Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle
Chenin Blanc is a survivor.
The white wine grape, originally from France’s Loire Valley, was widely planted in California’s early wine-growing days, thanks to a reliably abundant, high-acid crop in almost any conditions. But when Chardonnay was crowned king in the 1980s, surrounded by a royal court of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, Chenin got the hook.
Its once vast acreage, which topped 45,000 acres, was slashed down to about 5,000, leaving isolated pockets across the state, from the North Coast to the Sacramento River Delta to Santa Barbara County. Most of what remained was thrown anonymously into blends or quietly used to energize flabby Chardonnay or lengthen other whites.
Then a new generation of California winemaker emerged in the 2000s, in search of something new, something food-friendly, something zippy. They found romance in these Chenin outposts — at that point growing on rather old vines, usually from old trellising systems, often in somewhat neglected or quantity-focused, rather than quality-minded, conditions. The fruit was also relatively cheap, so the trend set sail.
“I was always looking for an alternative white, a good variety that could maintain acidity,” said Leo Hansen, a Danish sommelier who started his Leo Steen brand in Healdsburg back in 2004. “People were ripping out and planting other things, so I started trying to help preserve these small old spots of Chenin.” (“Steen,” which is Hansen’s middle name, is also what South Africans call Chenin Blanc, the country’s most widely planted grape.)
He’s since worked with Chenin from all across the state, from 34-year-old vines of the Saini Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley to the Santa Ynez Valley’s Jurassic Park Vineyard, where dinosaur-looking oil rigs pump near the ancient, rolling sand dunes that have grown 13 acres of the variety since 1982. He found the latter in 2010, when the vineyard owners could barely give it away. He bought 3 tons.
“Today, I can’t get any more than that,” said Hansen. “It’s become very popular. Everyone is making a Chenin Blanc.”
Winemaker Ryan Roark was also one of the early riders on Jurassic Park’s Chenin train. Born into an oil-drilling family in northeast Texas, he landed his first winery gig in the Loire Valley while finishing his plant pathology/microbiology degree at Texas A&M. “I was not a mindful wine consumer when I was in France — that was the infancy of my wine journey — but I do remember these really steely, crisp white wines that they made,” said Roark.
When he landed in Santa Barbara about a decade ago, he started asking around about the grape, finding only Foxen Winery’s Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard (they use it all) and Jurassic Park.
“I grew up in the oil fields, and there’s a vineyard in the middle of an oil field that’s Chenin Blanc?” he laughed. “It did speak to me a little bit!” He bought a ton in 2009, and continues to make the same wine today under his Roark brand.
For a small vineyard, the list of wineries using Jurassic Park fruit is more than a dozen long, including Municipal Winemakers, Lieu Dit, Habit, Kunin, Santa Barbara Winery, Birichino and Field Recordings. “The neatest thing about it was that nobody was buying any Chenin Blanc, and then somehow this market sort of began,” said Ben Merz of Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, which started farming the vineyard in 2009. “All of these boutique wineries started looking for Chenin Blanc so, initially, just to find a home for the grapes, we sold a ton here and there to as many people as we could find. That’s really kind of turned into a bit of an animal.” And the price has nearly doubled.
Not everyone gave up on Chenin Blanc way back when. Dry Creek Vineyard has produced one every vintage since starting in 1945.
“What I love about Chenin Blanc is that it’s so old that it’s new again,” said Dry Creek winemaker Tim Bell, who’s seen a notable uptick in the past three years and plans to make even more than the current 18,500 annual cases in the future. “It used to be a staple from California, a wine found in every wine shop and made by several of the big name wine producers like Beringer and Charles Krug. But it fell out of favor and was totally off the fine wine radar.”
Dry Creek originally used estate grapes, but turned south to the Wilson Ranch in Clarksburg in the Sacramento delta almost three decades ago. Chenin is all the buzz there right now, as the region’s increasing shift from quantity to quality grape-growing is showing that it can do for whites what Lodi has done for reds.
Sacramento native Craig Haarmeyer is especially bullish on Clarksburg Chenin, which he makes in a winery on the capital’s westside and bottles under his St. Rey label. He was preoccupied making about 40 other wines for another winery when he took his first crack Chenin Blanc years ago, so didn’t expect much.
“I was very pleasantly surprised,” said Haarmeyer, who started working with the farmers of his Clarksburg Chenin vineyard after 2009 to improve the potential by limiting yields and picking while sugars were low and acids high. “We’ve been picking earlier and earlier for 10 years now, and I don’t think we’ve hit the bottom yet.” He also makes tiny amounts of a Chenin called Iris from 43-year-old vines in the Sierra Foothills and a sparkling Chenin in the petillant naturel, or pet nat, method.
Tom Merwin’s family has tilled the Clarksburg soil for 100 years, and the eighth-generation farmer recalls when his dad turned to wine grapes more than 20 years ago when the commodity crop prices were floundering.
“We were planting Chenin Blanc when everyone else was pulling it out,” he explained. “We were scared about that. I was 12 years old and my first summer job was to keep those vines alive. We’re finding out now, 20-plus years later, that Chenin Blanc is a pretty awesome grape.”
Merwin, who makes a Chenin under his Muddy Boot label, is planning to add 10 acres of the grape to the existing 15, and enjoys working with small winemakers trying to make Vouvray-style wines. “They’re putting their heart and soul into it,” he said.
Marco Cappelli is one such winemaker. A Napa escapee, he headed to the Sierra Foothills in 2004 to make something other than big Cabernet and Chardonnay, and consults for a handful of wineries, including Elevation 10, where he makes Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg.
“As winemakers, we’ve been trained to go for the wow wines, to try to make them more expressive and riper and richer,” said Cappelli. “But it seems that, at least lately, the trend has been more toward smaller wines.” He loves the grape’s inherent freshness. “Even grown in California, it maintains a continental feel and structure,” he said. “It tastes like European wine to me.”
And that, apparently, is what the younger consumer wants too, as these winemakers have more trouble saving their Chenin Blancs than selling them.
“Millennials are searching for something different,” said Merwin. “They don’t want to drink what their parents drank. They have a little more money now and are willing to take a risk on something different. Chenin fits that mold.”
Matt Kettmann is a Southern California-based wine writer.
Source : https://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Chenin-Blanc-s-champions-revive-a-workhorse-11750972.php