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The Death of Chenin Blanc

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vince and Audrey Cilurzo, owners of the Cilurzo Winery in Temecula, were so in love with the Chenin Blanc grape that they named their daughter Chenin.

But that was more than 20 years ago and Chenin Cilurzo has grown up. She now works for Groth Vineyard & Winery, which makes no Chenin Blanc. In fact, few wineries make Chenin Blanc these days and even California’s top Chenin Blanc maker is moving away from the grape.

American wine historians would have told you it could never happen, but Charles Krug Winery is discontinuing production of Chenin Blanc; the 1996 vintage will be its last.

Two decades ago, that would have been unthinkable. Krug, the nation’s leader in Chenin Blanc production, was making as many as 125,000 cases a year. It was a staple on restaurant wine lists everywhere and was in national demand.

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“It’s very sad,” said wine historian William Heintz of Sonoma. “Chenin Blanc was a milestone wine for Krug.”

Heintz noted that in the days before the invention of White Zinfandel, two slightly sweet white wines sold out year after year: Krug Chenin and Wente Bros. Grey Riesling. Now both are history.

“I would never have believed that Wente’s Grey Riesling would be gone, and now the Krug Chenin,” said Heintz, shaking his head. Wente eliminated its once-popular Grey Riesling just months ago.

Larry Challacombe, vice president of marketing for Krug, said sales of the wine had declined steadily in the last few years while those of Chardonnay and White Zinfandel continued to climb. Moreover, as Krug was retooling its image to make more upscale wines, the Chenin Blanc, which sells for $6 or so, doesn’t fit the new image the winery wants to create.

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Challacombe said, “We noted that the demographic audience for Chenin was an older crowd. We had to be more contemporary in what we did, and that wine was virtually unchanged.”

Krug has begun replacing the former slightly sweet Chenin Blanc with a totally dry, barrel-fermented wine made from Chenin Blanc grapes that it is calling Pineau, which is the first part of the grape’s alternate Loire Valley name in France, Pineau de la Loire. Krug’s 1996 Pineau sells for $12 a bottle; fewer than 1,000 cases were produced.

“You can be in love with a wine, like we are with Chenin,” said Krug’s owner, Peter Mondavi, “but this is a business. And in this valley [Napa], land is too expensive to be making a wine for $6. Heck, even $10 wine from this expensive land doesn’t pay the bills.”

Although about 75 wineries make Chenin Blanc in California, production has declined every year since the early 1980s. In data from Nielsen Scantrak, which tracks wine sales in supermarkets, Chenin Blanc is the only varietal wine that has consistently shown double-digit declines during the last decade.

Even when industry leader Gallo is included, along with all the bag-in-box wines, total production of Chenin Blanc is estimated at less than 5 million cases. Compare that with White Zinfandel at about 20 million cases and growing.

Chenin Blanc is a superb variety that simply is misunderstood by American consumers, said David Stare, owner of Dry Creek Vineyard, one of the handful of wineries remaining in the fine Chenin Blanc game. Of those left making Chenin Blanc, each is passionate about the grape.

In her “Oxford Companion to Wine,” Jancis Robinson declared Chenin Blanc probably the world’s most versatile grape variety. It makes delicate white wines that can be dry, off-dry, very sweet or sparkling and has a flavor profile that is quite appealing, with melon, apple, pear and leafy elements.

Stare is saddened by the loss of the Krug Chenin Blanc. “I wouldn’t have believed it a few years ago,” he said. “At one time, I think it was the No. 1 varietal wine in the country.”

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He believes that it may have declined in popularity because it was too sweet for contemporary wine lovers who are seeking drier and drier wines. But it is also possible to make a Chenin Blanc too dry.

“The first few years we made it totally dry,” Stare said. “We found a certain stemminess in the wine and we couldn’t get rid of it. By leaving a half percent of [residual] sugar, the wine still tasted pretty dry, but the sweetness masked the stemminess.”

Dry Creek now gets its Chenin Blanc fruit from one of the finest regions in the state for the grape, Clarksburg in the San Joaquin Delta. Stare makes about 8,000 cases a year, and the 1996 version ($8) is perfectly balanced with lime, melon and a trace of juniper in the aroma, with a faint sweetness in an otherwise dry wine.

One of the best Chenin Blancs in California, Baron Herzog’s, is a kosher wine that has won more medals than any other white wine in California competitions in the last few years. It is similar in style to some of the driest wines of the Loire. The 1996 Herzog Chenin Blanc ($7) is melony and soft with a lovely crispness in the finish.

One of the state’s most committed Chenin Blanc producers is Chappellet Vineyards, which makes slightly more than 4,500 cases of Chenin Blanc in three styles. The 1996 Chenin Blanc ($11) is dry, lean and crisp; 1995 Old Vine Cuvee ($12) is more complex from aging in old oak barrels; and a very special 1994 late-harvest Chenin Blanc called Moelleux ($40) is made for dessert.

Kathy Newman, a spokeswoman for Chappellet, said production hasn’t changed appreciably over the years for a good reason: “Our typical buyer is the same, year after year.”

Chappellet used to make its wine entirely from its own grapes, but when the winery wanted to expand production, winemaker Phil Titus began looking for Chenin Blanc around the Napa Valley.

“It was really an eye-opener for us to see how little Chenin Blanc is left out there in vineyards,” Newman said. “Many growers are seeking a better return on their investment, so they’ve converted their vines over to the Big Three: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.”

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In the past few years, two other superb producers of Chenin Blanc have given up on the variety, Simi Winery and Geyser Peak. Four important Napa Valley producers of Chenin Blanc remain: Beringer, Sutter Home, Pine Ridge and Girard. The first two are large producers, at 70,000 cases each. Pine Ridge makes its primary Chenin dry ($8) and recently added La Petite Vigne ($16), with a small amount of Viognier added for spice.

“Our source of fruit has dried up here in the [Napa] valley,” said co-owner Nancy Andrus, “so our 1996 was our first one we sourced outside the valley, from Clarksburg.”

Girard’s version of the wine ($8.50) is also dry, fermented in stainless steel to retain the character of the fruit and then bottled directly.

Two more great examples of Chenin Blanc to look for, one sweet and one dry, are: The 1996 Husch ($8), from Mendocino, is a sweeter version to quaff by a pool, with an aroma of pears and a taste of melons. The 1996 KWV Steen ($6), which uses the South African name for this grape, is a very dry wine with striking mint, grapefruit and lime flavors. It would be perfect for oysters.

Other excellent Chenins to look for: the barrel-fermented version from Chalone, which is more like Chardonnay; two racy, delicate wines from Hogue cellars in Washington, including a sweeter version that’s a delight; and a softer version from Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington.


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