BY SEAN P. SULLIVAN
[twocolumns]Chenin Blanc is sometimes referred to as the ‘queen of grapes’ in France’s Loire Valley. There the grape goes into a dazzling array of wines from sparkling Crémant de Loire to the dry wines of Savennières to the sweet and off-dry wines of Vouvray. Though Chenin Blanc was once popular with U.S. consumers in the 1970s and 1980s and was widely planted, today the grape seems to be slipping away.
While California, not surprisingly, led the charge on Chenin Blanc in the U.S., Washington was not far behind. In fact, many of the state’s oldest vines are Chenin Blanc. Numerous vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Horse Heaven Hills have vines between thirty and forty years old, with Hahn Hill Vineyard’s vines dating back to the early 1970s.
For a number of Washington’s older wineries, Chenin Blanc was one of the first wines they offered. Hogue Cellars was one of them. For writer Paul Gregutt, author of Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide and critic for Wine Enthusiast, the Hogue Chenin Blanc made an impression.
“I distinctly remember, probably about 1984, when I was just starting to write about wine, going to a wine tasting and there was a brand new winery pouring a wine that I’ll never forget,” Gregutt says. “And it was Hogue Cellars pouring a Chenin Blanc. It was absolutely riveting with this bright, juicy fruit and this really fresh, delicious acid behind it.”
For a time, Chenin Blanc flourished in Washington and California. At one point Napa Valley producer Chappellet made an astonishing 15,000 cases of Chenin Blanc in five different styles from dry to sweet to dessert. Indicative of just how far Chenin Blanc has fallen from consumer consciousness, the winery now makes less than 1,000 cases annually.
Chappellet winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus says that competition from other varietals led to the grape’s decline. “It just got harder and harder to sell, especially when all of a sudden Chardonnay was $8.99,” he says. Doug Rowell at Washington’s McKinley Springs Winery agrees, saying, “Chardonnay came along and then down went Chenin, and when it went down, it went down fast.”
In addition to competition from other varietals, Chenin has been hurt by a lack of consumer knowledge about the grape. While some consumers know Vouvray, many don’t know Vouvray is Chenin Blanc. In South Africa, which also has significant Chenin Blanc plantings, the grape is known as Steen, further complicating matters. “Consumers flat out don’t know what Chenin Blanc is,” Kevin Cedergreen of Kirkland’s Cedergreen Cellars says.
On-line retailer Paul Zitarelli of Full Pull Wines believes Chenin’s diversity of styles is also part of the problem. Zitarelli, who has offered a number of Washington State Chenin Blancs to his e-mail list with the title ‘Save the Chenin!’ says, “A consumer might drink a dry Chenin at a restaurant and like it, then buy a Chenin at a wine shop with higher residual sugar, and the experience is completely different. That causes some folks to throw their hands up in the air and head back to nice, familiar Chardonnay.”
Cedergreen agrees that unfamiliarity is a hindrance to Chenin Blanc. “People are much more comfortable consuming a product that they have heard of. It’s the reason that Chardonnay and Merlot are still such big sellers. It’s also why Titanic is the most popular movie ever. People know what’s going to happen and that’s very comforting.”
As the grape has fallen out of favor, Chenin Blanc acreage has declined in Washington, from 446 acres in the state in 1997 to 233 in 2010. It is currently Washington’s least expensive wine grape, selling at an average of $688 per ton (Cabernet Sauvignon, comparatively, averages almost $1300). Vineyard owners have subsequently focused on the bottom line, pulling out the vines, despite their age, and replacing them with other, more profitable grapes.
While many signs seem to point to the grape’s eventual disappearance in Washington and elsewhere in the U.S., there are reasons to believe Chenin Blanc might be poised for a comeback.
Despite its ups and downs with consumers, Washington Chenin Blanc has remained popular with critics. Gregutt says, “I love Chenin Blanc. It does the same kind of things that Washington Riesling does. It’s aromatic with floral notes right on through to citrus and stone and into the tropical fruit spectrum. It’s got wonderful, vivacious acidity that lifts it up and brightens the fruit.”
Indeed, Chenin Blanc’s naturally high acidity also makes it a consistent favorite of sommeliers as it pairs well with a variety of foods, especially spicy dishes. Jake Kosseff, director of operations and company wine director at Seattle’s Wild Ginger and The Triple Door, says, “With our Southeast Asian food at Wild Ginger, clean, fruity, New World Chenins—such as those from Washington—are a great match for vibrant herbs and spices like lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, and coriander.”
Despite the overall downward trend nationally, several producers in Washington are still having success with Chenin. L’Ecole No 41 in the Walla Walla Valley is one of them. “I’ve got runaway demand for Chenin Blanc going on,” winemaker Marty Clubb says. “Everywhere I pour it in the marketplace, buyers ask how much they can get.”
Still, if Chenin Blanc is to regain its place in consumers’ hearts, overall quality needs to improve. “Washington Chenin can be hit or miss,” Jake Kosseff says. “Many of them are made in a simple, sweet style that misses both the complexity and the acidity that make Chenin Blanc a great wine.”
This variability in quality is directly related to the low cost of the grapes. Many growers give the vines minimal attention during the growing season and crop at high tonnage levels to reduce costs and maximize profits. The only way this will change is if consumers show that they are willing to pay higher prices for the wine.
That just might be the case. Paradisos del Sol Winery in Sunnyside originally marketed its Chenin at $22 (already an expensive bottle for Washington) but raised the price to $32 and then $42 in an attempt to slow down sales. Consumers kept buying. The winery subsequently planted about half an acre of the grape at its estate vineyard, making it one of the few to put Chenin Blanc into the ground—as opposed to ripping vines out—in the last several decades.
“If people are willing to pay that kind of money, I can put my heart and soul into it,” Paradisos Del Sol grower Paul Vandenberg says. Time will tell if consumers will inspire other growers to do the same.[/twocolumns]
Sidebar: Washington Chenin Blanc Recommendations
L’Ecole No 41 Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley 2010 $14
On the dry side of off-dry. Vines planted in 1979.
Pacific Rim Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley 2007 $10
On the dry side of off-dry. Vines planted in 1972 and 1983.
Hestia Cellars Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley 2009 $14
Off-dry. Vines planted in 1981.
McKinley Springs Chenin Blanc Horse Heaven Hills 2008 $12
Off-dry. Vines planted in 1981.
Cedergreen Cellars Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2008 $17
Off-dry. Vines planted in 1979.
Kiona Chenin Blanc Ice Wine Red Mountain 2008 $25 (375ml)
Dessert wine. Vines planted in 1976 and 1981.
Gorman Winery Late Harvest Chenin Blanc The Cry Baby 2009 $28 (375ml)
Dessert wine. Vines planted in 1979.
Sean P. Sullivan is editor of Washington Wine Report—an independent blog focused exclusively on the wines of Washington State. He has written for Seattle Metropolitan, Vineyard & Winery Management, Washington State Wine Touring Guide, and Wine & Jazz. Sullivan resides in Seattle, Washington