Pass the River Fish

Paul Blow

The plight of chenin blanc can be captured in two words: river fish. Encapsulated in that unlikely, antiquated phrase are the tragedy and ecstasy of one of the world’s most underappreciated wine grapes. “River fish” is the classic food pairing suggested by wine experts for chenin blanc—and it’s a good one. But when you consider that the classic pairing for cabernet sauvignon is steak, or that for pinot noir it’s poultry, you begin to get the picture. You hear about chenin blanc about as often as you hear the following exchange: “Honey, what do you feel like for dinner tonight?” “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe some river fish.”

No matter; the world worries far too much about food and wine pairings. But this is one of the myriad reasons why chenin blanc hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves. Others include the following: Chenin’s home, the Loire Valley of France, is a collection of poorly marketed appellations like Coteaux du Layon and Jasnières; bottles are labeled only with the names of these obscure appellations and never say “chenin blanc”; the grape produces a perplexing diversity of styles, from searingly dry to syrupy sweet to sparkling; uneven quality can make buying Loire chenin a touchy endeavor; and finally, chenin blanc’s primary use outside of France, in places like South Africa and California, has been to make vast volumes of jug wine, giving it a bad reputation.

Describing the aromas of chenin is about as simple as explaining the Schmoo to a non-English speaker.

So why drink chenin blanc? Because it can be so amazing that the aroma alone can bring a smile to the face. At its best, a mature chenin can have all the complexity and brightness of a wild, flower-strewn meadow in the middle of summer. Furthermore, it goes beautifully with many foods—not only perch, trout, and bass—and makes some of the longest-lived white wines in the world.

Part of the grape’s singularity, though, lies in its defiance of the easy categorization that other grapes enjoy. For instance, a 1995 Domaine des Baumards “Trie Speciale” that I tasted the other night—a chenin blanc from the Savennières appellation of the Loire—was gloriously complex, with flavors of … well, it’s hard to say. Describing the aromas of chenin is about as simple as explaining the Schmoo to a non-English speaker. Other grapes have it easy. Cabernet sauvignon tastes of cassis. Sauvignon blanc? Green grass and apples. Chenin blanc’s aromas are elusive. For instance, here are some of the words that I used to try to describe that Domaine des Baumards, which had a classic profile: “Waxy. Mineral. Sweet like honeycomb, spring flowers, and maybe some orange zest.” All rather fugitive aromas, but together they make an unquestionably irresistible perfume. If only this sort of wine were easier to find.

Top Producers of Chenin Blanc

France

Jasnières: Domaine de Bellivière
Vouvray: Domaine Huet
Anjou: Domaine Jo Pithon
Montlouis: François Chidaine
Saumur: Clos Rougeard
Savennières: Domaine des Baumards, Nicolas Joly

South Africa

Ken Forrester
De Trafford
Raats Family
Simonsig

The home of chenin blanc is the Loire, which still produces the greatest examples of the grape. Reputedly first planted in the ninth century, chenin is extremely sensitive to site. Luckily for us, the French have spent the last 1,200 years painstakingly determining all the regions, soils, exposures, and microclimates in which it performs best. Unluckily for us, the French have a penchant for making their wine regions overly complex and gnomic. The Loire is no different, and is confusingly subdivided into dozens of appellations—Anjou, Vouvray, Montlouis, Savennières, Coteaux de la Loire, Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume, and Saumur, to name a few—some of which overlap with each other or share identical borders. The Loire is a cool region that’s vulnerable to harvest-time rain. Growing chenin, which is late-ripening and prolific, is difficult anywhere, but especially here. Such challenges, however, are par for the course of any marginal growing region —and it is only when a grape is grown at the outermost edge of its comfort zone that it can be great. Top producers will be the most stringent in the vineyards and have the best sites. Many vintners don’t bother risking rain and ruin to let the grapes get sufficiently ripe, and end up either making flavorless, brittle wines or selling off their grapes early to sparkling-wine houses.

It’s important to remember that each appellation has its stars and its duds. That’s why it’s good to find a trustworthy merchant or sommelier to direct you to the best wines. But Chenin’s lack of popularity means that even the best Loire Chenins are affordable. Furthermore, Chenin Blanc ages remarkably well. That is, Chenins both dry and sweet improve immensely with time and should be sought out. It’s not hard to find affordable, mature versions of these wines on many a good wine list. Take, for instance, the 1990 Gauthier-L’Homme Domaine du Viking Vouvray, available via California-based wine merchant K&L for only $22.99. A truly handmade wine from a small producer in the Loire, the wine is as complex and rich as you’d expect a 16-year-old chenin to be.

The chenin coming from the cape area of South Africa, where the grape is also known as Steen, is more straightforward than Loire chenin. For centuries a workhorse grape that provided a base for distilled spirits and dry, blowsy table wine, chenin in South Africa is in transition. Much of it is being pulled out; but at the same time, old vines in excellent sites are being identified and turned into some remarkable wines. South Africa has great potential for top-quality chenin, though it’s very different in style from the Loire’s. As Ken Forrester, perhaps South Africa’s greatest producer of chenin, explained in an email, “Chenin in the Loire Valley is right at the extreme of its growing region. In great years (with sufficient sunshine) the wines can be sublime, but often they are too acidic and neutral. It’s almost as tricky as getting consistent great ripe burgundy! Here in South Africa’s coastal regions we are blessed with abundant sunshine, cool maritime breezes and some of the very oldest soils in the world. In the finest, hottest vintages chenin in the Loire is honeyed, ripe, reminiscent of apples and pears, with a focused minerality and a bright natural acidity.” Forrester thinks he can achieve that with far more regularity.

South Africa’s sunny richness is apparent in Forrester’s 2005 chenin blanc and his massive 2004 wine called the FMC, which is thick, rich, and full of honey and rocks, though also quite dry. While lacking the nuance and complexity of the best chenins from the Loire, Forrester’s wines capture the fundamental nature of the grape and deliver it with grace. He cites the importance of rigorous vineyard work to make a good chenin. “One must achieve balance, and the relationship between physiological/phenolic ripeness and sugar ripeness is key,” he writes. “Overcropping delays maturation and sunburn is detrimental to fruit quality, so one has to tread a narrow pathway to perfect ripeness. At this point unripe/stressed/low-acid chenin will not transform into a wine of great beauty no matter what cellar practices are employed.”

This is as true in France as it is in South Africa. Great viticulture takes incredible devotion, time, and energy. The sheer preponderance of insipid chenin in South Africa and bitingly hard, dull Loire wines shows the amount of lazy or uninterested farming out there. As Joe Dressner, an importer of Loire wines, told me, “There are only about 20 great producers of Chenin in the Loire. It’s really not much wine.” (Dressner, it must be said, has strict standards. “Ninety-eight percent of the wine in the world,” he says, “is horrible.”) But he also says that the greatest wine he ever tasted was a 1921 dry Savennières.

But that’s why wine can be such a pleasure. Identifying and tracking down the wines of good producers is an incredibly rewarding practice. Especially when it comes to something as uniquely wonderful as chenin blanc. Please pass the river fish.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.