Lookin' Good at 58

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Chenin Blanc

I chose Chenin Blanc to talk about this week as it is a grape that is very versatile. It can make deliciously long lived sweet wines and even be the raw material for sherry , port , and brandy in South Africa.

For about 500 years from the ninth century the home of Chenin Blanc was the Anjou-Touraine region of France found in the touristy area of the Loire Valley. In 1445 the vine was exported up a few miles up the river to a place called the Echaudon at Mont-Chenin just south of the Touraine countryside , hence where the name came from and where Vouvray and Montlouis originated.

In 1965 the discovery in South Africa that the grape variety Steen was actually Chenin Blanc was quite amazing. So much so that Chenin Blanc in South Africa today has become it's most widely planted vine accounting for 31% of all vines planted there. It's versatility , high yields , and good resistance to disease is it's trademark. Some may wonder how it got from France to South Africa. Apparently there is some idea that there was a Dutchman who brought some original cuttings working for the Dutch East India Company back in the 1650s.

In the 1960s the South Africans discovered cold fermentation for white wine production in a hot climate. Chenin Blanc ripens early in the season in South Africa's warm climate and when cold fermented produces a wine that is quite crisp with high acidity and a slight spritz. A spritz is when you taste the wine there may be some CO2 on the palate giving the wine a slight expression of bubbles. Because of the cold fermentation any character of the grape is usually dissipated so that many Chenin Blancs coming out of South Africa albeit clean and refreshing have no real distinguishing traits. They all taste the same.

Chenin Blancs main characteristic though is it's high acidity of which it is abundant in it's home in the Anjou-Touraine region situated on the Loire Valley. When you have great acidity in a white wine it is great for ageing. A young Vouvray and it's acidity can be quite hard to get accustomed to but in some pockets of the Loire vineyards where the sun can have it's affect the grape can reach high sugar levels and produce a wine that is classic. Picking in November is not uncommon and Vouvray's is one of the latest in France. It needs sun though to succeed.

Chenin is one of the varieties that actually smell sweet but it is not.Young Chenin is more floral than fruity but you can catch honey or straw on the nose as well. It is weighty and full of texture with lots of glycerine running down the sides of the glass when you swirl it. High degree of extract is noticeable on the pallet and it is not light bodied.

The most prized Chenin Blanc is late picked and high in residual sugar. In sub-appellations such as Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume or Coteaux du Layon , the winemaker lets the noble rot take it's affect much like they do in Sauternes to make a sweet wine that combines raciness and richness. I have tried a Quarts de Chaume and I can attest to that. These botrytised wines from this grape can age for decades. The residual sugar and high acidity is what produces this long lived delicacy.

Even dry Chenin Blanc wines such as a steely Savennieres are capable of maturing for decades developing complexity. The leanest , most tart wines are turned into sparkling wines from the dry to medium dry versions.

Chenin Blanc does best in marginal climates such as the Loire where it develops fully and it now shows potential in another cool climate , that being the South Island of New Zealand where high acidity levels are reached and some late harvest botrytised versions have been produced.

One of the world's undervalued grapes , it is not expensive to buy a bottle compared to a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. However it's main concern is maintaining a market demand compared to the other two big grape varieties just mentioned.

Not as fat as Sauternes , a late harvest botrytised Chenin Blanc like Coteaux du Layon is great for an apple flan or tart , or biscuits with marzipan or almond. The medium dry wines would go well with a fish in a cream sauce or with sweetbreads.

In ending , Chenin Blanc is characterized by it's high acidity and to some it's young wines can be too tart to enjoy but one that is aged is a real beauty and of good value too.

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