Chenin Blanc – Great Wines On Sale!
By Steven Lanum
Chenin Blanc reminds me in some ways of liver: everyone thinks they hate it, usually on the basis of a single bad experience. One sip of a flabby California Central Valley Chenin Blanc early in life
leaves long-lasting scars upon the palate. Well, some of the best values in today's wine marketplace are to be found in Chenin Blanc produced in France's Loire Valley.
Not that the French make the appreciation of their Chenin Blancs all that easy or intuitive. For one thing, the grape is used to make a bewildering variety of different styles of wine. In the hands of skilled winemakers Chenin produces wines that range from bright, bubbly sparklers to piercingly crisp, racy table wines, and even exhilarating dessert wines. Predicting what's inside a bottle of Loire Valley
Chenin Blanc can seem like a crapshoot. This is also an issue for wines produced in other parts of France, particularly Alsace.
But the payoff for a little bit of homework is entry into a world of eminently food-friendly wines that can be enjoyed young and old, that please most taste buds, and that offer a superior quality/price ratio (i.e., more bang for the buck). Since the 2005 vintage found on the market right now was a particularly auspicious
one for Loire Valley wines, this seems the perfect opportunity to plead Chenin Blanc's case. The grape also offers a case study in the concept of terroir, or the importance that place has upon a wine, because
although the varietal is planted throughout much of the Loire, it takes on different characteristics from one area, or even vineyard, to another.
By way of a little bit of background Chenin Blanc is,
as its name implies, a white grape that has been described as a "magical chameleon." It is a late-ripening varietal, and grows in some of the most northerly vineyards found in France. The juice of this grape is characterized by its high level of acidity, at least when grown in the northern climes of the Loire Valley where it is generally cooler than more southerly parts of France such as Bordeaux or the
Rhone Valley. This acidity reveals itself as a racy crispness in the finished wines, even when the wines carry some amount of residual sugar, and this acidity complements many kinds of food very well. As a
result, Chenin Blanc is considered by many to be an especially food-friendly wine in that it refreshes the palate and balances the flavor and sensation of fat found in many dishes. Even the sweetest Loire Valley wines often bear the indelible stamp of this appealing
acidity and as a result these wines tend not to be cloying or one-dimensionally sugary. This sugar-acid balance renders the best of these wines very flexible with all sorts of cuisine.
Because Chenin Blanc is planted so widely in the Loire Valley, it shows up as the principal or only grape in many different wines. So, for example, if a bottle of white wine says Anjou or Saumur on the
label, the contents are probably all or mostly Chenin Blanc. The Chenin Blancs most likely to make their way to the U.S., however, are probably Montlouis, Savennieres, and Vouvray. Each named for the village or town in the Loire Valley where the grapes used to make the wine were grown. A wine bearing one of these names will be comprised of Chenin Blanc; in the case of Savennieres, the wine will be usually dry, while Montlouis and Vouvray may be dry, semi-dry, or dessert-sweet. The confusion that can result is compounded by the fact that it isn't always made clear by the label which level of sweetness is in a particular bottle (though as we'll see below, this is sometimes expressly stated).
Because vineyards in the Loire Valley have generally been more affordable for much of the recent past, and perhaps because of its proximity to Paris, the area has benefited from an influx of young winemakers interested in experimenting with new ideas and approaches, although ironically these "new" ideas sometimes mean a return to traditional ways, away from modern practices such as the use of pesticides, herbicides, sterile filtration, and laboratory yeasts.
In fact, it seems to me as though a disproportionate number of Loire Valley vignerons are practicing organic viticulture and taking a very natural approach in the cellar (or perhaps this is just the case of
wines available in the Bay Area).
Let's look a bit more closely at two appellations in the Loire Valley where fascinating Chenin Blancs are presently being made: Montlouis and Vouvray. These two towns are in the area known as the Touraine, close to the town of Tours and across the river from one another. Chenin Blanc is the only grape used to make wines labeled as
Montlouis and Vouvray, but winemakers in both these towns may be crafting sparkling wines, dry or semi-dry table wines, or sweet wines (which may bear the designation "moelleux" on the label) comparable in some ways to the Sauternes of Bordeaux. There are also nectar-like wines known as "liquoreux," though that's not a term I've ever seen on a label (such wines are often sold in smaller 375 ml. or 500
ml. bottles). Sometimes a label may specify that the wine inside the bottle is "sec" (dry) or "demi-sec" (semi-dry), but not always. Confusing, huh? Sounds like a worthwhile senior project for a bunch of
Here in the Bay Area we're fortunate to have pretty good access to some of the finest wines produced in these two appellations. In the case of Montlouis, an outstanding winemaker is Francois Chidaine, and in Vouvray you're unlikely to go wrong if the name on the label is Huet. (Chidaine also makes Vouvray.) Coincidentally (or not) both of these estates practice organic viticulture with Huet's winemaker Noel Pinguet being something of a pioneer in this regard. Subject to the limitations imposed by a particular vintage, experience suggests that any bottle bearing either of these names can be counted upon to be among the best of its own appellation. To give you a sense of how
these wines might taste I am reprinting notes I took during a tasting of several Huet wines from the 2005 vintage in January 2007. In addition, while I have no specific notes, I have tasted a few Chidaine wines from the same vintage and they are also outstanding.
Note: there is nothing on the label of Chidaine's wines to indicate their level of sweetness; Huet's wines do specify.
If these notes motivate you to try some of these wines, rest assured that they can accompany many foods, from simple or highly seasoned salads, shellfish, and poultry, to rich, cream sauce-based
dishes, and fresh or aged cheeses, particularly chevre. Moreover, you're not limited to French or California cuisines: top quality Chenin Blancs have often appeared on the wine lists of Asian-inspired
restaurants such as San Francisco's Slanted Door. In addition, these are wines built to age and while very enjoyable now will only get better with time. In the Bay Area, the dry and semi-dry wines of Chidaine and Huet range in price from a low of under $20 to a high of about $35.
2005 Huet Vouvray sec "Le Mont"
(A dry--"sec"--wine made from Chenin Blanc grapes grown in the domaine's Le Mont vineyard.) Wow, what an aroma. Exquisite flavors of white fruit; crisp and dry. Though not yet complex, this is a thoroughly enjoyable wine.
2005 Huet Vouvray sec "Le Haut Lieu"
(Another dry wine from Le Haut Lieu--the high place--vineyard.) A very different aroma from the foregoing but still makes me want to dive in. Opens up quickly, after just a few moments of swirling, really blossoming with scents that remind me of ripe fruit. Again, crisp, racy, nervy; cries out for food. Just tastes terrific.
2005 Huet sec "Clos du Bourg"
(From a walled vineyard owned by the domaine.) Drier, flintier aromas; mineral-laden. Explosion of flowers on the palate--or how I imagine flowers might taste if their scent could register in one's mouth. The smell and taste of this induces giddiness, even at this early stage. (Isn't this at a quality level comparable to grand cru Burgundy?) It impresses me at least as much as a top notch Chablis.
2005 Huet demi-sec " Le Mont"
(A semi-dry--"demi sec"--wine also made from grapes grown in the Le Mont vineyard.) Has a touch of resin on the nose. Definitely sweeter than the foregoing, but balanced by lovely acidity. Gorgeous
aromatics and fresh as a mountain meadow. Delicious.
2005 Vouvray demi-sec "Clos du Bourg"
A minerally nose that comes across as bone dry—like the scent of white flowers and wet rocks. For me, magical aromatics. Perfectly balanced flavors of white fruit whose sweetness is offset by lively
raciness. Another Wow!
(c) 2007 Steven Lanum
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|Meet the Wine Columnist
A San Francisco native, Steve particularly enjoys wines from the Rhone and Loire Valleys of France. His long-standing interest in wine took a giant leap forward in 2001 when he had the opportunity to taste at a number of renowned estates in France. He looks for characteristics that will complement rather than overwhelm accompanying food as well as attractive quality/value ratios when shopping for wine.