The Grape Glossary: a guide to hip varietals
Chenin blanc is the Christian Bale of grapes: versatile, capable of memorable performances and beloved by critics, yet deserving much wider recognition. As the name betrays, the grape is French, rising to its greatest expression on the banks of the Loire Valley that cuts a long swath east-west across the country's north.
The white variety seemed poised for prime time as far back as the 1960s, when your parents (or grandparents) may have occasionally splurged on a fancy-sounding Vouvray at the local French restaurant. Vouvray, named after a commune in the Loire, is 100-per-cent chenin blanc. The wine's appeal back then, apart from its elegant-sounding and easy-to-pronounce name, was likely its frequent dollop of sweetness. Like riesling, chenin blanc enjoys the rare distinction of yielding a broad spectrum of compelling styles, from bone dry and off-dry to syrupy sweet. It also makes fine bubbly approaching the majesty of Champagne. It really should be called chameleon blanc.
Unhelpful French labelling customs render it hard to tell whether the wine you're buying will be dry or sweet, though sometimes that Vouvray will indeed be designated as sec (dry), demi-sec (off-dry), moelleux (sweet) or doux (very sweet). The most interesting dry chenin blancs, to my palate, come from Savennières, an appellation in the Anjou-Saumur district on the Loire's north bank. Almost all Savennières is dry, and good ones can be an epiphany, though dry Vouvray is much improved and can give Savennières a run for its money at $15 to $25 a bottle.
Regardless of sugar content, the grape's great virtue is its sweet-tangy tension, frequently suggesting honey, chamomile, orchard blossoms and luscious stone fruit, always with a jumper-cable jolt of food-friendly acidity. Sommeliers go ga-ga for chenin because that yin-yang profile enables it to pair surprisingly well with a host of "difficult" foods, such as sweet-spicy Asian dishes and sushi accompanied by salty soy sauce and peppery wasabi. It doesn't hurt that many a fine chenin blanc, particularly moelleux and doux, can develop arresting complexity with 10 or more years in the cellar – a feature that's always cause for veneration where wine snobs are concerned.
French chenin blanc acreage has declined considerably since the 1950s, but things are looking up for underloved CB thanks to another country, South Africa. The Cape boasts the largest chenin blanc plantation in the world, roughly twice the size of France's. Grown there for centuries and often referred to locally as steen (which was thought to be a distinct variety until 1965), it has tended to yield an ocean of bargain-basement, crisply refreshing whites, sometimes bland but sometimes impressive for the money. Fast-forward to now. A growing group of exacting South African winemakers is treating the country's old vines – which yield concentrated fruit and complex wines on par with fine Savennières and Vouvray – like a long-lost treasure. Chenin blanc's new Cape crusaders include Ken Forrester, De Trafford and De Morgenzon, whose best wines can run to $30 or more. But you can still land a fine one from those small producers and such widely available brands as Bellingham, Boschendal and Mulderbosch for well under $20 – or about the price of a DVD of Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale's as the Caped Crusader.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.