At wine competitions, I’m game to judge any varietal or style. Nonetheless, on the eve of some competitions the person in charge asks panelists to list their three favorite kinds of wine to judge and three they’d rather not taste, and I play along.
I was poised to add chenin blanc to my rather-not list for next month’s Sonoma Harvest Fair Wine Competition in Santa Rosa. However, I reflected that in recent months I’d tasted quite a few intriguing chenin blancs and would like to sample more.
Ordinarily, chenin blanc is a pleasantly refreshing white wine, with a simple profile, easy-going fruit flavors and a touch of sweetness to round its texture, and enough revitalizing acidity to make it a splendid partner with raw oysters. Flavor associations often run to apricot, melon, peach and pear, occasionally with a thin thread of honey.
Chenin blanc once was a principal player in California vineyards, though it didn’t have a high profile because so much of it ended up anonymously in popular jug wines often called “Chablis.” It emerged on its own as a varietal wine in the 1950s, largely because of an immensely popular interpretation released by Charles Krug Winery. As a measure of chenin blanc’s subsequent standing, 45,000 acres were planted to the variety in California as recently as 1982. Today, the total is down to 5,144 acres as chenin blanc got eclipsed in the market by more fashionable and bolder dry table whites like sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and especially chardonnay, the latter now planted to 97,000 acres in California.
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But while chenin blanc customarily hasn’t been an especially dramatic or complex wine, something is going on in California to shake up that perspective. Namely, a wave of adventurous winemakers is being drawn to chenin blanc by its potential to deliver an interpretation that’s more robust, layered and persistent than commonly perceived.
“I like drinking chenin blanc, and I like the historical aspect of it,” says Tegan Passalacqua, one of the pivotal players in the movement. By day, he’s the winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars, but under his own brand, Sandlands Vineyards, he is releasing no fewer than three chenin blancs.
“In the early 1990s chenin blanc was the most planted white-wine grape in Napa Valley and Lodi. For a white grape variety, it does well in warm climates,” Passalacqua adds. “I’ve worked in South Africa, where it’s a lot warmer than here, yet chenin blanc still made really great and interesting wines.”
Three years ago, he convened a chenin blanc tasting with fellow winemakers who share his passion for the grape. Four attended, then nine the following year. The most recent gathering drew 18.
Passalacqua and other chenin blanc proponents aren’t out to emulate styles emerging from South Africa or France’s Loire Valley, regions where the grape has had a long and celebrated tenure. Nor are they shooting for the ripeness, richness, alcohol and oak identified with chardonnay.
“What I’m going for is a lower-alcohol wine but with California sunshine. I want sun-kissed peach and nectarine aromatics and flavors, with some mineral aspects to the wine. And texture is the big thing wherever it is grown. But it isn’t Loire Valley chenin blanc because the grapes aren’t being grown in the Loire,” Passalacqua says.
The customary California approach to chenin blanc has been to ferment it in stainless-steel tanks and get it to market quickly, without any magic in the cellar. At the most, its aroma and body might be amplified with viognier, practices adopted by such producers as Pine Ridge Vineyards and Shenandoah Vineyards, but the intent still was to preserve the grape’s abidingly fresh fruit flavor.
Now, Passalacqua and others are complicating the chenin blanc picture with such methods as native-yeast fermentation, barrel fermentation and sur-lie exposure, the latter being a technique whereby a wine’s richness and complexity is heightened by leaving fermenting wine exposed to dead yeast cells.
“It makes the wine more complex and a little richer,” says Marco Capelli of such practices. He is winemaker at Miraflores Winery in El Dorado County, where he doesn’t make chenin blanc. But he’s also consulting winemaker for the Elevation 10 winery of Clarksburg, for which he does make chenin blanc.
For sure, the style of chenin blanc that has been most popular in recent years – direct, delicate, refreshingly crisp – endures, much of it from the nearby Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta, but the new wave is adding a layer or two that reflects the grape’s standing as an unusually versatile variety. Here are notes for several recent favorites:
▪ Husch Vineyards 2015 Mendocino Chenin Blanc ($13): One way to tell traditional California chenin blanc from representatives of the new wave is price. The former generally will range from $10 to $15; the latter $25 to $30. Since 1984 Husch has been turning out a rendition that’s ripe, fruity, lightly sweet and enduring in its length, and the 2015 is a model of that style, which explains why it won the white-wine sweepstakes at the inaugural Dan Berger’s International Wine Competition in Santa Rosa this spring.
▪ Dry Creek Vineyard 2015 Clarksburg Wilson Ranch Dry Chenin Blanc ($13): Dry Creek Vineyard also boasts a long history for a refreshing and direct take on chenin blanc, especially from the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta. Clarksburg chenin blanc, incidentally, recently was added to the Slow Food Ark of Taste, “a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction,” according to the group’s website. A person could question whether Clarksburg chenin blanc is jeopardized, given its standing in the area, a reputation it should keep as long as Dry Creek Vineyard continues to turn out renditions as aromatic and bracing as the 2015, sprightly with evocations of Asian pear and lemon grass.
▪ Elevation 10 2014 Clarksburg Merritt Island Ranch Chenin Blanc ($24): Marco Capelli used virtually all the winemaking tools at his disposal – native yeast, barrel fermentation, sur-lie exposure and so forth – to enhance the texture and complexity of the 2014, and he pulled it off without distracting from the grape’s suggestions of fresh Asian pear, melon and peach.
▪ Sandlands 2014 California Chenin Blanc ($27): Tegan Passalacqua blended fruit from three regions – Amador County, Lodi and Napa Valley – to make a most exotic chenin blanc, downright flamboyant and kaleidoscopic in its homage to the grape. Difficult to believe that a white wine of this much character weighs in with just 12 percent alcohol. Alas, such a blend won’t be seen again. The acre of Napa Valley chenin blanc he tapped has been pulled out in favor of a new plot of cabernet sauvignon.
▪ St. Rey 2014 Clarksburg Walnut Grove Sutter Ranch Vineyard Chenin Blanc ($24): With this take, Craig Haarmeyer, former winemaker at Revolution Wines of Sacramento, and owner of the St. Rey brand, turned out an example of chenin blanc that easily could be mistaken for an import from the Loire Valley for its balance, dryness, quiet complexity and persistent finish. Haarmeyer also has made one of California’s more imaginative interpretations of the grape with his St. Rey 2014 Clarksburg Petilant Naturel Chenin Blanc ($34), a lightly effervescent, slightly sweet rendition that while playful retains the grape’s distinctive fresh fruit.
▪ Per Cazo Cellars 2013 Paso Robles Chenin Blanc ($27): This has to be one of the more idiosyncratic yet focused and composed chenin blancs on the market, which by its huskiness, earthiness and ticklish thread of nettles runs contrary to chenin blanc’s reputation for delicacy and simplicity. Winemaker Steve Glossner, who has been making wine off this older, dry-farmed vineyard since 2000, says the Per Cazo chenin blanc is peculiar in one other respect – its ability to age. “It has great aging potential, more so than any other white grape I work with. After it’s a decade old it still is fresh and vibrant, with more of a mineral quality to it,” Glossner says.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.