A Blanc Canvas

Discovering the pleasures of three countries' Chenin Blancs.

On a recent trip to Italy, I tasted some of the greatest Barolos and Brunellos ever made, and enjoyed memorable Chiantis and Barbarescos as well. It seemed perfectly normal to drink red wine in Italy, even in 90-degree weather, and the food fit perfectly with these high-acid wines.

Once back in Tennessee, however, my thoughts turned to enjoying great summer whites. Chardonnay? Too heavy. Riesling and Muscat? A bit too sweet. But Chenin Blanc seems to fit the bill.

Chenin Blanc is available in three forms: fermented dry, sweet, or sparkling. Fermented dry can be the tartest white grape around, and although every wine maker has his own style, this type usually displays green apples, apricots, and nutty honey. The best of these will have an oily texture.

These wines have their European origins in the Loire Valley. They are usually low in alcohol and are not aged with oak. The most widely known dry Chenin Blanc is Savenneieres. These wines are intense, have high acidity, and will develop complexity if aged properly. An example? Master sommelier and author of four books on the subject Andrea Immer tells of a blind tasting of Chenin Blanc where experts guessed the age of one of the wines. Their tasting put the wine at 15 years old, and they were surprised to learn the offering was a 1953 vintage. These wines will hold up.

Australia, the United States, and South Africa all make Chenin Blanc wines, but comparing the three country's wines would not be fair. There are great examples of all three, but overall, the quality of wines from the Loire Valley is far superior to them all -- especially the 2004 and 2005 offerings.

So if you're like me and want to drink this wine chilled to beat the heat, here's what you should know. The sparkling Chenin Blanc will all be labeled as such, or will have a pressure-sensitive cap. They'll usually say Saumur, Vouvray, Montlouis, or Savennieres. The sparklers from Savennieres usually are drier -- almost steely -- and will age. These wines pair well with soft white cheeses and mild seafood, and their high acidity cuts sharp flavors while the carbonation enhances the appetite.

If you want to try dry Chenin Blanc, look for wines from Savennieres -- always dry (sec) or Vouvray. Because of its high acidity, and apple and honey flavors, it's excellent with fish or pasta in a white wine or cream sauce. Dry Chenin Blanc is also good with most soft and medium-hard white cheeses.

If you're looking for a sweet wine, try Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley region called Coteaux du Layon, which is made with boytritus grapes. Wine from Vovray can also be sweet. If the label says demi-sec, it's off-dry with a touch of sweetness. If it says moelleux, then it's really sweet. Try these sweet wines by themselves for dessert or pair them with fresh fruit, but never with chocolate. (Remember, the wine must be sweeter than the dessert.)

Here's some info on other countries' Chenin Blanc. In South America it's called Pinot Blanco. Because of the warmer climate the wine has more fruit, less acidity, and usually has less aging potential.

In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is the country's most widely planted grape. Chenin Blanc was introduced there in the 1650s. These wines usually display grapefruit, pear, honey, and sometimes white flowers. They often have less acidity and more alcohol.

American and Australian Chenin Blancs tend not to distinguish themselves from the above, but great winemakers from both countries make inexpensive, good Chenin Blanc. Pick a winemaker that makes another wine you like, and enjoy the Chenin Blanc while the sun shines. 

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