If you don’t know even part of the name of the wine you’re looking for, don’t expect me to enthusiastically assist you in your quest. “It has a white label, and I think it starts with an M” tells me absolutely nothing. Would you expect success in any other market?? “I drove a car once and I want to buy that car but I don’t know what it was. It was black, it had four tires and I think I steered it with a wheel.” Or “I had a box of cereal six months ago in Florida and I can’t remember the name of it. It came in a box and was made from corn.”
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
$15-30: Pinon, Mulderbosch, Chidaine, Domaine du Viking, Langlois Cremant de Loire, Domaine Huet
Before you die: Domaine des Baumard Quarts du Chaumes
A couple months ago my stepmom asked me to help her find something special for my dad’s sixty-fifth birthday celebration. We going to have a “once in lifetime” sort of dinner at The Lodge at Torrey Pines in San Diego and we wanted to do something really unique. After a good amount of research and with a bit of a budget in mind, we decided to surprise Dad with a mini-vertical of Paulo Scavino’s Bric dël Fiasc Barolo.
A colleague who’s been collecting for a couple decades generously sold me an ’88 and ’89 from his cellar. I packed them very carefully and sent them off in my luggage, with a wave and a furrowed brow. Several times throughout the flight I worried not for my own life, but for the fate of those priceless bottles. I imagined myself on the shoreline, with the cast members from Lost, frantic over two bottles of Italian wine. When I arrived in reality in CA I eagerly found them still snuggled in their stryofoam amongst my t-shirts. I unpacked them and set them down carefully on my brother’s kitchen counter with strict instructions that sounded something like “Don’t touch these or I’ll kick your @$#%ing ass.”
The next day, observing all speed limits and taking each turn with extreme caution, I drove from Lemon Grove to La Jolla like this:
I arrived at Torrey Pines a little before sunset and took in the view. La Jolla is without question among my top three favorite places in the world. Then I very, very gingerly took the bottles from the backseat and walked through the lot. I fought back the anxiety of dropping one or both of them and tried to apply football’s four points of pressure technique. I made it safely inside and I gleefully handed off the bottles to my curious father. A round of hugs ensued, followed by a chorus of “I need a glass of wine” and we went into the restaurant.
The Lodge at Torrey Pines is certainly an experience. We arrived just in time to see the grandeur of the last rays of light shining on the fairway below, with the roaring Pacific just in the distance. The dining room was smaller than I expected, quaint and even a bit old fashioned, but extremely comfortable.
Our attentive server opened and decanted our Barolos for us while we sipped a superb demi-sec Champagne. The plan was to save some to accompany dessert. Yeah, right. We enjoyed our amuse bouche and ordered extravagantly. Sweet corn and crab soup for me, followed by an elegant seared duck breast with cous cous. Incredible! My parents shared something delicious I don’t quite remember and Steve had fish that wasn’t, thankfully, the salmon he almost ordered accidentally. The food overall was very good, although not wonderfully original or memorable.
The desserts however, were simply spectacular. To be fair, the pastry chef is the daughter of a friend of my parents, and was responsible for our royal treatment that evening. But what she sent us for dessert exceeded anyone’s wildest imagination. I remember figs, and apricots, a custard, and chocolate, and home made sugar plums…. plates and plates of creative gluttony that would put Willy Wonka to shame. I tasted each blissfully and flirted with both the remainder of the demi-sec and a fantastic 20 year tawny. If I were to re-visit this restaurant I would simply take in the exquisite dessert course.
As for the main event. The wines were extraordinary, although the ’88 took longer to open up. Once it did, it showed violet, truffle and hints of rustic raspberry. It was soft and refined, although not extremely substantial. The feeling was that while delicious, this wine was teetering on the end of its long, illustrious life. The ’89, on the other hand, was truly remarkable right out of the gate. It still possessed all the power of a great Barolo, but had softened and evolved into a beautiful, elegant masterpiece. It still tasted of ripe, exotic berries, plums, red and purple flowers and something rich and stewy. 1989 was a stellar vintage in Piedmont and this was an eye-opening experience in what a difference a year makes.
We had an amazing evening at Torrey Pines, thanks to good food, great service and incredible (albeit too many) desserts compliments of the lovely Jennifer Costa. But mostly this night was all about Paulo Scavino… and my pops.