Dunne on Wine

December 12, 2012

Dunne on Wine: Clarksburg Wine Co. chenin blanc in Vouvray style

Vouvray, wrote a San Francisco Bay Area wine merchant in his store's newsletter this fall, is "the sophisticated extrovert of chenin blanc."

Mike Dunne on Wine

What's new, good and vintage from California vineyards

Vouvray, wrote a San Francisco Bay Area wine merchant in his store's newsletter this fall, is "the sophisticated extrovert of chenin blanc."

Fair enough, though his remark also could be seen as a backhand slap at chenin blanc, by which he no doubt would mean California chenin blanc, which his store, due to its Francophile philosophy, doesn't stock.

On the other hand, he has plenty of Vouvray to sell.

But for now, let's concede that Vouvray by and large is more authoritative, expressive and refined than California chenin blanc, which while simple, frisky and sweet isn't seen as particularly sophisticated or extroverted.

That's changing, but more about that in a moment. First, a little history: Chenin blanc is a variety of grape recognized for its stylistic versatility. It is grown in several countries and is transformed into a wide range of interpretations, from sparkling to still wines, simple to complex, dry to sweet.

The name chenin blanc is believed to stem from Mont-Chenin in the Touraine region of France's Loire Valley, where the grape has been grown since the ninth century. No wonder the French have been able to manipulate it into a "sophisticated extrovert" of a wine; they've had more than 1,000 years to work with it. Californians, on the other hand, really only have been cultivating chenin blanc since the repeal of Prohibition.

At any rate, Vouvray is chenin blanc that takes its name from a vineyard district just east of Tours along the north bank of the Loire Valley.

Will California chenin blanc ever grow up to be as profound as Vouvray? Someone who is betting that it has that potential is John Beckman, president of Clarksburg Wine Co. and general manager of the Old Sugar Mill, the landmark brick complex that houses 10 wineries just outside of Clarksburg in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Clarksburg Wine Co. was established at the Old Sugar Mill in 2006 as a custom-crush winery, meaning it made wines for other vintners but didn't produce any under its own brand. That began to change in 2009 when the Old Sugar Mill and later the Clarksburg Wine Co. were bought by an investment company that brought Beckman in to run the place.

Though a graduate in fermentation science and enology at UC Davis, Beckman has spent the past two decades not making wine so much as managing and marketing it for wineries from Sonoma County to Virginia.

During that time he recognized that wineries in Sonoma County, Napa Valley and elsewhere were acquiring and appreciating grapes from the Delta not only for their quality but for their attractive price.

"I worked for DeLoach Vineyards (in Sonoma County) for a dozen years. In the mid- to late-1990s we started to buy some chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon from Clarksburg for $500 to $600 a ton, compared with the $2,500 to $3,000 we were paying in Sonoma," Beckman recalled.

"We were struck by the incredible quality we were getting from Clarksburg, plus the fact that the prices were so much less than what we were paying in Sonoma County. The Clarksburg area was an undervalued appellation."

He remembered that lesson as he pondered whether to get involved with the Old Sugar Mill. As he studied the area and recognized the complex's proximity to Sacramento, he concluded that it was a tourist destination and winemaking facility with which he wanted to be involved.

"Something like this could be done in the Napa Valley, but it's more appealing to me to start a venture like this using high-quality, low-cost grapes as opposed to high-quality high-cost grapes," Beckman said.

One of those high-quality, low-cost grapes is chenin blanc.

Ordinarily, chenin blanc grown in the Delta is used to produce a pleasantly refreshing white wine with suggestions of spiced pear drizzled with a thread of honey. With resident winemaker Andy Gaudy, who has been with Clarksburg Wine Co. since its founding, and consulting winemaker Stacy Clark, who'd become familiar with Delta grapes during her nearly 25 years at Pine Ridge Vineyards in Napa Valley, which long has bought Clarksburg chenin blanc, Beckman is producing just that sort of traditional California take on the varietal. The Clarksburg Wine Company 2010 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc is fresh, plump and delicately honeyed.

But with the 2010 vintage the trio didn't stop there. They made a second chenin blanc, the Clarksburg Wine Company 2010 Clarksburg VS Chenin Blanc. VS? That's for "Vouvray Style." Curious to see if California could produce a chenin blanc that would mimic Vouvray in its power, weight and length, they tasted their way through a bunch of Vouvrays and concluded that they'd give it a shot.

For the "VS," they fermented the entire lot in neutral oak barrels and stainless-steel drums; the juice in two of the drums was fermented with native yeasts. The wine then was aged on its lees in barrels and drums for eight months. (As is the practice with California chenin blanc generally, the other Clarksburg Wine Co. chenin blanc was processed solely in stainless-steel tanks.)

The result is a chenin blanc with more heft and layering than is standard for California. It is just as freshly fruity, but the barrels, yeast and lees gave it intriguing notes of earthiness, rounded out the body, and extended the finish. You might call it a "sophisticated extrovert of chenin blanc."

Clarksburg Wine Co. 2010 Clarksburg VS Chenin Blanc

By the numbers: 12.1 percent alcohol, 159 cases, $24.

Context: Though chenin blanc traditionally is regarded as a summer wine, the weight and breadth of the VS make it fitting for fall and winter dining, especially if chicken and dumplings are on the dinner menu.

"It's definitely a food wine, with the backbone and acid to stand up to some pretty rich fare," Beckman says. Pan-seared scallops with clarified butter is one of his favorite dishes to accompany the VS.

Availability: In Sacramento, the wine is carried by Corti Brothers, and can be ordered online through the winery's website, www.clarksburgwineco.com.

More information: The Clarksburg Wine Co.'s tasting room at the Old Sugar Mill, 352 65 Willow Ave., Clarksburg, is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

– Mike Dunne

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