Wine 31: Chenin Blanc

Holy cow, it’s been a loooong time since I posted. Not because wine hasn’t been on my mind – it has!! Over the past few months I’ve had a fair amount of travel, mixed with studying – and passing with distinction! – the WSET Level II in Wine & Spirits, lots of work on the podcast, and in the middle of everything, I broke my arm. I even had to cancel a trip to Texas for a friend’s wedding and a wine trip to Willamette Valley with my family on account of the break, so it’s been a rough few months because of that. But I’m on the road to recovery – and most importantly for this blog and my podcast – back to popping open some bottles of wine again! ūüėČ

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Here’s a flashback to my first four weeks post-op. Nothing like pairing lasagna with a nice sangiovese! I can still raise a glass…with my good hand.

So let’s get back to it, shall we?¬†Continuing on the white wine wagon, this post I’m diving into chenin blanc, a varietal that can produce wines that are rich (think chardonnay) and sweetly perfumed to dry sparklers (think brut Champagne).

Chenin blanc is one of those more unique grapes that is able to produce wines in all types of wine-growing climates: cool, moderate or hot. Chardonnay is another grape that fits that bill.¬†Chenin blanc is grown around the world, but is primarily found in South Africa (Stellenbosch and Paarl), France (Loire Valley), and the US (California and Washington). It’s the differences in climate that give us such a range of expressions.

This grape originated in Touraine of the Loire Valley, a cool climate, where it’s also known as Pineau de la Loire, but is the most widely planted grape in South Africa, where it’s called Steen, which is a hot climate. It produces wines that are medium-bodied, medium to high acidity, and can be made across the spectrum of dry to sweet! Typically, you’ll pick up on some heavy citrus and tropical fruits aromas and flavors, but you could also find some green herbaceous characteristics, like in sauvignon blanc.

Chenin is grown inexpensively throughout South Africa, as it’s usually made in bulk. Some say these inexpensive wines can be a bit bland, where the flavors are a bit flabby or neutral – nothing to write home about. But there is a wine region that’s well known for its high quality chenin within France. Anytime you see a bottle of Vouvray…that’s chenin blanc! It’s legally the only white grape allowed in the Vouvray AC, so that’s why the varietal isn’t typically named on the bottle.

Chenin blanc buds early and ripens mid to late during the harvest year. I’d¬†surmise ¬†that those grapes used to make the sweeter wines are often left on the vine a bit longer into the season so¬†that more sugars develop, leaving the desired amount of residual sugar for the culmination of production. Apparently there’s been some experiments going on to develop clones of this varietal which delay budding and increase sugar as they grow; the French government has allowed 6 of these “new kids on the block” to be used in production. (Remember, the French have some of the strictest rules when it comes to winemaking, so it’s a really big deal when they let any new-fangled technique or grapes be incorporated into practice. I consider this a wine-win!)

The flavor of your wine will be impacted by a lot – not just its hang time. I’ve heard that you really can’t use the fruit on the vines until the vines are about 3-5 years old (of course, that doesn’t mean people will just pitch it…you’d probably find wine made from those immature vines used to blend, in small amounts). It gives the vines time to essentially settle on what its characteristics will be; the roots of the vines get deeper, so they pick up more nutrients from the soils and land around them. As vines age, the grape yield diminishes. Sounds terrible – consider that there are some vines older than 100 years old still used to produce wine!! – but because there’s less fruit, the flavors become more concentrated in the grapes that do exist.¬†

I’ve been a Cooper’s Hawk winery member for a few years now, so I figured I’d use one of their wines of the month from late last year as this blog’s focus:

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Appearance: This wine was a light-to-medium golden color. Not quite as vivid as a chardonnay, but it also looked to have a greater color saturation than, say, a sauvignon blanc.

Nose: This was very fragrant, with notes of grapefruit and lemon with an soft peach-like sweetness on the nose.

Taste:¬†After soaking up the aromas, there weren’t too many surprises on the tongue! Everything you smelled you absolutely could taste. I picked up some of that citrus pith, in additional to the tartness of the citrus notes. Medium-high acidity is my guess.

Overall: Although not my favorite white wine, this one is pretty tasty. Chenin Blanc is one of sauvignon blanc’s siblings; want to see a whole wine grape genealogy chart? Check it out here!¬†

Despite its versatility in the flavor and aroma departments, many suggest pairing any chenin blanc with Thai or Vietnamese foods, as the wine’s sweetness will absolutely balance any spiciness, or it may even complement some of those ginger and herbal ingredients you may find in these type of cuisines.

For more reading on this grape, I’ll be quick to recommend Wine Folly’s site.

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