I love truffles. Not the gooey chocolate delicacy (well, those too) but the delicious yet expensive mushroom that I’d sell myself on the street to pay for. Few people are enamored or familiar with my favorite fungus. Only elite culinarians are hip to them — much like the chenin blanc grape. Truffles are to food as chenin blanc is to wine, a white that only wine geeks seem to appreciate.
It’s no wonder. Chenin blanc (shen’n BLAHNK) is the freaky Sybil of grapes. It can be sweet or dry and either austere and acidic, or lush and aromatic depending on where it’s grown, how it’s tended and the winemaker’s mood. In France’s Loire Valley, where chenin blanc was first canonized in 985 A.D, it’s camouflaged behind the Vouvray label. There, it tastes luscious, slightly to very sweet, and displays a fruit soup of peach, nectarine and lime – perfect grog for people who shun bone-dry wines. However, finding quality Vouvrays – and rare dry versions from Anjou or Savennières, two other Loire Valley regions – is like wild truffle-hunting: exasperating. Grab them if you see them, and also be on the lookout for incredible (and remarkably cheap) Crémant de Loire chenin-based sparkling wines.
But in new world regions — South Africa, Australia and the U.S. – this chameleon transforms. Here at home, I think most people would enjoy the crisp acidity and food-friendliness of chenin blanc but haven’t heard of it. This tragedy probably originated in the 1970’s, when the grape suffered a bad fate — blended into shoddy American jug wines labeled “Chablis”. Perhaps this made quality wineries avoid the grape like a diseased prostitute.
But it’s high time Americans show some respect for that ho’. If Julia Roberts can find love while working the street, so can chenin blanc. (It even kinda sounds like a porn name, right? “Hey, baby, I’m Chenin Blanc…I’ll do what those other grapes won’t.”)
A few wineries have hugged the once-shunned fruit, lionizing it for the distinctive honeyed straw and citrus flavors it offers up. Not much is grown in California — winemakers crushed 84,000 tons of it in 2007, compared to 589,000 of chardonnay grapes — but of the American wineries that have welcomed dry chenin blanc, Vinum, Pine Ridge, Ballentine and Hogue Cellars from Washington State consistently produce great stuff, often blended with equally fragrant viognier fruit. In South Africa, where it’s sometimes called Steen, good examples come from MAN Vintners, Simonsig, Graham Beck and Spice Route.
So next time you see a chenin blanc on a wine list, open your wallet and your mouth. It will probably be the most affordable bottle available, reserved for people in the know. Go ahead, embrace your inner-truffle.
Dry Creek Vineyard 2008 Wilson Ranch Dry Chenin Blanc (California)
This family-owned winery has been making dry chenin blanc since 1972, sourcing their grapes from the same family-owned vineyard south of Sacramento. They even tell you up front on the label how sweet it is. It isn’t. With an undercurrent of lean acidity, this wine tastes full-bodied and rich, with honeyed pear, earthy straw and chamomile, and a minerally lime finish. Screwcap topped and affordable. Sw=1. 4 stars. $12.
Graham Beck 2008 Gamekeeper’s Reserve Chenin Blanc Robertson (South Africa)
Made from 40-year-old vines planted in the warm coastal region of South Africa. It’s a mildly sweet style, heavy on peach, tangerine, and ripe pineapple. While the ripe fruit coats your tongue, it finishes dry with a lingering citrus aftertaste. Deliciously lush. Sw=3. 4 stars. $12.
Sweetness (Sw) rating: 1-10. Star rating: 1-5.