The Helen Mirren of Forgotten Grapes
When you stop and think about it, both Chenin Blanc and Helen Mirren truly are cut from the same cloth. Both reached levels of popularity in the 1970’s – Chenin Blanc as a cheap and readily accessible white jug wine that served as the first furtive wine experience for a generation of young American men and women, and Helen Mirren as a young, nymphal dynamic (and usually naked) ingénue who served as first furtive sexual experience for a generation of young (particularly British) men. They both rose to fame right around the same time – the mid 1970’s – and both rises were sudden and explosive, a veritable “taking the world by storm:” Ms. Mirren from her Shakespearean theater roots to become the (often nude) queen of British art house cinema, and Chenin Blanc from just another grape grown in France’s Loire valley to the most popular grape in California and the best-selling white wine in the United States for most of the decade.
But as is wont to happen with such meteoric ascents, precipitous backslides occurred soon after. For Ms. Mirren, it was her inability to escape from the shadow of her overexposed roots and not being able to display her classically-trained acting chops to a wider world audience. Seriously, anyone remember Helen’s not-quite-blockbusters of the 1980’s Excalibur (playing King Arthur’s female nemesis Morgan le Fay), 2010 (playing a Russian – a no-no in the 80’s), White Nights (playing a Russian yet again), and The Mosquito Coast (not playing a Russian this time, but stuck in the film that, up until Regarding Henry came out, was considered the most forgettable Harrison Ford movie of all-time)? Not exactly the New Classics there.
For Chenin Blanc, it was the inability to escape from the shadow of its jug-wine roots (you know the brands: Charles Krug, Gallo, Inglenook) and the rise of a newer, fresher, more interesting grape named Chardonnay, which soon after its coronation at the 1976 Judgment of Paris had California wine makers swooning and forgetting about all other white grapes.
A dark period loomed long for both parties after these letdowns, with only a few intrepid souls taking notice of the terrific things both were doing during this time, namely, the handful of PBS viewers who happened to catch Ms. Mirren’s tremendous portrayal of DCI Jane Tennison on the BBC’s Prime Suspect (if you’ve never seen any of the series, move it to the top of your Netflix queue immediately!), and the few wine aficionados who kept track and noted with great interest the wonderful Chenin wines being produced in the Loire and in South Africa.
But like all great things, if you keep honing your skills and putting out exemplary work, people will soon re-discover you and take notice. Which is why both Chenin Blanc and Helen Mirren are experiencing comebacks today. Both are now award-winners. Both are demonstrating a vast range and diversity in their current work heretofore unknown in their previous canon: Ms. Mirren in films dramatic (The Queen), comedic (Calendar Girls), action-packed (National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets), horrific (Teaching Miss Tingle), suspenseful (State of Play), and sometimes a combination of all of the above (Gosford Park); Chenin Blanc in wines dry, sparkling, sweet, and even smooth and rich, as in brandies (yes, brandies can be made from Chenin Blanc). Both have achieved huge levels of notoriety both in their home countries and worldwide.
How do I pronounce Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc Looks Like:
Call me/on the line/Honey/Call me any anytime... Actually, the word “honey” in that Blondie lyric is especially prescient, since despite the many different forms of Chenin Blanc (dry white table wine, sparkling wine, sweet dessert wine, brandy...okay, maybe not brandy), almost all of these wines have a mellow blonde hue to them. The color won’t be a super bright yellow and will most likely fall somewhere in between a pale straw color and and a dull, slightly tarnished gold, but blonde is the color of a Chenin Blanc, a blonde that should be fairly clear (though in rare instances the wine can be a bit murky and opaque in the bottle and initially in the glass).
Chenin Blanc Smells Like:
You’d think that since Chenin Blancs tend to be bright, lively acidic wines that their noses would reflect this same structure, with lots of lemon and lime and other sharp citrus fruits, right? BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ! Wrong, buster. Most Chenins have exceedingly complex noses, with a wide range of scents emanating from them. About the closest you may get to citrus is a sharp green apple scent that many Chenins seem to have, although this aroma can mellow into a slightly softer melon or honeydew aroma. Speaking of honey, you may get a whiff of sweetness and possibly flowers from the wine, as Chenins tend to be sweet-smelling and faintly perfumed to the nose. On top of that, you’ll smell herbs and grass (akin to a Sauvignon Blanc, which also thrives in the Loire valley), and an earthy, clay-like scent that one member of our squadron equated to Travertine tiles (she’s either super high-maintenance or watches way too much HGTV). As for the sweet Botrytisized version of Chenin, the one overriding scent you should get is apricots, but beyond that, there might be hundreds of scents in there. Sweet Chenins are known for their olfactory complexity. Our tasters picked up frozen peas, asparagus, and even banana ice cream...and that was just in one wine. So brush up on your scents before you dip into sweet Chenins.
Chenin Blanc Tastes Like:
Chenin Blancs may be the ultimate sweet-and-sour wine, as they tend to lead with sharp, crisp, acidic flavors primarily in the form of citrus fruits: pineapple, Meyer lemon, even something akin to watermelon rind. But those sour flavors are undercut with a delicate honeyed sweetness. You may get some spicy flavors of cinnamon and pepper on your tongue and you might also get a big mouthful of smoke, which is often the by-product of the wine aging in the charred lining of newer oak barrels, which some producers use to temper the acidity of the wine. This oaking can also lead to a creaminess in the mouth, as malolactic fermentation converts the more sour malic acids into softer, creamier lactic acids (the same acids you find in milk or sour cream and that build up in your leg muscles and start to burn when you sit against a wall with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle for a period of time. Go ahead and try it). This can also make the wine a little cloudy, particularly if this fermentation is still going on in the bottle.
● France's Loire Valley
● South Africa, where it is called "Steen"
● California, especially in Mendocino County and the Sierra Foothills
● Washington state
● New Zealand
● Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Argentina, where the grape is known as "Pinot Blanco"
Cindy’s “Did Juneau?”:
Because of the cooler climate and unstable weather patterns in the Loire, it is one of the few wine regions in France where winemakers are allowed to use a process called chaptalization, in which sugar is added to the unfermented grape juice to increase the alcohol concentration after fermentation and give some heft to the wines. Interestingly, chaptalization does not increase the sweetness of a wine, since the added sugar is converted to alcohol during fermentation. What it does, however, is make thin, flabby wines fuller and gives them more body due to the presence of extra alcohol. Chaptalization is a controversial process, prohibited in Australia, Austria, California, Italy, and South Africa, but permitted in certain wine-growing regions of France, Germany, and the United States that have poor climate conditions similar to
Chenin Blanc is a terrific seafood wine because of its aromatic gusto, its sharp, clean acids, and the fact that it has good weight in the mouth that can stand up to the oiliness of fish. One really great pairing with Chenin Blanc is ceviche. Select some fresh fish of your choice, ‘cook’ it in lemon or lime juice, toss in some red onion, cilantro and avocados to mellow it all out and balance the citrus, and you’ll have an excellent pairing with a Chenin Blanc. Just be careful not to add any jalapenos or other peppers, because a dry Chenin won’t be able to stand up to anything too spicy.
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