Chenin Blanc

Tasted November 14th, 2010

A very exciting session this Sunday afternoon with the LCBO Fine Wine & Spirits auction occurring simultaneously downtown. A few of us spent Friday and Saturday at the auction and we setup the computer at the Bistro for live bidding during today's tasting. Our varietal this afternoon is the great chameleon Chenin Blanc, a native of the Loire Valley in France. It would be wrong to say that Chenin is an unpopular variety; it's actually quite common as an everyday quaffing wine though usually labeled tactfully as something else. In California for example, Chenin Blanc is the third most planted grape and produces thousands of gallons of everyday table wine. In South Africa, Chenin has been planted for over a hundred years where it is known as Steen. In fact, the varietal is planted nearly everywhere wine is grown and while once hugely popular, it is generally unrecognized under it's own name.

Chenin's claim to fame is its ability to express the terrior of the land on which it is grown. The grape's personality, like Riesling, is rather transparent and small variations of the micro-climate are readily apparent in the wines it produces. Chenin vines bud very early and ripen quite late which makes harvesting the fruit in cooler regions somewhat challenging in cooler years. Like most varieties, when harvested too early, the fruit is low in sugar but high in acidity. To compensate, many producers chaptalize (add sugar to) their wines. This technique does have benefits but can also result is some very low quality wines and that unfortunately has been the downfall of Chenin Blanc. I regularly refer to Chenin as an extreme: it's either really good or downright bad with very few options in between.

After toasting Scott's triumphant completion of his PhD (with Sparkling Vouvray - of course) we sampled Chenin Blanc from several regions which in some cases, are found at opposite corners of the globe. Five wines are tasted in total this afternoon and they are listed below in order of sampling:

2007 Domaine de Vaufuget, France
2008 Lammershoek, South Africa
2007 Cave Springs, Estate Bottles, Canada
2007 Millton, Te Aria, New Zealand
2007 Bougrier Vineyards, France

Chenin is famous for its incredible variation of style from one vintage to the next; dry in some years while sweet in others. This makes the grape very challenging to predict and thus difficult to market. For those who understand this constant variation and appreciate each harvest as a unique offering, Chenin rarely disappoints.

We began our tasting with 2007 Domaine de Vaufuget from Vouvray. Sweet but crisp is how one of the members described the nearly colourless wine. In terms of sweetness, it was off dry or sec-tendre as they say in Loire. Next-up, the Lammershoek from Paardeberg, South Africa. For those who were able to attend our pairing dinner on November 6th, this wine conjures up some familiar aromas. Would you believe me if I said it smelt of Gasoline? It's not a bad thing, perhaps a bit obscure but the scent in our wine today slowly faded as the afternoon progressed. At the pairing dinner, we enjoyed the incredible 1996 Moulin Touchais which in its youth, is famous for this petroleum scent but with time in the cellar or when decanted well before serving, this unusual aroma dissipates to reveal softer notes of honey and almonds. Initially, the South African Chenin tasted today was quite aggressive but by the end of the tasting, the wine had softened nicely.

As we sampled the Chenins, Stephen, Gary, and Deb who were also monitoring the auction underway in Toronto brought to our attention an upcoming five bottle lot of vintage port. Tyler quickly polled the group for potential interest in a 'Port Dinner' - Absolutely, let's do it! they said and with Stephen at the controls and several Port fanatics eagerly peering over his shoulder the bidding was underway: 380 - 400 ... 460 - $480 - the lot is ours!

Lot 1962
  • 1983 Fonseca 92 WA
  • 1983 Graham's
  • 1983 Taylor's 94 WA
  • 1985 Graham's 96 WA
  • 1992 Taylor's 100 WA
Standby for the dinner plans...

Back to the Chenin: Our third wine this afternoon was the 2007 Cave Springs. Light in colour again and a bit of a pungent odour; not flawed, no, that's the way it is. Jac and I tried this wine the week before and were less than impressed though at the same time hopeful that it might show better today - surprisingly, it did not and sadly, our quest for superior Ontario wine continues... Next up was the 2007 Millton Te Arai Chenin from New Zealand: "This is nice." I heard someone say; softer, rounder and quite pleasant on the palate to be exact. The 2002 vintage of the same wine is in Neil Beckett's book "1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die". Was it good? It certainly was. Lastly, another Vouvray, this time from Bougrier Vineyards. This one was sweeter and perhaps heavier on the palate with good fruit and just the right amount of acidity. In France, they refer to this style as demi-sec or half dry and the Bougrier will pair wonderfully with a multitude of dishes including seafoods, spicy asian or even just as an apperitif.

Our group tasted and ranked the wines in terms of personal preference. The top three wines are listed below:
  1. 2007 Bougrier Vouvray
  2. 2007 Domaine de Vaufuget
  3. 2007 Millton, Te Arai
Earlier, I said that Chenin functions as an extreme and that is exactly what we have witnessed here today. The top 3 wine were highly favoured and in terms of numbers, ranked very closely together while the bottom two selection did not fair well at all. In conclusion and to summarize Chenin Blanc: It's quite simple - When you do manage to find a good one, there really is very little that can compare!