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Chenin Blanc in Two Renditions
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jun 1, 2021
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Dry Creek Vineyard, Dry Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg AVA 2020 ($16) and Chappellet, Napa Valley Chenin Blanc “Molly Chappelet” 2020 ($40): I have in front of me two glasses of Chenin Blanc wine from California, both of which I enjoy and admire.  But stylistically, they could hardly be more different.  One is fairly light and refreshing, a lively wine that’s ideal for summer drinking.  The other is rich, provocative, sensuous, the kind of wine that you want to sip and ponder.

Actually, it’s not unusual for Chenin Blanc to show a range of faces.  Even in the grape’s two classic production areas, the Loire Valley and South Africa, a Chenin Blanc wine can be dry, off-dry, or sweet, including notable botrytised wines; it can be oaked or unoaked; it can be a still wine or a bubbly; it can be an everyday wine or it can be a wine worthy of a special occasion.  In the U.S., Chenin Blanc vineyards are scarce compared to Chardonnay’s, and only a few producers take it seriously enough to produce a varietal Chenin Blanc.  And yet it is something of a geek’s wine that serious winemakers want to take a crack at—and serious tasters are curious to taste in every manner of rendition.

Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc — the light, lively refreshing wine in my duo — is a California classic.  Winery founder David Stare found his Chenin Blanc inspiration in Vouvray, in the Loire Valley.  He began producing Chenin Blanc in 1972, his first vintage, and Dry Creek Vineyard has made this wine every year since then.  For more than 30 years now, the grapes have come from the Wilson Ranch in the Clarksburg AVA, southwest of Sacramento.  The wine is produced in a very straightforward way — cool fermentation in stainless steel “barrels” — that neither adds nor subtracts any flavors apart from those of the grapes themselves.

In the 2020 Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc ($16), the aromas and flavors suggest melon, white peach and mango with a slight floral whiff and, in the mouth, a marked note of slatey minerality, which I particularly enjoy.  Winemaker comments mention watermelon and cucumber, descriptors are missing from my own notes but in retrospect, ring true.  The wine is dry although not bone dry, with light medium body.  Typically of Chenin Blanc, high acidity lurks beneath the wine’s slightly oily texture.  The long finish is worthy of a much more expensive wine.  Despite its high acidity and simplicity of winemaking, this is not a generic high-acid, crisp, light wine a la a simple Pinot Grigio: it fills the breadth of your mouth in a way that high-acid whites generally do not.  Thoroughly intriguing, and yet such an easy, delightful wine, with only 12.5 percent alcohol.

The 2020 Molly Chappellet Napa Valley Chenin Blanc ($40) is the rich, provocative, sensuous player in my duo.  It hails from Chappellet’s Pritchard Hill property in the Vaca Mountains of eastern Napa Valley.  When the family moved to Pritchard Hill in 1967, Chenin Blanc already grew there.  After eventual replanting of the vineyard, the vines today are more than 15 years old.  The company is dedicated to perpetuating Chenin Blanc; winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus claims that “Chappellet isn’t Chappellet without Chenin Blanc.”
This wine’s aromas and flavors are exotic and compelling, with notes of melon, guava, dried white fruits and blossom, along with a light smoky overtone and lemony notes on the finish.  In your mouth, the wine is dry and full-bodied, with acid that’s medium on the cusp of high, and full-throttle 14 percent alcohol that gives the wine considerable weight and presence in your mouth.  The texture is viscous with a contrasting mineral earthiness.  Some sweetness in a wine of this weight and depth style would be logical and harmonious; the dryness of this wine instead is provocative.

Winemaking for this wine involved light pressing of the grapes followed by cold fermentation in an approximately 50-50 combination of neutral barrels and stainless steel tanks and finally six months of aging on the lees.  Both the barrel fermentation and lees aging enhance the wine’s textural richness, while the unoaked portion enhances its freshness and energy.

Both of these interpretations of Chenin Blanc have fascinating aromas but also strong structural elements that create a complete wine.  Light and refreshing or provocative and thought compelling: that’s your choice.  Personally, I can think of situations appropriation to each style.

2020 Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc, Clarksburg AVA, $16, 90 Points
2020 Molly Chappellet Napa Valley Chenin Blanc, $40, 92 Points

Read Mary Ewing-Mulligan's Wine Column:  "On My Table"