Chenin Blanc challenges the assumptions of all of us who think they’re aware of their assumptions. For instance, I long ago wore out my welcome using the words “balance” and “harmony” to describe wines I love, because I assume sacrosanct status for such qualities in wine.
But a wine made from Chenin Blanc, especially when it’s really humming and mind-blowing, doesn’t fit the “harmony” mode, where different flavor, aroma and texture elements are intimate with and exalt each other.
Rather, I find the Chenins that really captivate me are more like precocious children engaged in “parallel play” — different personalities in the same room and quite content to do their own thing. Chenin plays strong independents off each other.
That’s Chenin. Aromas of hay, honey, nuts and sometimes tropics. Flavors of brown sugar, mushrooms, ginger, applesauce, bright green herbs. Racy, startling acidity, yet a full-figured heft in the mouth that’s almost red-wine-like; a lot of what sets Chenin apart is its weight.
It’s rather hard to get a handle on it, which is why it’s so brilliant.
Last week I asserted that Vouvray, the greatest region for Chenin Blanc, could be the ideal white wine for Thanksgiving, and I still stand by that.
But for whatever reason, Vouvray doesn’t have quite enough fans; too many people shy away from it. This could be that while there are plenty of Vouvrays sec (dry Vouvrays), there are also off-dry ones (“demi-sec,” “sec tendre,” “moelleux,” “doux”) and it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which.
So now, I’ll come at the whole thing sideways, focusing on Chenin Blanc when it’s vinified in other parts of the world. South Africa, a region often incorrectly labeled “New World” as if winemaking has only lately sprung up there (truth is, it’s been going on since 1659), makes terrific wines from Chenin, as do several U.S. vintners on the West Coast.
I’m thrilled with how much diversity there is in these wines, and how each of the wines I’ve tasted in recent weeks expresses some or most of Chenin’s “trademark” qualities. None is “classic.” Or, what’s “classic” about Chenin is that any one wine can only express a part of what Chenin, generally, is capable of. This is not the case with “classic” Sauvignon blanc or Syrah.
First, to South Africa, for The Den Painted Wolf Chenin Blanc 2011 ($12, SoPo). A leaner style, lemony and racy, with a real earthy, funky nose that one finds in right-on Vouvray. True to form, the secondary characteristics are unheralded by the primary: gamey and spicy, with chutney aromas, and the finish lingers between bitterness and tropical humidity.
A great match for turkey and the sweet-sour fixings.
Beyerskloof Chenin Blanc-Pinotage 2011 ($13, Mariner). Eighteen percent of South Africa’s frankly weird Pinot Noir/Cinsault offspring Pinotage does something unique and worthwhile to this fresh, vibrant Chenin.
Like a blanc de noir (white wine made from deskinned red-wine grapes), it imparts a luscious, silken, glassy fullness to the body of the wine, emphasizing the elegance inside Chenin’s natural mass. The palate offers ripe tropical notes and white flowers, while the fragrances are of mint, eucalyptus and beeswax.
You should not spend an entire human lifetime without trying this unique wine.
The Badenhorst Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2011 ($15, Easterly) is more different from other Chenins than other Chenins are from each other, if that makes any sense. At a high-ish 13.5 percent alcohol, it’s not light-n-easy wine. It’s what taught me to think of Chenin generally in terms of weight, and will appeal to lovers of bigger Burgundy (Montrachet, Meursault) and white Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Yeah, it’s that large, that unafraid. Hazelnuts, butter, well-toasted bread, Italian bitter apertifs.
The Royal Old Vines Chenin 2012 ($12, Mariner). Most Chenin should steer Chardonnay drinkers its way. The Royal is for the Sauvignon blanc drinker: very steely and candied-lime, lighter weight, with gooseberry notes on the finish.
OK, back to the U.S., for L’Ecole No. 41 Chenin Blanc 2011 ($14, Nappi) from Washington’s Columbia Valley. It’s easily the most mineral non-Loire Chenin Blanc I’ve tasted, with loads of salt and lime bursting from the glass.
On the palate there’s that classic light honey note, as well as distinct, surprising milk chocolate, sun-baked straw and upfront light brown sugar.
It’s got more sweetness than the South Africans noted above, but also more minerality. That’s good! And this wine is just a great example of how you can never take your eye off Chenin: It’s always some of this and some of that, its story never utterly coherent.
Dry Creek Chenin Blanc 2011 ($12, Pine State). Standard-setting domestic Chenin, from Clarksburg, Calif. Dry Creek Vineyards makes several red wines I adore, but I’m especially enamored of a winery that pays as much loving attention to Chenin as they do, with direct inspiration from Vouvray. Like the Royal (and unlike the Badenhorst), this plays to the crisp-and-lively side of the aisle, brilliantly. It’s even got that chalky texture so evident in the Loire Valley wines, and plenty of crisp fall apple.