Chenin Blanc has been called “probably the world’s most versatile grape variety” and “France’s answer to Germany’s riesling” by none other than Jancis Robinson in her Oxford Companion to Wine. In its home territory of France’s Loire Valley, it is capable of producing sweet (and some dry) wines of incredible power and age-ability. Yet if we know them at all, we tend to think of chenins in the same breath with pool and picnic: simple wines with a touch of honey and decent acidity. A brief trip to a small town on the Loire’s northern bank, east of Tours, might help set the matter straight.
Vouvray and chenin are practically synonymous, but whereas the town and its surrounding appellation are of a piece, the wines can vary widely in both quality and degree of sweetness; a quick shelf check at one local wine shop yielded wines in all three categories: sec (dry), demi-sec (off-dry), and moelleux (sweet) — though not all producers are so obliging as to tell you where their wines fall on the spectrum.
At the VV price point, we aren’t going to be in the intense and long-lived category, but a good clue to that potential can be found in the 2005 Domaine le Peu de la Moriette, a Vouvray from Domaine Pichot. Opening with aromas of fig, peach, and ripe melon, the wine balanced both honey and mineral flavors on the palate, countering a fair amount of residual sugar with a good backbone of acidity. Think pound cake with fresh fruit or Indian food in all its spicy splendor.
Ripe pear and even pineapple flanked the honey-mineral flavors of a 2004 Château de Montfort Vouvray that announced itself with a whiff of white flowers.
Less floral and ripe than the other sampled Vouvrays, Remy Pannier’s ’05 Vallée des Jardins Loire Valley was an appealing favorite with its aromas of green apple and lemon, and flavors that morphed into ripe pear and baked apple with a hint of the hallowed honey.
Hints of almost anything you can think of were the hallmark of the ’04 Sauvion Vouvray Loire White Wine, which proclaims itself “still” on the label lest you confuse it with any of the several sparkling wines also made from the chenin-blanc grape. Powdery chalk, pollen, smoke, graphite, dried mint, tarragon … and, yes, a little honey were present at one time or another. I
couldn’t help but suspect the wine was flawed, but if so, the flaws were fascinating, and I kept returning to the bottle — for research purposes, of course.
South Africa is another long-time producer of chenin, where it has often been called steen. The two sampled could hardly have been more different, underlining both the grape’s flexibility and the reason we have a hard time pinning it down — though age (the wine’s not mine) may have been a contributing factor. From Kanu in Stellenbosch came an ’05 chenin at 13.5-percent alcohol. A picnic wine par excellence, it broadcast lemon and apple flavors on a frame of razor-sharp acidity, with a hint of honeysuckle subbing for the more aggressive straight-up honey of the previous wines.
The Simonsig 2003 Stellenbosch Chenin Blanc, on the other hand, emerged from the bottle with a deep, golden straw color (the back of the bottle claims light straw) and nutty flavors more reminiscent of dry sherry than the pear the label also suggested. Surprisingly, it was still a decent wine and especially good with a Morbier cheese that just happened to be in attendance — but it was not the wine it was meant to be. Drink early.
American chenins are made in California, Washington State, New York, and even Texas, and the best of them give their French counterparts at the same price point a real run for their money. Seek out the very impressive ’05 Pine Ridge chenin/viognier blend. Its pear and melon flavors and restrained floral qualities make it both a friendly food wine and an affable quaffer.
Ever irrepressible Bonny Doon counters with its chenin-based Pacific Rim 2004 wherein aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle precede ripe pear on the palate. And the Vinum Cellars ’05 CNW “chard-no-way” from Clarksburg, perhaps seeking to out-cheek Bonny Doon in the label department, delivers a very appealing wine with restrained hints of its French-oak upbringing.
On the basis of past performance, I would check out the Hogue Cellars Columbia Valley Chenin Blanc, but would look for an earlier vintage of the Snoqualmie Vineyards Columbia Valley. The ’03 I tasted had interesting smoky-oily qualities, an almost botrytis-like taste and some remaining acid on the finish, but, as with the Simonsig, was not likely what the winemaker was aiming for.
Sadly, the youth of the Fall Creek 2005 Texas Chenin Blanc didn’t necessarily work in its favor. It might grow up in GiGi fashion, but for now Flaubert may have said it best when writing of the Loire Valley: “a beauty which caresses without captivating, which charms without seducing.” Could be worse, no?