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Boyd on wine: Chenin blanc, the other white wine

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Chardonnay, chardonnay, chardonnay; it’s everywhere. Makes you wonder: Is there any other white wine than chardonnay?

There’s sauvignon blanc, a crisp and fruity alternative white that’s drawing a lot of attention, thanks in part to the seductive fruity sauvignon blancs from New Zealand with their refreshing mouth-watering acidity and the growing number of California sauvignon blancs made in a similar style.

And then there’s chenin blanc, an attractive white wine with floral notes and good balancing acidity; just the ticket for light al fresco meals, so common and welcome during the hot days of summer.

Fresh out of a stainless steel fermenter, chenin blanc is hard to distinguish from young, unoaked chardonnay. But give chenin a little time and it matures nicely, offering plenty of well-defined melon and honey flavors, balanced with crisp refreshing acidity. Chenin blanc has high-profile fruit and those honeyed flavors can give the impression of sweetness; stylistically, though, chenin blanc runs the gamut from dry to sweet, and because of its high natural acidity, makes a good base for sparkling wines like Cremant de Loire, sparkling Vouvray and sparkling Saumur.”

Chenin blanc’s high natural acidity means that growing zones are crucial for the best balance between fruit and acidity. Cool, northerly climates mean higher acidity, while warm, southerly climates mean lower acidity often with fleshy ripe fruit flavors. Northern California and central France are between those two extremes, ideal for growing quality chenin blanc.

France’s fertile Loire Valley is the ancestral home of chenin blanc, the site where the variety seems to do best. At one time, chenin was widely grown throughout the Loire, but today the major Loire vineyards are in 10 sub-appellations, including Vouvray, Savennieres and Anjou-Saumur. Plus, there is Cremant de Loire, a dry sparkling wine made from chenin blanc that offers a lot of the same appeal as Champagne but for a lot less money.

For some wine drinkers, nothing says chenin blanc more than Vouvray. Vouvray is far and away the best known white wine of the Loire Valley. Prior to World War II, chenin blanc was hardly known in the United States, but after the war, returning servicemen who had developed a taste for Vouvray and other Loire wines persuaded their local wine merchant to import the wine.

Technically, Vouvray winemakers may add up to 5 percent of a local grape, but in practice chenin blanc, known locally as pineau de la loire, is the only grape used for Vouvray. High natural acidity is common in Vouvray along with an abundance of fresh, clearly defined fruit and a hint of minerality. Vouvray sees no oak and because of its acidity, usually needs a few years in the bottle before the cork should be pulled.

Southwest of the town of Angers in the middle Loire is the small sub-appellation of Savennieres and its distinctive chenin blancs. Once a sweet wine, Savennieres is today known mostly for its dry concentrated chenins, with good texture balanced by crisp acidity. Among the star producers is Nicholas Joly.

Saumur, sometimes labeled Anjou-Saumur, is east of Savennieres and is home to another expression of chenin blanc. Saumur Blanc’s full fruit flavors, often with hints of honey, green apple and crisp bracing acidity, give the wine the potential for long aging. The acidity, which may be a little high for those used to California white wines, is a good match with simply prepared fish and shellfish.

Outside of France, chenin blanc has had mixed success. Prior to the 1980s, chenin blanc was the most widely planted white wine grape in South Africa, where it was popularly known as “Steen,” but that name has mostly fallen out of favor. Near the end of the 1980s, there was a push to grow sauvignon blanc and chardonnay in place of chenin. Today, chenin blanc is making a comeback in the Cape Winelands and we are seeing more South African chenins on local wine shelves — there are 12 in Bottle Barn alone.

The history of chenin blanc in California is another story. At one time, California had more acreage planted to chenin blanc than France. But as chardonnay plantings increased, chenin blanc took a nosedive.

Today, with notable exceptions from Clarksburg at the top end of the Central Valley and a handful of wineries along the North Coast and Central Coast, the bulk of California chenin blanc goes into blends, boosting the acidity in warm-climate chardonnay.

North of the Golden Gate, Napa Valley’s Chappellet Vineyard has built a long-standing reputation for chenin blanc made from estate-grown grapes. Pine Ridge Winery adds a little viognier to its Napa chenin blanc. In Sonoma County, Dry Creek Vineyard makes a Clarksburg chenin, while Leo Steen Wines has a pair of chenin blancs made from Dry Creek Valley grapes. Mendocino chenins include those from Husch and Pax Mahle with the exotic name of Buddha’s Dharma.

Other California chenin blancs seen in local wine shops include Foxen, Santa Maria Valley; Richard Bruno, Clarksburg; Lieu Dit, Santa Ynez Valley; Chalone Vineyard, Monterey County; and Forlorn Hope, Calaveras County.

Budget-minded wine shoppers can find their favorite chenin blanc in Santa Rosa at Bottle Barn, Oliver’s and Bevmo; at Sonoma’s Best Modern Mercantile in Sonoma; the Wine Emporium in Sebastopol; and Tip Top Liquor Warehouse and Healdsburg Wine Alliance in Healdsburg. Expect to pay between $12 and $24 for most chenins, with a few like Chappellet and Michel Autran priced at $32 and $24 respectively.

Buy one or two California chenin blancs, one from the Loire Valley and one from South Africa, invite a few friends around and have a comparative tasting. It’s a fun way to enjoy chenin blanc. and you can add a lightly chilled chenin blanc with a picnic or light summer meal.

Gerald D. Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer. Reach him at boydvin@sbcglobal.net.

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