘Vieilles vignes’ is from 30-year-old vines grown on schist soil. This dry white is both fruity and mineral with great freshness on the palate. 

2016 Manoir Tête de la Rouge, Tête d’Ange, Saumur (Loire Valley, France) | The Reynouard family produces some of the most honest wines in Saumur where they grow Chenin Blanc, as well as Cabernet Franc and Pineau d’Aunis on their 13-hectare property. Vines are planted on clay limestone soil and they have been using biodynamics since 2010 in and out of the cellar. Yellow straw color with green reflections. Nose of white flower, with citrus on the end. 

2015 Les Maisons Rouge, l’Eclos Jasnières (Loire Valley, France) | Benoit and Elisabeth Jardin settled in Domaine Les Maisons in 1994. They produce white wine (Chenin) on 5 hectares and red wine (grape Pineau d’Aunis) on 2 acres. The "Clos des Jasnières" is at the heart of the Jasnières appellation where 70-year-old Chenin Blanc vines are located on the upper part of the slope. It’s the cénonien (Mesozoic) combination of clay, sand, and green mica under the vines, that gives this giving Chenin such clout and mineral drive. Aged in oak barrels for 14 months, using indigenous yeast and no added sulfites prior to bottling. The result is a goldenrod hue in the glass, with aromas of citrus, spice, white fruit, and honey. It’s structured, forte,and definitely one of the more ‘powerhouse’ Chenins that we carry at the shop. It’s one of my favorites of the summer - (and choosing a favorite wine, is like choosing a favorite child, so this is saying a lot!) 

2013 Habit Chenin Blanc, Jurassic Park Vineyard (California, USA) | An actor by trade, Jeff Fischer began making wine in his basement in the early 90s and eventually landed and planted roots (literally) in Happy Canyon in Santa Barbara County. Jeff works closely with a team of viticulturists and is committed to working with growers who are passionate about organic and biodynamic practices. Jeff’s 100% Chenin is from Jurassic Park Vineyard in Santa Ynez from 30-year-old vines, rooted in sandy loam and aged in French oak barrels. This Chenin is all white flowers, white peach, nutmeg, cinnamon, loaded with minerality and meyer lemon. It will make you roar, Jurassic style.  

2017 Rustenberg, Stellenbosch, Chenin Blanc (Western Cape, South Africa) | Rustenberg Winery in Stellenbosch has a rich, complex history dating back 1682! The Barlow family have been at Rustenberg for 75 years, the longest period any one family has owned the farm, and today it is run by Simon, Rozanne, and Murray Barlow. Aromas of pineapple and yellow pear follow through to a crisp, textured palate complemented by characters of citrus.

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