Bill’s Best Bets – August 2016
Praise to chenin
by Bill Zacharkiw
I get asked all the time about my favourite grape varieties. I make no bones about it, I am predominately a white wine drinker. But asking me my favourite grape is like asking me which of my kids I prefer. I guess it depends on the day.
If it’s not at the top, than very close to the top, is chenin blanc. I love its versatility and ability to make wines in a plethora of styles, which is why it can be confusing for the consumer. But be it sparkling wine, completely dry, or sweet, they are some of the most interesting white wines out there, and with an ability to age with the best of them.
Part of the reason why chenin blanc is not as well known as other white grapes has to do with its history. Even for many winemakers, it was a rather marginalized grape. That was never an identity problem in its home in France’s Anjou/Touraine region of the Loire Valley. But in South Africa, where at one time it made up a third of all planted vines, it was used primarily for distillation for the country’s excellent brandies.
During my last trip to South Africa back in 2012, I was amazed by how many winemakers were indifferent to chenin blanc. One, when asked why more high quality chenin blanc wasn’t being produced – considering they have so many old vines scattered around the country – responded that “if you grew up hating peas, then it’s hard to like them when you get older.”
By 2009, chenin blanc plantings had dropped to under 20%. When growing grapes destined to be made into booze, one need not take the same care as in making table wine, so it’s understandable that the quality was middling. Thankfully the carnage is over and chenin has stabilized at 18% of South Africa’s total vineyard and we are seeing more and more fantastic chenin coming out of South Africa.
California once was one of the world’s biggest growers of chenin blanc, but it was consistently used to make bulk wine or cheap sparkling wines. Over the last 30 years, chenin plantings have been decimated to the point that there is barely any left. But since 2010, more is being planted.
Chenin never had these problems in the Loire Valley. Here, chenin blanc reaches levels of greatness that put it on par with the great white wines of the world. You might know some of the appellation names like Vouvray, Jasnières, Savannières, or Anjou.
So why don’t we see the same greatness from other places around the world? Much like merlot, chenin blanc can grow pretty well anywhere and produce large quantities of grapes. But to get quality, the vine requires a very particular mix of climate and soils.
Wine maker Thierry Puzelat explained to me that “too much to the west it is too humid (so they grow Muscadet) and too far to the east, it simply won’t ripen (so they grow sauvignon blanc). It works best halfway between and Oceanic and continental climates. And all these factors, he says, “explains why it has never become an international grape like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc.”
Puzelat compares chenin blanc to riesling in that it is a “terroir pump.” Chenin can generate truffle notes when grown in the limestone of Touraine and more petrol notes on the shales of Anjou. I love it because of this mystery. Chenin truly is an adventure to drink.
Even within the Anjou-Touraine, chenin comes in a number of different styles, which makes it a hard grape to communicate. The easiest style to understand is the sparkling. The region is second in France in terms of sparkling wine production, and is made in seven different appellations including Vouvray, and Cremant de Loire. These are made using the “méthode traditionelle,” or a secondary fermentation in bottle as in Champagne.
Sparkling wine is always a good idea and one of my favourites is the Vouvray from Vincent Carême. And if you can’t find that one, one of the better value sparkling wines at the SAQ is the Cuvée Prédiliction from Château Montcontour.
If you want a still wine, the options are many. Some wines play the acid/sugar balance, much like German or Niagara riesling, while others are technically dry. You will often find aromas of quince, apple, apricot, pear and peach in the wines. For older wines – even after one or two years in bottle – aromas of honey, olive and mushroom start to appear.
If you want “bone dry” wines, look to either Loire’s Savannières, Saumur, or try a wine from South Africa or from around the world. One of the top chenins from South Africa is from Ari Badenhorst, both subtle and finessed. From Ken Forrester, the 2015 old vines has a touch more power, and well worth your $20 investment. And if you want real value wines, few whites at the SAQ match the chenins from Douglas Green and Robertson Winery.
And while it is not available at the SAQ, just next door in Prince Edward County is a great little chenin from Chadsey’s Cairns. Stop by the winery and pick up a bottle if you are in the region.
From the Loire, you have many choices at a number of different price levels. One of my favourite wines I have tasted recently was the lean and oh-so-interesting 2014 Anjou Effusion, from Patrick Baudoin. A touch richer and with more of an earthier theme of herbs and mineral is the Vouvray 2014 Épaulé Jeté from Catherine and Pierre Breton. You might have to hunt around a bit, but there is still some of the extraordinary Château Yvonne 2013 Saumur in stock. Ready to drink and it garnered a rare 4-star rating from myself.
And if you want some Loire wines under the $20 price tag, try the 2015 Saumur from Domaine Langlois. Great both as an aperitif or with spicy seafood. If you want a wine with a touch more sweetness, an SAQ classic is the Vouvray from Domaine des Aubuisieres.
Enjoy the rest of summer folks,
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to Chacun son vin see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!