The West's first great white is growing up

Sara Schneider

Chardonnay hasn't always been California's white wine of choice.Before the 1970s there was actually more Chenin Blanc planted inthe state than Chardonnay ― more than any other major whitegrape, in fact. I'm almost embarrassed to say that I have goodmemories of it ― that sweet, simple, soft (now I'd sayflabby) Christian Brothers. Many of us late boomers came of agedrinking the stuff (more civilized than Thunderbird), and thenmoved on.

Poor Chenin just didn't stand a chance here because of what wewere doing to it: leaving loads of sugar in a wine that had nobusiness being sweet ― in this country, at least. Back then,"Americans wanted all their jug wines to be sweet," according toBill Knuttel, winemaker at Dry Creek Vineyard in Sonoma County. "Sowinemakers used sugar to cover up all the defects and give the winesome flavor." In other words, they stopped fermentation before theyeast had eaten up all the sugar.

In France, Chenin Blanc commands respect across a wide range ofstyles, from bone-dry to very sweet. In every case, though, it hasbracing acid to balance the sugar, so its complex fruit and mineralflavors come through. The difference is the weather. The LoireValley, where the great French Chenins are grown, is very cold."They always get better acid," Knuttel says. The flip side, here inthe much warmer West, is that our Chenin Blancs can have a floralcharacter, along with peach and golden apples.

Done right ― grown where it retains some acid, pickedbefore it's too ripe, and fermented to a degree of sweetness that'sin balance with acid ― Chenin Blanc is a tremendous foodwine. We love it with sushi and Chinese (go to our HomestyleChinese story for some terrific recipe ideas).

Sadly, many wineries abandoned their early attempts at CheninBlanc in favor of oak-laced Chardonnay. And now much of the land istoo expensive for them to afford to start growing Chenin Blancagain. But Dry Creek never jumped ship, so to speak (there's asailboat on the label). Instead, they figured it out. They gettheir grapes from Clarksburg, a tiny, temperate (and reasonablypriced) region close by the Sacramento Delta, where the varietyshines. And Knuttel ferments it to just barely off-dry, with lessthan 1 percent sugar left, which is below most people's thresholdof perception (just enough to give the wine a little richness andcharacter and to play with the acid).

Evolution is paying off for Chenin Blanc ― good news forevolving boomers.

Our picks

Dry Creek Vineyard's Chenin Blanc has long been a favorite. Nowa few more are joining the ranks.

Chappellet 2003 (Napa Valley; $15). Classic Chenin baked-apple character, inrich Napa Valley form. Hints of citrus give it a juicy edge.

Dry Creek Vineyard 2005 (Clarksburg, CA; $12). Zesty and light, with lively flavorsevoking cream soda.

Foxen 2003 (Santa Maria Valley, CA; $18). Dense and full-bodied, withvanilla and hints of apple tart and crème brûlée.Serve it blind, and people will think "expensive Chardonnay."

Pine Ridge Chenin Blanc-Viognier 2004 (Clarksburg, CA; $14). Creamy Chenin meets exotic, tropicalViognier, with pineapple, papaya, and lemon grass.

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