The Chenin Renaissance
by Kerry Winslow, grapelive.com
Chenin Blanc, the famous grape of Vouvray and Montlouis, also known also as Pineau de la Loire among other names, is a white wine grape variety from the Loire Valley of France where it makes some of France’s most sought after wines like those of Domaine Huet, Chidaine, Joly and Guiberteau. Chenin has been in California for a longtime and it was once as popular as Chardonnay if not more so prior to the early 1980s. Recently this grape has made a comeback and is highly regarded by sommeliers and wine geeks with many outstanding examples being made throughout California, below I am highlighting a few that really standout. Its high acidity means it can be used to make everything from sparkling wines to well-balanced dessert wines, although it can produce very bland, neutral wines if the vine’s natural vigor is not controlled. This renewed interest and the rise of Chenin in California looks set to be a thrilling movement, that looks unstoppable as people look to exciting alternative offerings, one just has to look at the success of Albarino and even Gruner Veltliner to see this is not just a passing fade.
Outside the Loire it is found in most of the New World wine regions, in fact During the 1980s, the California wine industry had more acreage of Chenin blanc planted than France, though the numbers of plantings later steadily declined. it is the most widely planted variety in South Africa, where it is also known as Steen and like California, there are some amazing versions too, like those from Sadie Family, Reyneke and Mullineux. For most of its history in the California wine industry, the grape was considered a “workhorse variety” that could be used anonymously in bulk and jug wine blends, but there also was some fantastic versions being produced, anyone who had Daniel Gehrs, Chalone, Casa Nuestra, Durney or Chappellet, just to name a few, can tell you these are and were amazing examples. Chenin’s natural acidity and ability to adapt to wines of varying degrees of sweetness made it an ideal blending partner with Colombard and Chardonnay in mass-produced blends, as well as making interesting dessert versions like those made by Sterling Vineyards during the 1970s.
Chenin grows from the Baja to Mendocino to great effect with serious plantings in Santa Barbara County, the west side of Paso Robles, Monterey County, the Sierra Foothills, Lodi, Clarksberg, Sonoma, Napa Valley and the mentioned Mendocino County, and there are a number of vineyards that date back to the middle of the last century.
The newer generation of Chenin champions in California include some exciting new producers as well as some old hands, including talents like Ted Lemon of Littorai, Pax Mahle, Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars, Justin Willett of Lieu-Dit, Andrew Jones of Field Recordings, Combe by Raj Parr and Stolpman Vineyards, Tegan Passalacqua of Sandlands, Russell Joyce of Joyce Wine Company, Jaimee Motley as well as the classics still made by Nuestra, Chalone and Chappellet. It is a great time to re-discover Chenin Blanc in California as it re-emerges from obscurity to center stage, here are three wines to look for that are either out now or will be very soon, these are small producers that focus on handcrafted wines and have put a lot of effort into making these beauties to highlight the grape’s best qualities and terroir. Chenin’s rebirth in California is rewarding to watch in real time, especially with these wines.
2016 Pax, Chenin Blanc, Buddha’s Dharma Vineyard, Mendocino County.
Chenin Blanc has made a remarkable come back in California in recent years, it was arguably the best white wine in California back in the 70s, 80’s and into the early 90s, but had fallen into obscurity until these times with people like Ted Lemon of Littorai, Andrew Jones of Field Recordings, Justin Willett of Lieu-Dit, Raj Parr of Combe, Jaimee Motley, Tegan Passalacqua of Sandlands, Royce Joyce of Joyce Vineyards and Pax Mahle, who has made this new one under his Pax label, but has been doing awhile under his old Wind Gap label. Those old school wines, like Daniel Gehrs, Durney, Chalone, Chappellet and Casa Nuestra (still making it) from old vines were unique wines, so I’m glad this grape has made its rennesaince in California, This Pax 2015 Buddha’s Dharma Chenin shows exceptional and crystalline flavors and has a crisp and tangy dry palate with classic varietal presence in the glass. Pax crafted this bone dry wine with native yeasts, whole cluster pressing, he fermented his Buddha;s Dharma in a combination of stainless steel, concrete plus used barrel and raised it all well seasoned neutral french oak casks for 10 months, finishing up at 12.9% natural alcohol, which shows it this wine’s cool refreshing presence in the glass.
Planted in 1944 just north of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, this old vine vineyard is one of the gems of Mendocino, it’s dry farmed without chemicals, to organic principles at the base of Enlightenment Mountain. The Chenin is grown on gravelly volcanic soils, and Pax says he is absolutely amazed at the concentration and intensity of fruit from these vines. The 2016 Pax Chenin is flinty and smells like liquid rock, almost Riesling like in intensity, and is wonderfully brisk in detail with lifted citrus at its core, but as the wine opens you realize just how much more is there, it reveals white peach, white flowers, lemon/lime and golden fig notes. I can imagine this amazing Chenin aging close to two decades gaining in complexity with every year, those that like the classic Saumur or Savennières, think Joly or Domaine aux Moines! This wine is more mineral driven than fruit driven with a steely core that again is more similar to a dry Riesling or Chablis, though again with air it fills out on the palate and adds spicy elements, wet stone and light herb notes, and food really makes everything come alive even further, especially creamy cheeses and or even oysters. Lingering with delicate floral tones and a hint of paraffin/wax this is a lovely crisp white wine.
($26 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
2018 Russell Joyce Small Lot Collection, Old Vine Chenin Blanc, Carmel Valley, California.
The new edition of Small Lot Collection by Russell Joyce, of Joyce Vineyards, is an amazing old vine Chenin coming from the Massa Estate, formerly the Durney Estate Vineyard in Carmel Valley and it’s a great example of vintage and terroir, it is a unique and powerful expression of this Loire white grape. The 2018’s intensity, vibrancy and density is on full display, showing beautiful definition and sharp detailing, but with an expansion on the palate that is utterly compelling and impressive, it is a wonderful wine of purity and class. The 2018 is rich and mouth filling without being ponderous or heavy, in fact has almost the driving force of a red wine in character such is the impression it makes, even for such a young wine it gives a spellbinding performance, especially when it gets air and paired with food. Russell, who killed it with his Gamey Noir bottling under his personal label, has crafted another thrilling wine, using native yeasts, whole cluster pressed juice with about 8 hours of skin contact and barrel fermenting for his Chenin Blanc along with employing well seasoned French oak for the six months of lees aging, making for a wine of substance and textural charm. Chenin has a long and cherished history, locally as well as all California where it was one of the greatest white grapes before Chardonnay eventually took over, and while seemingly an obscure Loire varietal, it’s re-emergence is looking like one of the most successful comebacks of all time, especially in Sommelier and wine geek circles, and this Joyce Small Lot version is without question a real Geek Star wine!
Getting an extended pre-release preview and drinking it over several days really proved the quality on display here, even after four full days this wine shined with crystalline mineralilty and grace, it never for a minute dropped off and delivered on its promise with each and every sip, impressive for a wine recently bottled and I can’t wait to see this in a year or more, I expect it will be much better, which means it will be astonishingly good. The 2018 has layers of white peach, pear and lemon fruits along with a seductive aromatic profile that hints of orange blossom and honeysuckle, which is offset by leesy notes and a stony personality adding a phenolic element, unsweetened honeycomb/wax and wild fennel. Time and air reveals more width and dimension allowing this Chenin to fill out in the mouth without losing its steely charm or focus with the fresh acidity holding everything here in check, though you can tell it will get more brioche and butter cream with bit of age, but not anytime soon. This is exceptional Chenin, it will be very limited on release, so you’ll want to be sure to let Joyce know you are interested, it joins an elite group of producers that are leading a California renaissance of this grape, like Raj Parr, Pax, Littorai, Lieu-Dit snd Jaimee Motley to name a few that are bringing Chenin back to the top of the states white wines, don’t miss it.
($35 Est.) 93+ Points, grapelive
2017 Sandlands, Chenin Blanc, California.
Tegan Passalacqua’s inter-regional Chenin, under his Sandlands label is a beauty with fresh detail and lively fruit with pure peachy charms and delicate mineral focus. This wine is 58% Chenin of Passalacqua’s own Kirschenmann Vineyard, in the Mokelumne River AVA of Lodi, and 42% Chenin from the Buhdda Vineyard located on the Talmage bench in Mendocino County. Wonderfully balanced and rich in texture this graceful white is only 12.4% natural alcohol, making it feel easy to quaff, though it comes through as a complex and serious wine. The Sandlands label is the personal project of Tegan and Olivia Passalacqua, a small winery that does a line-up that encompasses some the forgotten classic California varieties, like this Chenin Blanc as well as Mataro (Mourvedre) primarily grown on decomposed granite/sand. Tegan gets his grapes from regions and vineyards that have been farmed for many generations, but maybe have remained the outliers of California viticulture, featuring mostly head-trained, dry-farmed and own rooted vines, with vineyard sites that, as he puts it, harken back to California’s roots of exploration, wonder, and hard work.
Tegan, a Napa Valley native, got his start in the wine industry working in winery labs in Napa, but quickly established himself as a talent. For the past eleven years, he has worked for Turley Wine Cellars, working his way up from harvest intern to Winemaker/Vineyard Manager, where his has crafted some of America’s best wines, especially his old vine Zinfandels. Additionally, he has worked in the cellars of Craggy Range in New Zealand with Doug Wisor, with Eben Sadie in the Swartland of South Africa, and with Alain and Maxime Graillot in the Northern Rhone Valley of France, all of which are legends in the wine world. Getting back to this brilliant 2017 Chenin, it’s hard to resist with layers of the mentioned peach, honeyed pear and vivid citrus on the medium bodied palate and the aromatics are exceptional with wet stones, white flowers, clove and apple butter that fold into the background flavors very nicely. The wine opens and expands with air, but still keeping its fresh and crisply dry nature all the way. it is a well judge effort that will drink well for quite awhile, be sure to look for this very reasonably priced white.
($22 Est.) 92 Points, grapelive