If you drink cheap white wine blends out of the jug or box; you've probably had Chenin Blanc. It has been a classic workhorse blending grape grown throughout the San Joaquin Valley of California for decades. It provides the acidic backbone that blending partners like French Columbard and Chardonnay typically lack. Think 1970s Gallo and Paul Mason and you are on the right track. Based on its historical use in CA, it might be hard for many people to understand that in France, it is a highly respected grape, responsible for a variety of lovely wines.
Chenin Blanc is most well known as the prima dona of the middle Loire Valley. It is also well known in South Africa, where it is called Steen. This highly acidic wine is relatively bland, and as a result, is known to be an excellent varietal when it comes to showing off terroir, vintage and winemaking characteristics. If you have had wines from places like Anjou, Vouvray, Bonnezeaux, Savennieres, Coteaux du Layon or Saumur, you've had this wine. It is made in styles both sparkling and still and throse ranging from sweet to dry. In France crop yield is often regulated, creating a more intense, and characteristic grape. Yields there may run along the lines of 50 hl/ha. In the oppressively hot Central Valley of CA it is not uncommon to see yields upward of 175 hl/ha. This results in the bland and neutral grape that fills those cheap boxes and jugs.
And then there is the tiny hamlet of Clarksburg. Located alongside the waterways of the Sacramento Delta, Clarkburg has its own AVA designation, and happens to have fertile soils and a microclimate perfectly suited for growing superior Chenin Blanc. While it is technically situated in the Central Valley of CA, its proximity to the Delta allows for cool morning and evening temperatures, with mist and fog to boot. When an area that experiences hot temperatures in the daytime, has the ability to cool down at night, acidity in the grapes can be retained, resulting in a more complex fruit that under the right winemaking conditions can produce sophisticated wine. That's what is happening in Clarksburg these days.
Well known, quality producers in the area include Wilson Vineyards and Bogle, while Sonoma's Dry Creek Vineyard Wines makes an award winning example sourced from Clarksburg. Smaller producers are jumping on the Chenin Blanc bandwagon either growing their own, or sourcing from the area. Labels to look for include Blue Plate, Six Hands, Heringer, Carvalho, Rendez-vous, Dancing Coyote, Revolution Wines and Clarksburg Wine Company.
As Chenin Blanc is a great canvas to study characteristic variations, I conducted a side by side tasting of two producers, Blue Plate and Six Hands. The wines had the same vintage (2011), same AVA (Clarksburg), and same price range (under $12). The major difference is that the Six Hands is fermented in stainless steel and aged in French Oak, while Blue Plate is both fermented and aged in stainless steel. Blue Plate also has a touch of sauvignon blanc to round things out. It should be noted that winemaking tech sheets were not read until after the tasting.
The Six Hands was light golden in color with toasted and slightly nutty aromas and flavors. There were hints of vanilla lingering in the fruity goodness of citrus, specifically lemon, and even some pineapple. There was a pronounced mineral finish to the wine and I perceived a bit more alcohol on this sample than the other. For me, I say a wine has mineral overtones when I get a sensation on the inside of my mouth that seems sort of zingy. I imagine its the residue rocks would leave in my mouth. I ended up drinking it with my dinner of pasta with parsley and smoked salmon. It was a great pairing.
The Blue Plate was a light straw color with a slight banana aroma that hit me right away-that's not a bad thing. Extra cold fermentation can bring out tropical notes in white wines, and my guess is that's what goes on here. I perceived honeyed citrus notes as well as an essence of stone fruit. This crisply acidic wine, with its own hints of minerality, was well balanced, and would be a perfect picnic wine, summer sipper, and accompaniment to a light dinner.
I love the concept of drinking wine that is produced locally. How fortunate for me that Chenin Blanc practically grows in my own backyard. I will be exploring more of these specialties from Clarksburg and I encourage you to do so too! xoSB