Some California winemakers taking chenin blanc to new heights 

click to enlarge chenin blanc grape
  • Once fodder for jug wines, the high-acid chenin blanc grape has proved wonderfully versatile in the hands of California winemakers.
For many years, chenin blanc was used as a blending grape to make very cheap wines in California. Sad but true: As the Loire Valley was churning out beautiful wines in Vouvray and Savennieres, all the state had to show were jug wines. While California’s terroir may not be as magically suited for the grape, there is no doubt that the potential has always been there. Chappellet, Chalone and a handful of others have done it over the years, and now a new crop of California winemakers are taking chenin to new heights.

A high-acid grape, chenin blanc is floral and fruity, often marked by chamomile, honey, melon and stone fruits. Even in the Loire Valley, it manifests differently from appellation to appellation. While many of the wines are simple yet pleasant, others have complexity and are age-worthy. Here are three to try:

Hobo Wine Co., Folk Machine Chenin Blanc, 2013 (Mendocino County): Most of Hobo Wine Co.’s wines are honest, reasonably priced and delightfully uncomplicated, this chenin blanc notwithstanding. Made from a 40-year-old vineyard in Mendocino County, it was whole-cluster-pressed into an egg-shaped concrete fermentor and aged for eight months, giving it a zesty brightness without a metallic edge. Crisp and clean with melon and apples, this fruit-driven chenin has an invigorating purity that leaves the palate feeling more alive and ready for another taste. Suggested retail: $18

Leo Steen Chenin Blanc, Saini Farms, 2011 (Dry Creek Valley): Leo Hansen is a Danish sommelier-turned-winemaker. He started Leo Steen, the latter word being a synonym for chenin blanc commonly used in South Africa and also a family name, in 2004 while he was the winemaker at Stuhlmuller Vineyards in the Alexander Valley. Coming from the restaurant world, he developed a love for chenin blanc, not only for its complexity, but its compatibility with food. Using fruit from a 31-year-old dry-farmed vineyard, Hansen crushes half the grapes by foot, and the rest are whole-cluster fermented. Vibrant with hints of honey, chamomile, melon and citrus, this is as close to Loire Valley chenin blanc as you will find in California. Suggested retail: $22

Sandlands Chenin Blanc, 2011 (Amador County): Tegan Passalacqua’s day job is as the winemaker for Turley Wine Cellars — not a bad gig. In his “spare” time he makes small-lot wines under the Sandlands label that he started in 2010. Composed of fruit from a dry-farmed vineyard planted in 1979, the chenin is fermented by Passalacqua in older Burgundy barrels and is left on the lees for 15 months to give it additional texture and flavor. Weighty yet not rich, with bright acidity, hints of lemon and kumquats, and floral overtones, this 3-year-old wine is just getting going and should be in full bloom in another year or two. Suggested retail: $25

Pamela S. Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched, a blog covering a variety of wine-related topics.

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Pamela S. Busch

Pamela Busch has been working in the wine industry since 1990 as a writer, educator and consultant and co-founded Hayes & Vine Wine Bar and Cav Wine Bar & Kitchen. In 2013, she launched
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