Hunting the Great White Grape 

By: Tod Stewart

So, what if, as a winemaker or grape grower, you could create the “perfect grape.” Since it’s summer, we’ll narrow it to the perfect white grape (assuming that more people purchase white wine during the summer and that purchases ensure you remain a winemaker or grape grower). Where would you start?

  Okay, how about yields? If your business model is based on high volumes of drinker-friendly wines, a vigorous vine delivering impressive volume would probably be desirable. Modern fermenting techniques would help you deliver white wines that, while lacking real complexity, would give you a decent, quaffable light white wine that may be just the right background in a blend with more assertive varietals.

  However, if your aim is also to craft lower volumes of wines that will impress the true connoisseurs, you’d want this same grape to behave slightly differently when crop volumes are reduced. So, this super-grape would have to double as both a workhorse and vinous royalty. It should also be able to thrive in various climates, be they those of California’s Central Valley or the upper (and lower) wine belt limits. From Northern Europe to South America and New Zealand.

  Since winemakers around the world vinify a plethora of styles, übergrape should be up to being treated much differently in different hands. Light and dry. Dry and complex. Sweet across the spectrum – from barely off-dry to rich, unctuous, and lush. Sparkling as well, from dry to sweet. And depending on the audience, it should give wines that can be consumed young but that can also age and develop with both short and long-term cellaring. Let’s throw in an ability to reflect the nuances of various terroir just to up the ante a bit more. Oh, and good wind and disease resistance, right? It would be a great grape indeed.

  The good news is that you don’t have to run off to your nearest viticulturist to plot which currently existing grapes could be cross-pollinated, hybridized and grafted onto which rootstock to result in this Frankenfruit. It’s already here. Say hello to Chenin Blanc, probably one of the most underrated and under-appreciated white grapes out there.

  I had the opportunity to learn about – and taste the wines made from – this “magical chameleon of a grape” (as Jancis Robinson, MW calls it) during a three-week journey through France, starting in the Loire Valley – the ancestral home of Chenin Blanc.

  If first-hand confirmation is in order, let me confirm: traveling in/out/through Toronto’s Pearson International Airport has been pretty much akin to traveling through Dante’s Fifth Circle of Hell as of late (though you’d probably still have your luggage in the Dante’s Hell scenario). I suppose I got off lucky in that I was only delayed an hour flying to France and only had to sit on the tarmac for 45 minutes or so upon returning before spending only about another hour or so clearing security. As luck would have it, my luggage actually made it back with me (a good thing in that it was packed with wine, pastis, marc, olive oil and all sorts of other things). It probably helped I wasn’t flying Air Canada (though Air France was running out of in-flight food on the return leg).

  Anyhow, what brought me to France in the first place (other than several thousand gallons of jet fuel) was a media trip (“Val de Loire Millésime”) sponsored by InterLoire (Interprofesssion des Vins du Val de Loire – in long form) – the body responsible for the promotion and development of the wines from the regions of the Nantais, Anjou-Saumur, and Touraine. Now, before going any further, I think it’s important to set the record straight with regard to “media trips.”

  Being media comes with some perks (a robust – or even steady – paycheck is typically not one), and media trips – certainly in the eyes of non-media types – fit the bill. Airfare is generally covered, as is ground transportation. As are accommodations. As are meals. But let me assure you, these trips aren’t vacations. No way. You’re on someone else’s schedule and someone else’s dime. So, prepare to work.

  Early morning educational seminars and visits to numerous estates and vineyard sites (which may include a “hike” through said vineyards) are the order of the day. (As an aside, I’ve become wary of the word “hike” when followed by “though the vineyards.” These excursions can literally be a walk in the park or reach survival training endurance levels. The phrase, “Please ensure you bring suitable footwear” often indicates that the latter will transpire). Also, there are back-to-back tastings. Sampling over 100 wines per day (minimum) isn’t uncommon. It’s all tiring and sometimes exhausting, day after day.

  The look on your face suggests I’m not drumming up much sympathy.

  Anyway, over the course of my four-day Loire adventure, I was able to experience Chenin Blanc in all its vinous incantations and learned more about the variety’s lineage.

  I was based in the town of Angers, which is pretty much smack-dab in the middle of Chenin’s birthplace. Also known as Pineau de la Loire, Chenin Blanc is thought to have originated in the vineyards of Anjou, likely sometime in the ninth century, before spreading to vineyards in the neighboring Touraine region by the 15th century. In fact, the name Chenin Blanc likely came about due to plantings in vineyards near Mont Chenin near the famous Château de Chenonceau. Over the course of history, plantings of Chenin Blanc waxed and waned, largely due to the dictates of consumer tastes, but it has remained the white grape of the Loire.

  I had the opportunity to taste Chenin-based wines representing an extremely broad stylistic range. Susceptible to Botrytis cinerea (aka “noble rot”), the sweet, late-harvest wines of Anjou and Vouvray – and specifically Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, and Quarts de Chaume – I tasted showed layers of waxy, honeyed, spiced baked apple and, in some cases, an earthy, mushroom-tinged nuance. As glorious as many of them were, what intrigued me the most were the dry Chenin Blancs, some of which were like nothing I’ve ever really tasted before.

  The Saumur Blanc wines of Domaine Arnaud Lambert – including the Coulée de Saint Cyr 2018 Blanc, Clos de la Rue 2018 Blanc, and Brézé Bourguenne 2018 Blanc – deserve (I think) special mention. All were gorgeously complex, dripping with floral/mineral/smoky/lanolin and stone fruit aromas and flavors, with rich, ripe, concentrated and beautifully balanced flavors to match. One thing about Chenin Blanc is that, even in some of the least expensive examples, an undeniable richness can be detected. Alas, Lambert’s wines are hardly the least expensive examples. At closing in on 50€ per bottle, the Brézé Bourguenne 2018 Blanc was (I think) the most expensive wine I tasted while in the Loire. That being said, I’ve tasted plenty of wines costing far more that delivered far less.

  Another property that caught my attention was Domaine des Fontaines. Vigneron Rousseau Vincent explained to me that the appellation his winery resides in – Bonnezeaux – was certified an AOC for the production of sweet wines only. Dry wines were not (yet) able to carry the Bonnezeaux AOC distinction. Vincent – and others caught in a similar predicament – are pushing for a change. Personally, as a consumer, I’d question if AOC status really matters (I’m sure there’s a reason it does), especially having tasted the Domaine’s outstanding Cuvée Landry 2020 Blanc (which carries the broader Anjou appellation designation). This was an amazingly concentrated and deeply flavored wine, with a full, ripe and viscous texture and of considerable length. At 10.50€, this wine was a steal. If it were crafted from a different grape, country, or region, it could likely command double that price (or more).

  Though top-quality dry Loire Chenin Blanc wines are becoming more the norm these days, some have been known for quite some time as perhaps the pinnacle of the dry style. And here I’m talking about those of the Savennières region. Comprised of three AOCs – Savennières, Savennières-Roche-aux-Moines and Savennières-Coulée-de-Serrant. The total area under vines for all three regions combined is less than 400 acres. Savennières-Coulée-de-Serrant in itself is home to a single estate managed by Nicolas Joly. It covers a mere 17 acres. But it’s within these boundaries that Chenin Blanc shows what it can deliver when planted within a very particular terroir. In fact, the wines are typically so influenced by the schist soil, vineyard exposure, and relatively cool temperature of the region that “earth,” rather than “fruit,” is the most defining characteristic of these wines.

  Taste traditionally-made Savennières young wines, and you’ll wonder what the fuss is all about. When young, these wines typically fail to really impress (at least me). Sure, there’s lots of body and weight (many Savennières wines routinely top 14% ABV, some hitting 15%), but the screamingly high acid levels (typical of cool climate Chenin; maybe Chenin in general) and lack of any really opulent fruit makes them a little hard to warm up to.

In one session, I tasted 17 Savennières, mostly from young vintages (2019 and 2020). Some were pleasant enough (and some were obviously made to be a bit more approachable young), but it wasn’t until I hit the Loic Mahe Savennières Les Fougeraies 2016 that I found what I consider to be “classic” Savennières. The nose was nutty, with hints of caramel and buckwheat honey, underpinned with some mildly mushroomy notes that all wrapped around a distinctly mineral spine and buttressed by still crisp, dry acidity. If heavily-oaked Chardonnay is your thing, stay far away from Savennières. However, if you are looking for distinctive, age-worthy Chenin Blanc, step right up. I have some Savennières of the 2002 vintage in my cellar that are starting to show beautifully.

  Of course, the Loire Valley isn’t the only place you’ll find Chenin Blanc. I found it planted in the vineyards of Mas Cal Demoura in the Languedoc – the polar opposite end of France from the Loire (yes, I chose to extend my “tour de France” well after I left the Loire). It’s also the most widely planted variety in South Africa, where it covers at least three times (maybe more) the acreage planted in France. Traditionally, it was called Steen until it was discovered in 1965 that it was actually Chenin Blanc (for whatever reason, this made it even more popular). And all the attributes listed at the beginning of the story have resulted in it being planted far and wide.

  No matter where it sets its roots, Chenin Blanc is typically a cooperative and reliable vineyard addition that will do, vinously speaking, pretty much anything you want it to do while retaining a personality and uniqueness all its own.

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