On Saturday August 25, Randall and Jennifer Hopkins, owners of Corvus Cellars in Walla Walla hosted a tasting of Chenin Blancs from around the world. There were 20 in all - six from the Loire Valley, two of them sparkling, ten from Washington and four from South Africa. The wines were poured unmasked (not blind) on the premise that tasters should know what they were tasting and be objective. Tasters included winemakers, a wine writer, wine aficionados and a vineyard photographer. In addition, a wine distributor in Calgary provided wireless video commentary.
We started off with two Loire Valley sparking wines which were slightly effervescent and floral, a fine prelude. The Taille aux Loups Montlouis Pétillant was striking for its bone dry finish and nicely fruited, distinctively mineral flavors.
Then we went through ten Washington Chenin Blancs, most from old vines planted in the 1970s. All were respectable wines, but some lacking in the acidity that makes classic Chenin Blanc so distinctive. The most noteworthy were:
2015 L'Ecole No. 41 "Old Vines" Chenin Blanc, Columbia Valley ($14) - This showed bright fruit and typical minerality, but just a bit short on acidity (from a warm year when white grape acids dropped quickly).18+/20 points. I said the 2016 (reviewed in the September issue of the Review of Washington Wines) was a better vintage (18.5/20 points). All that said, L'Ecole, a pioneer of Washington Chenin Blanc does a fine job with this variety.
2016 Coeur d'Alene Cellars Chenin Blanc, Washington ($24) - I brought this to the tasting from my visit to the winery (reviewed September). Blended with 20% Chardonnay, it was attractively floral and nicely fruited, but the wine didn't seem to decide what the 20% underneath was. Some tasters thought Viognier from the slight tropicality. It, nevertheless, was a very nice wine, lifted by 7.1% total acidity on the faintly honeyed finish. 18.5/20 points.
2012 Merriman Chenin Blanc, Columbia Valley, Brasher Block ($28) - This was the most impressive Chenin Blanc from Washington, produced by a Carleton, Oregon based winery. The winemaker really shows what can be done with the grape. From 38 year old vines and whole cluster fermented, it possessed distinct floral aromas, melon, peach and citrus notes and precise acidity. 18.5+/20 points.
2010 Merriman Chenin Blanc, Columbia Valley, Brasher Block ($28) - Being two years older than the '12, this showed hints of caramel and developing complexity, along with touches of melon rind and orange peel, with somewhat softer acidity. 18.5/20 points.
After the Washington Chenin Blancs, we went on down to South Africa, a country noted for this variety. The 2013 Muldersboch from Stellenbosch was good, but not particularly complex and the 2016 MAN was well fruited and racy but rather sweet (5.3% residual sugar). The following two were more noteworthy.
2014 Pulpit Rock Chenin Blanc, Swartland ($9) - This possessed intriguing aromas of anise, melon, lime and wet stone and medium bodied flavors of pear and peach and a touch of pêche liqueur. While it lacked the precision of a top notch Chenin Blanc, it is hard to beat for the price. 18/20 points.
2015 Quinta Essentia Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch ($40) - Imported by the Betz Family Winery, now owned by Steve Griessel of South Africa. this really stood out. Deep golden colored, it exited rich aromas of pear, peach, minerals, beeswax and spiced white incense. The flavors were big and bold, filled with lots of fruit and minerality, followed by a long, well delineated slightly honeyed (3% residual sugar) finish. Some tasters found it somewhat Chardonnay like, not quite ringing true as Chenin Blanc. 19/20 points.
The last grouping was from France's Loire Valley, the premier region for Chenin Blanc, principally around Angers and and Saumur. The Angevins have been making Chenin Blanc for centuries and the combination of terroir and winemaking experience make for world class wines such as these.
2016 Bernard Fouquet "Cuvée Silex" Vouvray ($20) - This showed a medium gold color and floral aromas of pear, peach, spring flowers, wisteria and white incense. The flavors were fresh and vibrant, slightly spritzy, with fine acidity. Excellent value. 18.5/20 points.
2015 François Chidaine "Les Choisilles" Montlouis sur Loire ($35) - Montlouis is across the river from Vouvray and produces similar wines. I supplied this one. It showed wonderful Chenin Blanc purity with scents of apple blossoms and wildflowers and precise fruit and acidity and distinct minerality. The nearly dry, lightly spiced finish was long and complex. 19/20 points.
2015 Domaine Huet "Le Mont" Vouvray Moelleux ($50) - "Moelleux" means "sweet," in this case, a botrytis late harvest Chenin Blanc. Deep golden colored, it possessed an intoxicating nose of semi dried fruits - peach, apricot, orange peel - and scents of buttercups and spiced incense. The flavors were thick, lavish and viscous, yet well delineated by vivid acidity, followed by a seemingly endless finish, with notes of pêche melba, poire William liqueur and recurring orange peel. This was the sensation of the afternoon, provided by yours truly. 19.5/20 points.
There was some animated discussion of Washington Chenin Blanc, especially given the respectable but unexceptional quality of some of the wines in this category. As Randall put it, "Does the wine follow the market, or does the market make the wine?" That is to ask are winemakers making Chenin Blanc in a style that consumers like (slightly sweet, somewhat lower acidity) or are they making them that way because they think that's what customers want. There was general agreement that more exceptional Chenin Blancs could be made in Washington. In my opinion, if Washington wineries would follow the Merman model of sourcing from choice sites and picking for optimum fruit/acidity levels, more world class Chenin Blancs could be produced in this state.