Chenin not Chard
Chenin Blanc is one of those grape varieties, like Sangiovese maybe (or, more controversially, some might say Pinot Noir) that makes a "benchmark" wine in its native soil that can rarely be equalled when the grapes are grown elsewhere.
Although Chenin sprouts in a few other places - it's still the third-ranking white variety in California, for example, although plantings are declining; and it's a major variety in South Africa, too, where it sometimes goes by the alternate name "Steen." But much of the Chenin Blanc grown in those places is destined for forgettable "jug" wines that don't show off the grape's classic varietal character, and the excellent exceptions can be hard to find.
Today I'd like to celebrate one of those exceptions. From Clarksburg in the Sacramento River delta region west of California's capital, a smallish region that's starting to gain attention for noteworthy Chenin, comes Vinum Cellars 2004 "CNW Chard-No-Way" Wilson Vineyards Clarksburg Chenin Blanc.
As the name implies, it's labeled in a cheeky effort to capture the attention of wine enthusiasts looking for an alternative to the ubiquitous Chardonnay. The wine makes a good case for this change of pace. Although it may lack the stunning minerality of a Loire Chenin Blanc, it makes up for it with an exceptionally pure and clean expression of fruit, nicely framed by tart, mouth-watering acidity and balance that makes it a very good food wine.
At about 10 bucks, it's a fine bargain indeed, a noteworthy partner to another great value from Vinum Cellars, the previously reported (Jan. 21, 2004) PETS Petite Sirah.
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Vinum Cellars 2004 "CNW Chard-No-Way" Wilson Vineyards Clarksburg Chenin Blanc ($10.99)
This very clear, pale straw color wine shows good, characterisic Chenin aromas of honeydew melon with a hint of peach. Bright, fresh and pure flavors follow the nose, rather full-bodied and dry or nearly so, with snappy, mouth-watering acidity to give it structure, and just a hint of peach-pit bitterness in the finish. On the simple side, lacking the stony minerality that distinguishes Loire Chenin Blanc, but the exceptionally clean and pure presence of fruit makes it a winner. (Oct. 20, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Very well suited indeed against the delicate, herbal flavors of chicken with a light tarragon cream sauce.
VALUE: It substantially exceeds expectations in the $10 range. I purchased it for $11 at a shop not known for discounting, and the winery retail is $10, so you may be able to find it for a dollar or two less.
WHEN TO DRINK: Normally I would nominate a well-balanced, acidic Chenin Blanc as a good candidate for cellaring, but the synthetic cork makes this advice dubious for this wine; it's so delightful young and fresh, I advise drinking it up within the coming year, while it stays like that.
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Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005