Thursday, September 2, 2010

Chenin Blanc: A Personal Favorite

It was my usual Sunday panic. We were supposed to have guests for dinner and I really hadn't thought about what I was going to fix which really means I hadn't thought about what wines we were going to drink. And that meant I hadn't brought something home from the store on Saturday.

It was the first weekend of the Hatch green chile season, it was hotter than hell and I was thinking fish. But did I have any wine? Digging through the wine cabinet produced a good Spanish Albarino and (yes!) a bottle of Margerum Chenin Blanc!

I love white wines that are lean, mineral and acid driven with tight, complex flavor profiles that slowly open up and reveal themselves. Chenin Blanc can do all that. It can also yield wines with varying degrees of sweetness, from demi-sec Vouvray's to full blown dessert wines. (We just received the amazing Vouvray's from Domaine Huet, a few demi-sec and bottles of sparkling wine are left. Anyone who's read Wine and War will remember Gaston Huet, a hero of the French resistance.)

Margerum Chenin Blanc comes from some old vines planted 30 years at Firestone which used to go into their Chardonnay until the recent change in ownership. The new owners wanted 100% Chardonnay and Doug was happy to purchase the Chenin. Doug picks at full ripeness, there is usually some botrytis infecting some of the bunches. Fermentation takes place in both stainless tanks (75%) and old barrels (25%.)  After barrel aging in neutral barrels, the finished wine emerges. The lean wine, driven by acid and minerals is balanced by the richness that comes from the botrytis. Delicate floral aromas contain a vague suggestion of lemon zest. The wine is full and powerful on the palate. Tasting notes are difficult to identify. The wine is too tight and complex.

I remember encountering a Savennieres from the legendary biodynamic producer Nicolas Joly. It was in a blind tasting session during training classes for the beginning level of Sommelier certification. The course was  led by the American Master Sommelier, Fred Dame. I had to identify 3 fruit and 3 non-fruit aromatic components of the wine in 24 seconds. I called out "Mineral, lanolin, dried honey, marzipan!" and stalled. He said "I need some fruit!" Finally I said in frustration "There is no goddamn fruit!!!" "CORRECT!" he said, and moved on. (In recap he said there are always some dried fruits that will almost always get you by.)

As the Sunday developed, our guests bowed out of dinner. My wife is a teacher and they were both teachers and the next day was the first day school. But my momentum was underway. Susan would have a great meal to send her into school year.

I pan fried some trout in butter and olive oil with green chile strips, grape tomatoes and basil. The sauce was finished with lemon juice, wine and a little more butter. An ear of super-sweet grilled corn on the side added a little sweetness.

And the wine tied the whole meal together!


  1. Nice post, David. Tell me, was the lack of fruit in Joly's wine a good thing or a bad thing (in your opinion)? Obviously no right answer....I find Joly's wines tend to polarize people. Just curious. As a Chenin winegrower I am interested in your opinion.

    Katrina Kirkham
    Casa Nuestra Winery

  2. Thanks Katrina. No, I have no problem with lack of fruit. Lean, with acid and rocks suits me just fine. The only problem was having to identify three fruits in the MS tasting exercise. If the wine was presented in an exam, the candidate would have to pull three fruits out the hat!