Unloved, Under-Utilized & Delicious (Chenin Blanc)

#212- April 20, 2012

I frequently discuss the new varietals with which kosher wineries are experimenting, many a time focusing on the Israeli wineries’ continuous search for the varietal that will be known as “Israel’s Grape”, that with potential to thrive in and best showcase Israel’s unique climate and Mediterranean terroir.  These varietals include Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Carignan and more recently (and at least for now, to a lessor extent) Mourvedre and Grenache.  Many of these varietals hail from France’s Rhone valley, which shares some climate characteristics with Israel.

One notable grape that hasn’t gotten much play in Israel’s quality wine revolution has been the Chenin Blanc, one of the most versatile grape varietals on the planet and native to France’s Loire Valley.  With high resistance to diseases, late ripening and high acidity, Chenin Blanc grows extremely well in warmer climates.  Reflecting this versatility is the fact that you can find wines of all types made from Chenin Blanc – Crisp refreshing dry wine, sparkling wine like Crémant de Loire and serous dessert wines are all well crafted from the Chenin Blanc grape (its high susceptibility to Botrytis makes it a classic grape for those delightfully funky dessert wines (including the Herzog version reviewed below)).  That said, most of the wines produced these days from Chenin Blanc take advantage of its ability for generous yields, relatively neutral palate and ease of growth, producing entry level tables wines at best (or utilized as a blending agent with other wines to buck up their acidity levels) including two such versions from Israel by Carmel and Tishbi.  Israel previously produced multiple such insipid Chenin Blanc wines and I’d venture (and hope) that there are likely many “old-vine” Chenin Blanc vines out there waiting to be revitalized and vinified into some serious wines – time will tell.  As with other grapes like Carignan, the over planting and abundance of mediocre wines have served to run off winemakers and consumers alike from the potential of quality wines from this grape.

Today, nearly all serious Chenin Blanc wines hail from France including the well-known Vouvray and the lessor known but no-less impressive Anjou wines which are usually, slightly off-dry wines (leaving a bit of barely perceptible residual sugar to balance the bracing acidity which makes them a good match to slightly spicy Asian foods).  Other places that have seen some success with the varietal include South Africa, California (were it was widely planted in the 1908s producing easy drinking and mostly bland wines; substantially less-so today) and, to some extent, Israel.

Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of tasting notes this week as very few kosher wineries are making quality Chenin Blanc wines with the notable exception of the delightful Domaine Netofa winery, headed up by winemaker Pierre Miodownick (the winemaker responsible for all the French wines distributed by Royal Wine Corporation), which is focused on finding those varietals that are most appropriate for the Israeli climate and terroir.  Domaine Netofa makes two Chenin Blanc wines, both of which are reviewed below (as do two non-kosher Israeli wineries – Chillag and Sea Horse).  However, with the recent increasing interest in white wines and given the versatility and probable ability of the Chenin Blanc grape to adapt nicely to Israel’s Mediterranean climate, I’m hoping that a few Israeli wineries will pick up the gauntlet and start producing some crisply refreshing versions for us to enjoy (here’s looking at you Ella Valley and Recanati).

Herzog, Chenin Blanc, Late Harvest, Clarksburg, 2009:  Full bodied, deep and rich, with plenty of honeyed sweetness on both the nose and palate.  While the sweetness in this wine is pronounced, rich and warm, there is plenty of balancing acidity to keep the sugar in check.  Dried apricots, mango and crème brûlée on the nose and palate, accompanied by almonds, red candied fruits and more honey on the mid-palate culminate in a long, lingering and viscous finish.  With plenty of sweetness and less than 10% alcohol, this wine is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser having the extra advantage of being a YH Best Buy as well.  Perfect with fresh fruits or as a dessert on its own.  While this wine will keep for years (likely through 2016), I don’t anticipate that it will improve much beyond where it currently is, making cellaring a moot point.

Chateau de Fesles, Bonnezeaux, 1997:  In addition to the dessert wines from the famed Sauternes and Barsac regions, wines from Bonnezeaux can produce magnificent specimens of botrytis wines as well.  This sensuous wine from the Layon Valley is more intensely sweet than typical Sauternes like the Guiraud above, but contains plenty of bracing acidity to rein in the abundant sweetness.  Wonderful notes of nectarines, pineapple, white peaches, vanilla and honey along with hints of licorice.  An awesome match to some of my all time favorite foods – Foie Gras, fruit tarts, salty cheeses or duck à l’Orange.  Delicious now and reflecting the long-term ageability of the Chenin Blanc grape, I’d drink any remaining bottles in the next 2-3 years, as it probably doesn’t have much more peak cellaring time left.

Domaine Netofa, White, 2010:  With the majority of the winery’s vineyards stocked with Rhone varietals, two Chenin Blanc wines doesn’t seem as out of the ordinary as when measured against the rest of the Israeli wine industry that collectively produces less than a handful of Chenin Blanc varietal wines.  An unoaked and  medium bodied wine,  with plenty of pure fruit on both the nose and palate including tart green apple, tropical fruit, melon and citrus along with floral notes, some pleasing minerality and a hint of spiciness, leading into a fruity finish with some pleasing bitterness on the tail end of it.  While the wine would have truly shone with some additionally acidity, there is sufficient acid to carry the wine and keep it lively and refreshing, making it a great spring quaffer but drink up any remaining bottles you may have and clear out some space for the 2011 vintage.

Domain Netofa, Latour White, 2010:  Latour is Domaine Netofa’s upper tier label carrying the corresponding higher price tag.  Made from Chenin Blanc grapes grown in the same vineyard as the “White” reviewed above, this wine spent some time in French oak giving it a bit more structure, in addition to hints of the toasty oak.  A ton of tropical and honeyed fruit on the aromatic nose, much of which followed onto the slightly oily and medium bodied palate with nice notes of apple, guava, green tea and earthy minerals.  A lingering and aromatic finish with more minerals lingers nicely.  Drink now or over the next 12 months.