In my junior year of high school I was cast in my first musical. I fell in love with theatre, and over the next six years I spent every moment I can recall in theatre classes, researching roles and working on plays. I was versatile to say the least. One term I was dancing about as a jolly Irish woman, and the next I was trying to adjust as a concentration camp survivor. The next term I directed an Absurdist one-act play, and the next I played a witch with a vengeance and a wicked sense of humor (typecasted.) In my final and possibly most comical performance, I played a monkey. Although I focused on acting, over my college years I was also a stage manager, sound engineer, lighting designer, make-up artist and spotlight operator. I received many compliments over that time, but none of them sticks with me today as well as “I’ve never known anyone that could perform any role in any play the way you can.”
I don’t mean to brag; I am trying to make a point. Very few varietals are versatile in this way. But this month’s is quite an exception, extremely versatile, and is possibly the most intriguing of them all. One day it’s viscous, nutty, complex and elegant. The next it’s light, racy, tart and quaffable. Sometimes you’ll find a lovely sparkling version, distinctive but refined enough to compete with classic champagne. Then, just when you think you have it figured out, it’s dense, sweet, lush and sublime. It is perfect, depending on its mood, for any season and almost any occasion.
This beautiful white varietal is the great Chenin Blanc. Once again, we look to France for my featured grape’s roots. It thrives in the slightly warmer parts of the Loire Valley, which incidentally, tourists claim is one of the most charming parts of the country. Here, chenin has earned a reputation for wines of amazing complexity and character. They range anywhere from bone dry to sticky sweet, depending on the region and the warmth of the vintage. In Vouvray and Montlouis, chenin is made into light to medium-bodied dry or demi-sec wines with vibrant acidity, and notable flavors of peach, melon, honeysuckle and sometimes a hint of wet hay. These wines are worthy of a decade or more of cellaring. In Savennieres, chenin is as dry as it gets and fairly full-bodied, with an almost doughy texture and flavors of almond and hazelnut. In Anjou, the extremely ripe, usually botrytised grapes are turned into amazingly complex dessert wines that rival the great Sauternes.
Outside of France, chenin is making a push in California where it’s now the third most planted white varietal. In South Africa, where it’s known as steen, chenin blanc makes up about a third of planted grapes . New world chenin is typically light and dry, with high acid and incredible drinkability. Because the grapes tend toward overgrowth, some of these producers create wines of little personality and zero distinction. This is an unfortunate but very real side effect of capitalism, greed and a failing economy. But generally, thanks to their great value, and enormous curb appeal, these sassy little whites have, over the last two years, launched chenin blanc into popularity.
But for today let’s consider one of my favorite styles of chenin: a three year-old demi-sec Vouvray.
Sight: On first sight can chenin appear quite similar to chardonnay– a vibrant golden with a pale hint of straw. But you’ll probably see slower moving, sticky legs and a fairly consistant rim.
Smell: Take a hayride on a damp summer morning through a field of freshly sheared sheep, honeysuckles, pear trees and peach groves. Reach into your picnic basket and pull out a very fresh loaf of bread and a jar of honey. This captivating combination is chenin blanc.
Taste: The first sip of this wine boggles the mind. It’s a bit of sensory overload mixed with the childlike fascination of Christmas morning. The flavors of quince, pear, melon and honey explode in the mouth, and the acidity makes everything dance a beautiful waltz on the tongue. Somewhere on the back of the palate there’s subtle viscosity and a hint of something earthy and doughy, mixed with sweet and exciting spice. Then, the lovely acidity once again kicks in and lasts on the elegant and scrumptious finish.
Pairings: Manchego with quince paste. Butternut squash ravioli. Lobster. Sushi. Spicy thai or cajun dishes. Fried chicken.
$10-15: Man, Indaba, Dry Creek, Moncontour
$15-30: Pinon, Mulderbosch, Chidaine, Domaine du Viking, Langlois Cremant de Loire, Domaine Huet
Before you die: Domaine des Baumard Quarts du Chaumes