Rare Birds –– those Spectacular Chenin Blancs

TOP PICK

Lang & Reed

Lang & Reed, 2016 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc, 13.5% alcohol, $27. ★★★★1/2

This bottling’s bright fruit is buoyed by bright acidity. Aromas and flavors of apple, quince and honey. Citrusy finish. Impeccable balance, a dance of lush and crisp. It’s a striking take on the varietal.

Tasty ALTERNATIVES

Graziano, 2016 Mendocino County Dry Chenin Blanc, 13.5%, $15. ★★★★: This racy chenin blanc benefits from its duality. On one hand, it’s rich and creamy and on the other, it’s bright with crisp acid and great minerality. In the end, it’s weighted to a full-bodied, fruit-forward California version. Top rate.

Chappellet, 2016 Napa Valley Signature Chenin Blanc, 14.1%, $32. ★★★★: This dry chenin blanc is crisp and clean. It has beautiful aromas of gardenia, with notes of Meyer lemon and apple. Its bright acid gives it lovely balance.

Husch, 2016 Mendocino Chenin Blanc, 13.2%, $13. ★★★★: This is a pretty chenin blanc that’s a touch sweet and plays up California fruit. It’s refreshing –– light-bodied and nimble.

Leo Steen Wines, 2016 Santa Ynez Valley, Central Coast Chenin Blanc, 12.5%, $28. ★★★★: This chenin blanc has an impressive range — nectarine, peach and citrus peel. It’s light and lively, with impeccable balance. Finishes crisp.

“What happened to chenin blanc in California?”

This is the puzzling question Reed Skupny asked on his way to pick up the chenin blanc for his wedding in France.

Reed and his father, John Skupny, decided to revive the varietal they felt wasn’t given its fair due in California.

The duo is behind our wine-of-the-week winner – the Lang & Reed, 2016 Napa Valley Chenin Blanc at $27. This bottling’s bright fruit is buoyed by its crisp acidity. It has aromas and flavors of apple, quince and honey, with a citrusy finish. The chenin blanc has impeccable balance, a dance of lush and crisp. It’s a striking take on the varietal.

“Chenin blanc has been a jug wine, but we’ve found that by making it in a Burgundian style it can really shine and we can bring it back to its noble status,” Reed said.

At Lang & Reed, the inspiration continues to be the Loire Valley in France where chenin blanc gained its fame.

So what happened to chenin blanc in California?

“When it was made on a mass scale, chenin blanc lost its nuance,” Reed said. “In the 1960s and 1970s consumers were looking for more layered varietals like sauvignon blanc and zinfandel.”

One way Reed and John give their chenin blanc nuance and complexity is to use a blend of indigenous and cultured yeasts.

The biggest challenge in producing this varietal has been sourcing the best fruit because it’s in limited supply, John said.

To give you a sense of how rare chenin blanc is, the nearly 3,000 acres planted in Napa Valley in 1980 has dwindled down to 14 today, John explained, referring to Napa Valley’s annual agricultural report.

John, 64, and Reed, 35, made the decision to produce chenin blanc in 2009 but it took them until 2013 to source enough quality fruit, with their first release in 2014.

Up until that point Lang & Reed had focused solely on two bottlings of cabernet franc, but John and Reed felt they could offer a chenin blanc that would make heads turn.

“Growing up in Napa Valley, there always seems to be a push for opulence where more is more, but we have achieved a really nice little window where everything is in balance,” Reed said.

As John puts it, “We want to make a chenin blanc that has finesse and balance. We don’t want to overpower food. We don’t want to be the conductor, just part of the symphony.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.