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Monday Manifestos
My Love Affair With Chenin Blanc

By Stephen Eliot

It has been fifteen years since Dan Berger penned a piece for the Los Angeles Times eulogizing the passing of Chenin Blanc. Obituaries can sometimes be premature, just consider those for Merlot and Syrah. Still, if not stone-cold dead, Chenin Blanc is still barely breathing here in California, and what little hope I have for the variety is little indeed given the continuing love affair with bigger, richer whites.

I constantly wonder why Chenin Black is almost never mentioned when reading new stories about how tiny plantings of this or that esoteric grape are harbingers of the next big thing to come here in California. Perhaps it is because it was once a very big thing hereabouts and, having had its moment, is now forever passé. Maybe it fails to stir passions simply because it is not new and thus affords little chance for any would-be promoter to bask in the limelight of discovery.

It was once the daily white quaff of choice out here on the West Coast. By 1980 we had more of the stuff planted than France. Some of it was delicious and some was not, but when I hear journalistic chatter about the significant places to be played by Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, the true Gamay Noir or Ribolla Gialla in the next generation of fine California wines, I keep straining in the hope of hearing a just a few words about Chenin Blanc. They too rarely come.

Now, it just may be that the cost of doing business is a permanent weight around Chenin Blanc’s neck that will ever weigh it down. I suppose that, if given the chance, I would not plant it in prime growing areas that could otherwise produce Cabernets and Pinots and Chardonnays that could fetch much higher prices, at least not if I had to pay the bills. I cannot envision a time when Chenin Blanc, however good it might be, would be a sensible choice for someone sitting on vineyards worth hundreds of thousands of dollars an acre. Still, not every growing site, real or potential, is prohibitively expensive, nor is Chenin Blanc by its nature capable of producing nothing more than cheap wines.

I recall marvelous bottlings from Chalone and Chappellet with great fondness. I recently tasted a very serious and satisfying version from Foxen and light, fresh version from Blacksmith, and, any who might dismiss the grape as being without virtue need only taste the remarkable Loire Valley versions of Huet, Chidaine, Domaine de la Fontainerie and Champaloux. The point, quite simply, is that Chenin Blanc can be so much more than a simple warm-weather quaff, even though I will confess to good memories of Charles Krug tasty gulpers on summer days long ago.

It has been said that consumer confusion has led in large part to Chenin Blanc’s demise, much as the chameleon-like nature of Syrah and the wide variance of sweetness in Riesling are supposedly impassable blocks on their roads to popular acceptance. For me, however, Chenin Blanc’s ability to show so many faces is something that deserves celebration. It can make a bracing, bone-dry version of great depth and delicacy. It can produce fruity, flowery, light-hearted gulpers whose slight sweetness and keen acids are perfectly fit, and, in the right hands and the right places, it can yield dessert wines that stand with the world’s best.

Chenin Blanc is not past reviving, and it has its handful of champions yet. I would offer a tip of the hat to those winemakers who enjoy an uphill battle and invite those who have not yet made its acquaintance to give a few bottles a try.


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You Betcha...
by TomHill
Posted on:11/19/2012 5:46:52 PM

I stand shoulder-to-shoulder w/ you, Steve, on Calif CheninBlanc. The Foxen you cite iis a wonderful example. Corti has a bunch of the Chalone '07 that is absolutely delicious, at $20. It is, alas, the last crop off the Chalone Estate of their old-vinen Chenin, afore they were ripped out. Probably there will be no more Estate Chenin again from there. It is made in a considerably different style from those old Chalone Chenins that you & Charlie & I remember so fondly. Much more mineral & lively & lighter and...gasp...might even find a following w/ the super-hip Somms that eschew richness & flavor in their wines.

   The dessert category is one that, sadly, iis neglected in Calif. The Sterling '71 Botrytis was a tremendous wine at 25 yrs of age. There were some killer SweetNaancy's from Callaway over the yrs.  Recently, MattRorick/ForlornHope released a botrytis CB from Mendocino that is stunning...easily a 20 yr wine. And I think they could make some wonderful passito wines from the grape.'s an idea, Steve. Maybe we can start a rumor that CheninBlanc reflects its terroir more than any other grape variety in the world. That oughta get the ball rolling.



Great Minds....
by Brian Loring
Posted on:11/19/2012 6:13:43 PM

As I started reading, I immediately thought of Chalone and Chappellet - and then those were the first two you mentioned!  Fantastic wines. 

Doesn't Chappellet still make their Old Vine Cuvee?  That was an amp'ed up Chenin done in oak - killer wine at a very reasonable price.   I need to track some down :)

Shame, shame, shame
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:11/19/2012 10:26:10 PM

Stephen, chenin blanc only appears to be on life support in California because "California" is so often perceived to be "coastal California." Go inland a bit, and you will find that a virtual chenin-blanc renaissance is under way. Look to Clarksburg in the Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta and you will find that chenin blanc not only is respected but is growing in esteem. For years, Dry Creek Vineyard has been making a chenin blanc that almost annually places high in the Oyster Wine Competition. Pine Ridge Winery has relied for decades on Clarksburg chenin blanc for its immensely popular Chenin Blanc/Viognier blend. My Dec. 12 column in The Sacramento Bee is to be on the Clarksburg Wine Company 2010 Clarksburg VS Chenin Blanc; "VS" is for "Vouvray Style," to give you some indication of the seriousness with which chenin blanc is being taken in some quiet enclaves of California. Also among the local champions of chenin blanc is a restaurant group that is having some success in getting chenin blanc to be recognized as the kind-of "official" wine of the Sacramento region. Zinfandel proponents may have something to say of that, but at least the effort indicates that some folks other than you and me see value in hanging on to the pleasure that chenin blanc can deliver.

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