I always root for the underdog grape varieties. In a simplified consumer culture where red wine means Cabernet Sauvignon and merlot and white wine is synonymous with chardonnay, it is easy to lose sight of the amazing diversity wine has to offer. The trade and media will flock to Bordeaux next month for the annual en primeur tasting of the still raw 2011 wines to ooh and ah over the latest “vintage of the century” and exclaim about the shockingly high prices. Magazines such as Wine Enthusiast will devote cover features to their annual round up of Napa Valley cabernets or California pinot noir. But no one celebrates the new vintage of chenin blanc.
That’s too bad, because chenin is an impressively food-friendly wine. It can range from bone-dry to very sweet, with an acidity and minerality that enable long aging. It is an excellent partner to any fish or fowl, especially if the dish has some richness to it. Recently, when my editorial schedule and the family menu weren’t coordinated, I enjoyed a chenin with beef stew.
Chenin has been a workhouse grape in California, with most of it disappearing anonymously into jug or box wine. Some very nice chenin is grown in the Clarksburg area near Sacramento. My favorite bottling comes from Dry Creek Vineyard.
South Africa’s winemakers have embraced the grape, and the quality of their chenin blanc, primarily dry, has improved dramatically in recent years. South Africa’s is a New World expression of chenin, emphasizing freshness and fruit flavors such as pear, quince and kumquat.
Chenin’s homeland is the Loire Valley in France, specifically the Vouvray appellation. The region’s limestone was used to build many of the Loire Valley’s famous chateaux, and here the grape achieves its fullest expression of earth (minerality) and sky (fruit). The exceptional 2009 and 2010 vintages are now on sale, so this is an excellent time to explore Vouvray’s wines. Many Vouvray producers also make delicious sparkling versions, and these can be terrific values for everyday celebrations.
One caveat: Many producers do not indicate a sweetness level on their labels. I suspect this is one reason Vouvray isn’t more popular, as consumers like to know what they’re buying when they whip out the credit card. Some wines are labeled “sec” for dry or “demi-sec” for off-dry or slightly sweet, but in most cases we don’t know until we take a sip. With today’s market trend toward sweeter wines, this may become less of a problem. I encourage you not to worry about this, but to explore Vouvray for its variety. Good ones will have sufficient acidity to balance the sugar.
Two years ago, I visited France with Ed Addiss and Barbara Selig of Wine Traditions, a Falls Church-based importer. One of our last stops was in Vouvray at the home of Christophe Thorigny, a recent addition to the Wine Traditions portfolio. Thorigny’s house and winery had the facade of a suburban single family home, but it was carved into the limestone tuffeau. After showing us his cellar, perfectly insulated by the rock, Thorigny led us down the street and up a long flight of steps carved into the hillside. The plateau above his home and those of neighbors was planted with row after row of grapevines. Thorigny showed us his plot of vines and explained how the poor topsoil forced the vine roots to dig deep into the limestone in search of nutrients, the tuffeau linking vintner to vine.
At least, I think that’s what he said. Every 30 seconds or so, his words were drowned out by the roar of fighter jets practicing take-offs and landings at an airbase across the road.
Now that’s terroir.This column appeared in The Washington Post on March 14, 2012.