Summer officially ends Sept. 22, yet the warm — and sometimes downright hot — daytime temperatures continue through October. So do picnics, barbecues, dinners on the deck and jaunts to the coast.
For every summer-like day-into-evening, there is crisp white wine to quench the thirst, get the saliva jets firing and cool the palate. Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are easy choices, but why not try something unusual, a bit more racy and altogether local?
A citrus-and-peach-packed, old-vine chenin blanc, perhaps. A Russian River Valley albariño, rare to these parts yet a common quaff in Spain … or a bracing riesling from Napa Valley, where it’s said to be too warm to successfully grow the grape.
A trait these wines share is what winemakers call “nervosity,” “tension” or “energy.” By that, they mean there is enough natural acidity to offset the sunny sweetness of the ripe grapes. Think of a tightrope walker shifting the pole up and down — acidity on one end, fruit sweetness on the other — to maintain balance and stay on the wire.
Take chenin blanc, one of the great wine grapes of France’s Loire Valley. In the hands of Healdsburg winemaker Leo Hansen, his Saini Farms Dry Creek Valley Chenin Blanc has sun-kissed peach and pear aromas and flavors complemented by mouthwatering acidity and a hint of minerality. It’s an ideal warm-weather quaff.
That Hansen, a former sommelier in Denmark, found chenin blanc in Sonoma is a marvel. In 1982, there were 45,000 acres of the grape planted in California; today there are approximately 5,000 acres, with most of the lost acreage replanted to more popular (and more profitable) chardonnay. The majority of what’s left goes into jug and boxed wines; a few devotees, such as Hansen and the Saini family, keep serious chenin blanc alive.
Serve at night
Hansen is the winemaker for Stuhlmuller Vineyards in Alexander Valley, as well as his own Leo Steen Wines (Steen is his middle name and fittingly, it’s what South Africans call chenin blanc). He arrived in California in 1999, to make wine by day and serve it by night.
“When I was the sommelier at Dry Creek Kitchen (in Healdsburg), the first years of the restaurant I was always looking for interesting and exciting varieties to pour by the glass, which at the time was close to none existing from Sonoma,” Hansen said. “I felt there was a place to bring back chenin blanc and especially a dry, food-friendly version.
“This idea began in 2004, but it took until late 2005 before I connected with the Sainis, who planted their chenin blanc vineyard in 1981. Old vines were key to me, as their grapes hold their acidity in a warm climate. My first vintage was 2006 for that wine, and I later added two other ‘old’ vineyards to the program, in Mendocino and Santa Barbara counties.”
For Tim Meinken and his wife/co-winemaker, Anne Giere, their decision to produce albariño came during a trip to the Rias Baixas region of northwestern Spain, where the lighter-bodied, tangy, seafood-friendly varietal is home.
“We were moving away from white wines with big oak, such as chardonnay, even though it was our biggest seller at the time,” Meinken recalled. “Albariño had everything we liked in a white wine: crisp, bright, aromatic and no oak. We ripped out an acre of chardonnay vines in Russian River Valley in 2006 and planted the first albariño in Sonoma County. We made a small amount in 2009 and released the 2010 under our Gordian Knot label.”