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Monday Manifestos
Tasting Chenin Blanc In Its Natural State

By Charles Olken

I remember Chenin Blanc. It was a light, aromatic wine that we grew here in California. Sadly, not much of it is around.

Some folks made it dry, and some of those used a lot of oak with it as if they were making Chardonnay. Even those heavier efforts seemed to hold onto their light, attractive, Comice pear fruit. Others were making it in a slightly sweet style that was an easy sipper yet had the acidity to work with food.

Well, I found some the other day, but it was not in California. It was here in Loire Valley at the tiny, hands-on winery, Domaine de la Fontainerie, run by Catherine Dhoye-Deruet. It was clearly a family enterprise, but this enterprise is not measured in years but in centuries. Drawing from just 15 acres of grapes grown a sloping hillside immediately above the winery, Domaine de la Fontainerie has been in the family since 1712.

The vines are old and knarly, and the fermentation regimen is not a lot newer. It takes place in old barrels using natural yeasts. Most of the wine ferments to dryness but some, especially if picked later, will stop with some residual sugar left. The very cold cellar has something to do with it, of course, but so do the wild yeasts that are simply less efficient than today’s cultured, crafted strains.

The first wine poured was dry, fresh and alive. Its aromas of crisp pear and wild flowers were enough to bring a figurative tear to my eye as I recalled wines like it in California decades ago. We can make wines like this, but so much of the land that could do it is also suited for more expensive pursuits like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sparkling Wine grapes.

Of course, another reason why Domaine de la Fontainerie succeeds with wine like this and California does not is that the winery costs little to run and is able to do well while picking at yields one-third to one-half of the allowed limits. So, I am not holding my breath for a CA revival—just hoping for one.

In addition to this first wine, there are several others produced that do not make it to California. A pair of dry, oak-aged wines proved particularly instructive. The wine aged in older, but not neutral barrels, was thin and had a hard time wearing its oak well. But the wine aged in new barrels swallowed the oak, kept its fruit and bright acid front and center and showed added richness that filled the wine out and mellowed it in a way that, to me, brought the acidity into balance. Interestingly, these oak-aged wines are made with grapes chosen for the purpose, not because they are richer but because they are not.

The winery also produces several variations of sweet wines, although with little botrytis, thus they are simply left to hang longer. These were wonderfully well-drinking wines with pineappley acids played against pear and orange blossom flavors.

The final wine was a Chenin Blanc sparkling wine kept three years on the yeasts. It had aged very far past the candied simplicity of too many non-Champagne bubblies from France and showed strong autolysis and a fair degree of minerality and austerity played against a bit of richness.

California could make wines like these. I wish we would.

Domaine de la Fontainerie is imported into the United States by Beaune Imports,

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by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:5/1/2012 8:58:55 AM

One of my most beloved estates in the Loire. I adore the purity of those wines, along with the wild, un-mucked with tone that seems to run through everything from the sparkling wine to the late picked offerings. I can still remember my visit there, tasting through the wines while Catherine subtly moved in and out of the room, lighting the fireplace, bringing us more wines and lunch, (I'll never forget that either, a pork dish cooked in 1990 Demi-Sec, prunes and butter....I can still taste is) speaking very little but when she did it was focused and profound, and it dawned on me that her wines reminded me of her.....gawd I want to go back.


Nice to hear a bit about the trip Charlie and fantastic to come here and see some of my wines! Gave me a big grin this morning.

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