As you peruse the white-wine aisles of most stores, dominated as they are by chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, it's hard to believe chenin blanc ever reigned supreme in California.
But it did. Known from the early 1950s through 1970s locally as "white pinot," chenin blanc by 1979 was the most widely planted white wine grape in the state, a position it held for about a decade before chardonnay started to take dominant and long-lasting hold.
But some producers never gave up on chenin blanc, and others are now beginning to discover or rediscover it.
A grape most associated with the Loire region of France, especially Vouvray, chenin is also an important variety in New York's Long Island, Washington state, South Africa, Australia and Argentina, where it is sometimes blended into sparkling wines.
Here it remains a small dot in a sea of other domineering grapes, planted mostly around the flat Clarksburg area between Fairfield and Lodi, where the nearby delta keeps the air cool enough, especially at night, for the variety to hold on to its brightly rich melon-tinged fruit flavors and high natural acidity.
There are also plantings in Mendocino County, Napa and the Dry Creek Valley, though in all of 2011 (granted, a light year for almost every variety), only about 54,000 tons of chenin were crushed, compared to 559,000 tons of chardonnay. And it drew about half the weighted average price per ton -- $356 per ton for chenin blanc next to $753 per ton for chardonnay.
Those who persist are turning out versatile and beautiful wines, marked by that refreshingly dry crispness amid rich layers of stone and tropical fruit flavors and a textured trace of honey -- some even say beeswax. The end result is a wine that pairs exceptionally well with spicy Asian, Mexican and fried food.
Zach Bryant of Picnic Wine Company, the small Napa-based producer of Blue Plate Chenin Blanc, has several favorite chenin food pairings at the moment. He likes it with carnitas tostada at C-Casa in Napa, the tempura squash blossoms from BarBersQ, also in Napa, and the tuna tartare at the downtown Napa hot spot, Carpe Diem Wine Bar.
Also great with shellfish, chenins tend to be priced well under $30, making them a very attractive and well-valued alternative to other white wines.
Here are some local chenin blancs worth trying:
Ballentine 2011 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc, $17
Intensely aromatic, St. Helena-based Ballentine gets its chenin blanc from one of the oldest standing plantings in the Napa Valley, just off the Silverado Trail near Calistoga. This vintage is among its best, dry, crisp and full of stone fruit, lemon and lime tones.
Blue Plate 2011 Clarksburg Chenin Blanc, $11
Blue Plate's second vintage of chenin blanc, and a truly excellent one at that, dry, crisp and elegant with a trace of finely honed honey. A really lovely, balanced wine with a long finish ready to pair with any manner of spicy, eclectic food.
Chappellet 2010 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc, $30
Based on Pritchard Hill, where it makes coveted cabernet sauvignon and vines of chenin have grown since the late 1960s, Chappellet has a long history with chenin blanc. Having replanted the variety in 2004, the winery is now making one of the best chenins in the state -- a slightly tart, totally dry wine with rich layers of tropical fruit and Meyer lemon.