Tag Archives: Chenin Blanc

Why Chenin Blanc should be the answer to your ABC problem

18 Jun

No football article this time.  I need to work on my article on why Roger Goodell must go.  Maybe next week…  In the meantime, here is why Chenin Blanc could be your new favorite wine

 

Many people are members of the ABC club.  That is, they are looking for anything but Chardonnay to drink.  I actually love a great Chardonnay, but I understand how people can tire of it.  It is one of the most planted white grapes in the world & much of it ranges from boring to awful.  Chardonnay has some versatility though.  It can be rich & oaky, or it can be light & fruity.  It would be nice to find another grape that could fill that niche.  I’m here to tell you that Chenin Blanc fits the bill.

Chenin Blanc, frequently just called Chenin, can make slightly sweet or dry crisp wines that have guava, peach, & pear flavors.  At better quality, it can make dry smoky wines that age for decades.  When oak barrel fermented, it can rival the best vanilla & butter textured Chardonnays.  When picked as a late harvest grape or a noble rot infected grape, it makes a sweet wine that can age 50 years or more.   It is also a great grape for sparkling wines.  That is a versatile grape!

Like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc is grown in many places across the globe; unfortunately it is treated like a red headed stepchild in many of those growing regions.  While solid Chenin Blanc is made in Australia, California (Chalone in particular), & Texas, it really only gets the respect it deserves in The Loire Valley in France & in South Africa.

Chenin Blanc is a grape that has naturally high acid.  In particular, it is able to ripen well in a hot climate without losing too much acid.  It also has a tendency towards high yields.  It is susceptible to botrytis. It has good resistance to disease & wind. It buds early & ripens late. All of these factors affect the wines that are produced in the middle Loire & South Africa.  I’ll write about the regions to give you more details, but you don’t really need to know all of this to pick out a good bottle.  It doesn’t hurt though.

The Loire wine regions

The Loire wine regions

The Loire is a wine region in France that basically follows the Loire River.  It runs from the Atlantic near Nantes east towards Burgundy.  It is north of the wine region of Bordeaux, but South of Paris & the wines of Champagne.  It has 4 distinct growing regions & really would be divided into 4 different appellations if not for the Loire & tradition.  The middle 2 sections of the Loire are the great Chenin growing areas. The middle Loire has a basically continental climate.  That means that it has short cold winters & long dry summers.  Spring frost can be a problem, & sometimes it rains around harvest time.  The Loire itself has the biggest effect on the local mesoclimates.  The river reflects light & that helps grapes ripen even when it might normally be a bit too cool for full ripeness due to the latitude.  It also provides cooling breezes that help the grapes retain acidity when it is hot.  Finally, the river helps provide the moisture necessary for noble rot/botrytis.

The Loire produces several different styles of Chenin, from dry, to off dry, to luxurious sweet wines.  The grape is so ubiquitous there that it was once called Franc Blanc.  Today it is often called Pineau or Pineau de la Loire.

Left to right: a dry Savennières, a lusciously sweet Bonnezeaux, and an off dry Vouvray

Left to right: a dry Savennières, a lusciously sweet Bonnezeaux, and an off dry Vouvray

In the Loire, the grape is usually unblended, although in Anjou or Saumur it is possible to add 20% Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc & in wines labeled Touraine there can be a broader mixture.  The best Chenin in the Loire will be unblended.

Mechanical harvesting is used in much of the Loire. It cannot be used for the production of the classic sweet Chenin Blancs.  The best of these wines will be made from grapes infected by botrytis.  This necessitates more than one harvesting session.  These are called tries & 2 are required & sometimes 3 or 4 are used to make sure that only the grapes that have shriveled with botrytis are picked.  It is a long process which risks a fall rain & the loss of crops.  It results in higher priced wines, but they are still inexpensive compared to other botrytis wines such as Sauternes.

There are few hard & fast rules for the fermentation process & the treatment of the wine in the Loire.  There are some common themes.  There is generally no Malolactic fermentation for the wines.  There is generally no new oak used or very little.  Some lees contact is not uncommon.  Because the climate is cool, it is normal to chaptalize the wine.  Adding sugar up to a 2.5% alcohol increase is allowed & is common except for in warmer years. Most modern wineries have stainless steel tanks with temperature control.  In the Loire it is sometimes necessary to warm the must before & during fermentation to get the wine to finish fermentation. There are some people experimenting with new oak & malolactic fermentation in the hopes of capturing some of the market for oaked Chardonnay.  This is a tiny minority of the market.

Basic Chenin Blanc from the Loire has flavors of apple & pear, nuts, & mineral. They can be tight & acidic with a chalky minerality when first bottled. Time in the bottle is necessary for the full range of flavors to appear.  The best wines can age for 50 years or more.  During that time they develop secondary characteristics of honey & beeswax.  As the wines become sweeter, they show sweeter jellied fruits with the same notes.  The botrytis infected wines show the honey & beeswax much more quickly & have more luscious apple & pear marmalade notes. Great Loire Chenin Blanc can be one of the best & most long lived wines in the world.

In Savennières, Chenin is almost always dry.  They wait later than average to harvest the grapes, allowing them to achieve greater ripeness.  Then they ferment them completely dry.  That results in a wine with richness & a bit higher alcohol.  These wines can be somewhat austere in the first few years after bottling.  The best examples will last as long as 50 years & develop complex flavors.  The first thing I notice about a good Savennières is the combination of minerality & smokiness.  This is one of those wines that can fool you.  You might swear it had oak in it, but it doesn’t.  papillonThat smoky flavor is from the fruit.  Good examples also tend to show beeswax & honey.  If you are looking for a fruity & easy drinking wine, this isn’t for you.  If you want a great wine to pair with food & one that offers unexpected delights, give it a try.  I think Savennières pairs well with a wide variety of food.  Probably only Riesling is more versatile.  It isn’t the easiest wine to find.  It doesn’t look like Total Wine or Bev Mo ever stock it.  I picked up a bottle of Domaine des Baumard at Specs in Houston & at a little shop in Santa Fe.  I found Domaine de Baumard’s Clos du Papillon at a Whole Foods.  Check with your local store.

The wines of Anjou, Coteaux de l’Aubance, Jasnières, Montlouis, Saumur, and Vouvray have a wide range of sweetness levels.  In Vouvray the wine generally has some sweetness.  The labels will sometimes guide you, but not always. Tim Atkin MW says that the Loire producers favor a BBC management approach to labeling, “tell the public nothing.”  Generally you can expect the wine to be off dry.  Sometimes they will say something like “Vouvray Sec” & you will know it is dry.  Experimentation is probably your best bet here.  These wines can be great with spicy food.  The drier versions make great poolside wines on a hot day.

The high acidity of Chenin Blanc makes it a great candidate for sparkling wine.  In the Loire, it is used to make Crémant de Loire & sparkling Vouvray.  Crémant is just a French word for Champagne style sparkling wine that is not from Champagne.  Outside of the Loire it is also used in Crémant de Limoux in Southern France.  These wines may not be as refined as Champagne, but they can be vibrant wines showing peach & honey notes.  As with the wines, these can be dry or slightly sweet.  Most of the time, a dry sparkling wine will be labeled as “Brut” or “Sec”, while a slightly sweet sparkler will be labeled as “off-dry” or “demi-sec.”

The wines of the Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, and Quarts de Chaume are best known for their sweet Chenin Blanc.  Where the wine is labeled according to sweetness it will be sec (dry), demi-sec (medium dry), or moelleux (sweet).  Top producers include Claude Papin, Domaine Richou, & Huet.  The best of these wines are produced with grapes that have been infected by botrytis cinerea.  Botrytis is also called noble rot (marketing!).  Essentially it is a fungus that in just the right conditions (damp in the morning, dry in the afternoon) grows on the grapes & sucks the water from them.  That concentrates the sugar in the wine, making the grapes sweeter.  It also gives the fruit interesting honey & marmalade flavors.  It sounds, & truthfully looks a bit disgusting, but it makes great wine.  Anyone who eats mushrooms or yogurt should be able to handle a little fungus being involved in the production of their wine.  As I mentioned, these grapes all have to be hand-picked.  Pickers go through the vineyard & hand select the infected grapes, leaving the rest.  They will sometimes make 2 or 3 tries through the vineyard to get enough to make the wine.  That costs money, but it is worth it.  These are luscious wines with honey & jam & marmalade notes.  The cool thing about them is that they still have a backbone of acidity.  These wines last for decades & improve as they go.  Many people think of them as strictly dessert wines, but I prefer them with pâté or blue cheese.  I think that is one of the great wine pairings of all time.

I drank a bottle of Chateau de Fesles Bonnezeaux 1998 over the course of about 3 days.  It was just as fresh & wonderful on the 3rd day as it was the first.  Even though it was almost 17 years old, it seemed youthful.  I probably could have left this in my wine rack for another 30 years.  It was everything that I mentioned above & more.  La Revue du Vin de France has called Fesles the “Yquem of the Loire Valley.”  I paid $38 for my bottle & I have seen it at around $60 online.  That’s pretty cheap in the grand scheme of things for a world class wine.

South Africa has been growing Chenin Blanc for centuries, but only relatively recently have they tried to make high quality wine with it.  Initially the grape was planted to produce brandy due to its ability to get a large crop with good sugar & still retain acid.  It also has good resistance to disease & wind.  Wind can be a real issue in South Africa & can cause transpiration issues.  In fact it wasn’t even known as Chenin Blanc until the 1960’s.  It was called Steen. Chenin is still the most planted grape in South Africa, but at around 18% of the total crop, it has fallen off quite a bit.

There is still plenty of over cropped bland Chenin Blanc produced in South Africa.  It is sometimes sold under a varietal name or blended with Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc & sold with a fanciful name.  These wines tend to have green fruit flavors with melon & mango.  They aren’t necessarily bad wines.  They just aren’t memorable.

Since the 1990’s there has been a revolution in quality at the top end of the spectrum for South African wines.  Growers have been encouraged to reduce yields.  Top producers like De Trafford, Morgenhof, & Anura (my favorite) are using old vines to make big bold Chenin Blancs that can last as much as 10 years.

Anura Chenin Blanc from South Africa

Anura Chenin Blanc from South Africa

Most top quality producers have air conditioned production facilities.  Some Chenin is fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks.  Some producers ferment at least a portion of their Chenin in French or American oak barrels.  These barrels are in cold rooms due to the heat in South Africa combined with the heat of fermentation. Some Chenin is fermented in stainless steel & then aged in barrel for up to 24 months.

These wines show more tropical fruit than the wines of the Loire due to the warmer climate. Melon, mango, pineapple, & grapefruit are common flavors.  The wines that are fermented or aged in barrel will show the toast or nut notes from the oak.  American oak seems to be a current favorite.  It adds coconut flavors that work well with the other tropical flavors in the wines.

South African Chenin Blanc does not yet show the aging potential of Loire Chenin.  Unoaked Chenin in South Africa, which ranges from sweet to dry generally, is drinkable for 1-3 years.  The oaked Chenin usually is good for 3-5 years, but there are some examples that work for 10 years.

Chenin Blanc in South Africa generally does not show botrytis notes.  The heavy winds and arid climate make it unlikely for the fungus to survive in most of the wine region.

Though the wines are very different, both South Africa & the Loire produce high quality Chenin Blanc.  The next time you feel the need to satisfy your ABC desires, try a Chenin Blanc.  It could be your new favorite.

 

 

 

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Blind tasting is fun. Having a blind General Manager isn’t.

7 Mar

 

Jerry Jones looks sad  I had to do a blind tasting recently for a wine class.  I was able to identify the grape varietal, but only because I had the context of knowing that all three wines were made with the same grape.  That let me taste three very different wines & then see what the similarities were and what types of grapes could make these three diverse wines.  This was a case where if I had focused on only one aspect and not thought about the group as a whole, I would have failed.

Focusing on only one thing at a time and not thinking about the group as a whole seems to be a serious problem for Jerry Jones.  I had expected the Dallas Cowboys to be in much better salary cap shape in 2014.  This was the year where they no longer would suffer from the blatantly biased and punitive salary cap penalties that they and Washington faced because NY Giants owner John Mara was able to get his divisional rivals penalized for treating the uncapped year as an uncapped year.

I knew that there would be some contracts that had been back loaded to get them through the penalty years.  I just didn’t expect it to be this bad.  They were penalized $10 million for not being part of collusion in 2010.  This penalty was broken into 2 years at $5 million each.  This year the salary cap has been raised to $133 million, which is an increase of $10 million over last year.  Surely having an additional $15 million to spend would have the Cowboys sitting pretty right?  Unfortunately when the new year started, the Cowboys had $37 million (or almost 28%) of their cap space tied up in 2 players.  Tony Romo & DeMarcus Ware.  Projections showed them being somewhere between $20-$30 million over the cap.

On February 28th, the team cut 4 players, but that only saved $1 million in cap space. According to Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Cowboys reduced their cap problem a bit more on March 3 when Orlando Scandrick and Sean Lee agreed to restructure their contracts. The move will save the team roughly $7 million. Finally, they restructured Tony Romo’s huge deal so that 12.5 million of his 2014 base salary of 13.5 million will be converted into a bonus.  That lets them spread that amount out over the remaining years of his contract.  That gets them to just about 1 million over the cap.  Of course it means that Romo’s cap hit will be way too high by the end of the contract.  At some point that bill has to come due.

There are doubtless more moves to come.  Miles Austin may be cut, which will save almost $5.5 million if he is designated as a June 1st cut.  DeMarcus Ware may have to take a pay cut.  Eventually they will get below the cap.  The problem is that they will have just barely cleared enough room to sign their draft picks & maybe a mid-tier free agent.  At the same time, they will have put themselves into the same position next year unless the cap dramatically increases (which it may).

The bottom line is that the Cowboys will have worked hard to meet the salary cap & preserve the core of a team that has gone 8-8 for the last 3 years.  Meanwhile, the Super Bowl champion Seahawks have almost $12 million in cap space.  At least a truly bad team like the Raiders has managed to get to a point where they have over $66 million in cap space & can try and fix their team over the next couple of years.  I think Jones needs to look at the entire roster.  Nothing suggests that will be the case though.  If Jerry Jones employed a General Manager who had put him in this position repeatedly, that GM would be fired. He should at least hold himself accountable.  At best for Cowboys fans, he should bring in some help.

Here are the wines we tried blind.

Domaine Sylvain Gaudron “La Butte du Trésor” Sec 2011 Loire Valley, Vouvray AC $14.99 12.5% alcohol

The wine was clear & bright with a pale straw color.  The nose had a crisp acidity and smelled of kiwi, green fruit, & green apple.  It was clean & intense.

Those green fruit flavors followed through on the palate.  I tasted kiwi, green apple, lime, & a bit of grapefruit.  It was dry, with a long finish.  The body was light, but the intensity was high.

Truthfully, I might have guessed that this was a Sauvignon Blanc if I hadn’t tried the other wines & known that they were all the same.  It reminded me more of a new world, Southern Hemisphere wine than of a Loire Valley Vouvray.

Botanica Chenin Blanc 2010$19.99 13.5% alcohol

After smelling this wine, I knew that we weren’t dealing with Sauvignon Blanc.  I narrowed it down to Chenin Blanc or Chardonnay immediately.  This wine was straw colored, but turning yellow.  The nose had obvious French oak with some cream, a little nuttiness, & lemon.  On the palate those same flavors came through, with the oak being the primary flavor.  It had a full body & the lingering lemon cream & nut made it an enjoyable wine.  It could have been a light Chardonnay or a medium bodied Chenin Blanc.

This wine is from the Western Cape of South Africa.  They make some fantastic Chenin Blancs over there.

Chateau Pierre Bise Coteaux du Layon AC 2001 $31.99 (500ML) 12% alcohol

The final wine sealed it for me as Chenin Blanc.  It was a golden or deep amber color.  The smell of burnt sugar and caramel told me it was a sweet wine.  In fact, it was a nice sweet wine with acid that was nicely integrated, a long lasting finish with flavors of brown sugar and that tell-tale taste of botrytis.

The wine is from the Loire Valley.  It is hand-picked in several passes so that the grapes are picked at their ripest.  Most of them were infected with botrytis, which in this case is a beneficial fungus that sucks most of the water from the grape & concentrates the sugars.

Because the grapes are so ripe, there is more fructose than glucose in them.  That means that the wine will taste sweeter.  During fermentation, the glucose is converted into ethanol faster than the fructose.  Since there is residual sugar in this wine, it is primarily fructose, which tastes sweeter to us in wine.  That’s kind of getting into the geek side of things, but I think it is kind of neat.  Sometime I’ll get really geeky & explain why no wine is ever 100% dry since only the 6 carbon ring sugars change to ethanol.  The upshot is that this is a delicious dessert wine that is not fortified.

Once I had tasted all three & thought about them as a set, it was obvious to me that the wines were all Chenin Blanc.  While it isn’t the most prestigious grape out there, it is one of the more versatile.  There aren’t many grapes that can make a fruit forward crisp & acidic wine, a soft creamy wine, & a botrytis dessert wine.  It is all about keeping the big picture in mind.  Jerry Jones should try it.  I’ll probably just drink extra wine while I watch the Cowboys play.