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I have grape expectations; FOOD Clive Platman celebrates the versatility of chenin blanc.

Byline: Clive Platman

Let's start with a conundrum. What grape canage like riesling, when dry it matches white Burgundy, when sweet it rival Sauternes and, when sparkling, make an inexpensive Champagne substitute?

In South Africa it's known as steen, but locally, pineau de la Loire. Have you guessed?

The answer is chenin blanc and it's probably the world's most versatile variety, produced in sparkling, dry, off-dry and sweet versions, ranging from medium (moelleux) to intensely sweet (liquoreux). The Dutch even took it to South Africa, where it was used for sherry and brandy.

The indigenous heartlands are the Loire Valley regions of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, where it benefits from the mild, but changeable Atlantic climate. In the past, this versatility has been its strength, as the style of wine was adapted to the vintage conditions. The downside, however, is lack of focus.

In a climate where the consumer demands consistency and labeling by grape variety, there is precious little advice on the label. To add insult to injury, the grape name chenin is rarely mentioned.

The sparkling wine industry is centred on Saumur, where the bubbles are introduced by secondary bottle fermentation. Thin tart chenin makes an ideal raw material, and to my mind, produces an inexpensive fizz innately superior to the much-hyped Cava and Prosecco. Look out, in particularly, for Gratien & Meyer, who produce several excellent blends for the Wine Society.

Sharing similar chalky limestone soils, the vineyards of Vouvray lie to the east of Tours. As an appellation, it encapsulates the confusion surrounding wine styles, but frequently, the same winemaker will produce the entire range. Among the leading exponents is Domaine Huet which, under the stewardship of Noel Pinguet, has adopted a biodynamic approach.

The wines are made from three vineyard sites and labelled accordingly. The full and round Haut-Lieu is at the top of the plateau, minerally and elegant, Le Mont is in the middle slopes, and the structured and powerful Clos du Bourg is at the foot.

As conditions permit, the wines are released as sec (dry), demi-sec (medium dry) and moelleux (medium-sweet). The dry are intensely minerally and backward when young, but reward patience. The sweeter styles are approachable from about four years. Occasionally, in great vintages, Huet release Cuvee Constance, an intensely concentrated dessert wine that will develop over 15-20 years.

Like most other Vouvray winemakers, Huet release a sparkling mousseux and, interestingly, a Petillant lightly sparkling, which is delicious. A selection of the Huet range can be sourced from the Wine Society or Waitrose.

Perhaps the ultimate Vouvray is produced just up the road at Clos Naudin. Here, the gastronome Philippe Foreau has crafted some breathtakingly precise and structured sec and demi-sec wines with classic lime flavours. These, too, are for the long-haul, needing time to emerge from their shell, but then continue to age for decades.

Across the river is the smaller and overlooked appellation, Montlouis. One of the best is La Taille Aux Loups, run by former wine-merchant, Jackie Blot, despairing of the general incompetence of his fellow winemakers. Save to say the emphasis is on low yields and rigorous selection, and the entire range from sparkling to moelleux is exemplary.

In Anjou, the character of chenin changes with terroir, where the soils are schist and volcanic, and the climate is wetter. The higher humidity encourages the benign fungus botrytis, essential for the creation of intensely sweet vins liquoreux.

Basic Anjou is simply dry white chenin, best drunk within two to three years of its vintage, but Savennieres, higher up the scale, is more complex. Try the twice-named Domaine du Closel/Chateau des Vaults "La Jalousie" for size, listed by Tanners and Waitrose.

The medium-sweet wines of Coteaux du Layon are from late-picked grapes with occasionally a little botrytis, but the "crus" such as Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume and Chaume contain a much higher proportion. These can be intensely sweet with honeyed quince-pear characters.

Bonnezeaux loosely translates as "good waters" and Chateau de Fesles is arguably the best and largest producer. Mature vintages canbe sourced from the Oxford Wine Company and Bentley's of Ludlow.

The masterful Claude Papin likens himself to an "artiste of terroir" at his property, Pierre-Bise, meaning "broken stone". Certainly, his range has extraordinary focus and personality, and he believes the sweet wines of2007 will be the greatest of his long career. Regrettably, Pierre-Bise is difficult to source, but try Stone, Vine & Sun.

In the same vein, but more widely distributed, is the exceedingly good value Domaine des Forges, stocked by Waitrose and Tanners, who carry several cuvees. Their sweet whites impressively develop nougat and marzipan flavours with maturity.

It's probably the world's most versatile variety

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The indigenous heartlands of the chenin blanc grape are the Loire Valley regions of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, where it benefits from the mild, but changeable Atlantic climate
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 27, 2009
Words:809
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