Is this 'the most exciting white grape variety'?

The Globe and Mail

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It’s one of wine’s great pleasures. A new grape enters your life and suddenly you’re smitten. Maybe it was there all the time, like the guy at the gym or woman who works in sales across the hall, finally beaming that winsome smile.

A reader recently confessed to a new crush on a grape that has been around for ages. “Is it just me,” he asked, “or is South African chenin blanc the next breakout white? Even the ladies in my wife’s book club, not the most discerning audience usually, commented on it, so I sent them home with a bottle last time.” Then he added, anticipating a reporter’s cynicism: “Rest assured, I am not part of the wine industry in any capacity except ‘consumer.’ ”

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That’s another common bond between grape love and strictly human romance: You want to tell the world. Many readers are familiar with chenin blanc, of course. Widely planted in South Africa, it’s also the unmarked grape in Vouvray from France’s Loire Valley and can be found as a silent component in sparkling wines labelled Crémant de Loire. Like riesling, chenin blanc is a chameleon, yielding wines that span the gamut from bone-dry bubblies to sweet dessert elixirs. In all cases, when it is well made, its signature is a high-tension grip of rich fruitiness and bracing acidity, often whispering with a mineral-like tingle.

“For me, the trademark of good chenin blanc is that ruby grapefruit and ripeness, a sour ripeness, almost a conflict,” says Ken Forrester of Ken Forrester Vineyards in Stellenbosch, South Africa, whose offerings range from a crisp, lively Petit Chenin Blanc selling for $12.95 to an opulent, hard-to-find $59 marvel from 44-year-old vines called The FMC. “Chenin is for me, honestly, the most exciting white grape variety.”

Mr. Forrester speaks with a vested interest, to be sure. He is chair of South Africa’s Chenin Blanc Association, a trade group representing 90 producers. But he says his passion stems in part from the grape’s unusual synergy with hard-to-pair spicy foods, such as Asian curries and sushi dishes featuring pungent wasabi, all deftly framed by the drink’s lively zest and palate-cooling fruit. Before launching his winery in 1993, he had owned several restaurants, an experience that drove home a gastronomic lesson. “You can have spiced food, and chenin almost retreats at first, then it comes back with soft, gentle fruit, like a wave lapping the shore,” he says.

Dry versions, including those of the Loire’s Savennières appellation – arguably the style’s zenith – can also marry nicely with such summery fare as ceviche or grilled shellfish marinated in lime zest and jalapeno peppers. Freshwater Canadian fish, such as trout and pike, staples of locavore menus nowadays, make another fine pairing. And off-dry-to-sweet chenin blancs, notably cellar-worthy sweet Vouvray and Quarts de Chaume, can stand up to foie gras, harmonizing with the fruit compote typically served on the side while cleansing the palate of the liver’s fat.

It all may come as news to consumers who, with some justification, overlooked or dismissed the grape in favour of more popular French varieties, such as sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. The vine craves a long growing season and can yield nasty results in cold weather, with insufficient fruit ripeness to counterbalance acidity, or when forced, through inadequate pruning, to deliver a heavy crop load, another practice that impairs ripeness.

That has been the case with many bargain offerings from the Loire, a region where sunshine can be elusive in some years, prompting producers to add sugar to the grape must with phony-tasting results. Though practices are improving, good Vouvray and Savennières still start at about $20. And if your experience with chenin is limited to anemic California jug whites made with industrially farmed crop, you’ve got reason to be skeptical.

I’m not certain I would wager my finest crystal decanter on South African – or Loire Valley – chenin blanc breaking out soon, but if it does, it will be an “overnight success” centuries in the making. Grown in the Loire for perhaps 1,000 years, the vine was among the first exported beyond Europe. Mr. Forrester, with confident precision, says South Africa produced its first chenin blanc in February, 1657, from cuttings brought to the Cape by Dutch seafarers. Others have argued that it arrived a few years later with Protestant Huguenots fleeing persecution in France.

Remarkably, it once represented half the plantings in South Africa, though red varieties elbowed it aside to the point where it now accounts for just 18 per cent (still more than half the world’s chenin crop). Truth be told, much is on par with California jug wine, crafted mainly for British and Dutch bargain hunters. The best are often labelled “old vines,” sourced from mature plants that yield concentrated fruit.

“Chenin is reaching a tipping point for us,” Mr. Forrester says. “People are starting to realize that there’s more to it than South Africa’s cheapest wine.”

A few intrepid Canadian producers have entered the fray, none more successfully, I think, than Quails’ Gate in British Columbia. The estate’s winemaker, Grant Stanley, calls chenin a quintessential “wine geek’s” variety, in part because it can unfold with eye-opening nuances that go beyond primary fruit characters to include beeswax, honey and flowers as well as that telltale mineral. “When wine professionals come here from abroad, it’s interesting that the wines they choose to take back with them are the chenin and [another Quails’ Gate signature]marechal foch,” Mr. Stanley says.

Tasting notes

Bellingham The Bernard Series Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2008 (South Africa)

Score: 93; Price: $24.99 in B.C., $28 in Alberta, $23.70 in Quebec

From vines averaging 40 years in age, this is full-bodied, full-throttle chenin blanc aged in oak, silky and luscious, with sweet brown butter, vanilla and tropical fruit ushered into dryness by acidity and spice. Nice for aged cheeses or liver pâté.

Quails’ Gate Chenin Blanc 2011 (British Columbia)

Score: 93; Price: $18.99 in B.C.

There’s a dramatic flavour arc here. Silky and brimming with peach and apricot, it becomes tart on the dry finish, with the dusty-mineral quality of an open-air ride through a stone quarry. Versatile at the table, it could span scallops to black cod with miso to roast pork.

Domaine des Baumard Clos de Saint Yves Savennières 2008 (France)

Score: 92; Price: $28.95 in Ontario

Silky yet with a dry, chalky quality on the finish, it’s medium-bodied and whispers with quince, unripe stone fruit and bitter pear skin. Ideal for grilled or sautéed scallops.

Saget La Perrière Marie de Beauregard Vouvray 2009 (France)

Score: 91; Price: $17.95

Faintly sweeter than dry, this classically styled Loire chenin offers up substantial weight, with notes of quince, pear and mineral in fine balance. Grilled pork chops or chicken vindaloo would match nicely.

Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc 2011 (South Africa)

Score: 87; Price: $12.95 in Ontario

Light-bodied, with sweet-sour apple and pear braced by lively acidity and a hint of stony mineral that clings to the gums. Good for grilled shellfish.

KWV Contemporary Collection Chenin Blanc Chardonnay 2011 (South Africa)

Score: 85; Price: $7.95 in Ontario, $7.99 in B.C.

Light-to-medium-bodied and vaguely off-dry, here’s a blend from a huge producer that delivers for the money, with plump peach tucked in by almost-fizzy acidity. Sip it in the sunshine.

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