The Paradox of Chenin Blanc

Wine is either sweet or dry, right?

It’s a simple question, yet wine is rarely that simple. Chenin blanc, the grape we have been examining over the last month, typifies some of the complexities that gave rise to the old saying, the more you learn about wine the less you know.

We do know that chenin blanc is one of the world’s most versatile grapes, capable of making steely, stern wines that are dry as stone and can live and evolve for decades.

It can also make luscious, ambrosial nectars that are syrupy sweet while still lively and refreshing, which can likewise grow more complex for decades. It can produce wines all over the spectrum in between, and I almost forgot about the great sparkling wines made with chenin blanc.

None of that, however, explains how chenin blanc can sometimes make wines that simultaneously taste dry and sweet.

I don’t mean wines that are presented as dry, even though they may contain quite a bit of residual sweetness, that is, grape sugar that was not fermented into alcohol. Nor do I mean wines that are so high in alcohol and glycerol that they give the impression of sweetness.

I mean wines that are dry and balanced, yet nonetheless seem to convey a note of sweetness among their taste sensations.

How can this be? Partly because wine possesses an uncanny ability to mimic the flavors of other things.

I’ve long been a critic of ornate tasting notes, those extravagant grocery lists of all the fruits, flowers and other aromas and flavors that a taster has perceived in a wine.

Not because those perceptions did not occur, but because such overly precise descriptions often communicate little of value in delineating a wine to a reader. A better approach would be to describe a wine’s structure, texture and underlying character rather than its precise flavor.

Still one of the most common tasting perceptions across the board, among professionals or not, is of something sweet in a dry chenin blanc.

I’ve had the same experience myself many times. Often, I think of it as the flavor of honey, or the scent of honeysuckle. This, of course, is not literally true, and, for me, at least, the honey flavor may be related to the texture and body of chenin blanc, which often feels pleasantly heavy in the mouth but paradoxically not weighty.

My regular perception of honey, though, seems positively prosaic next to the impression of a reader this month, Martina Mirandola Mullen of New York, who tasted a Marc Plouzeau Château de la Bonnelière Chinon Blanc Silice, made with the chenin blanc grape.

“This chenin smells like birthday cake ice cream and it just makes me so happy,” she said. “There is that sweet vanilla cake mix with the rainbow chip frosting that as a child of the 1980s brings me back to some of the best memories.”

Drinking the wine, though, produced a different feeling.

“On the palate,” she said, “this wine is bone dry with striking acidity and more of a toasted almond flavor.”

Here at Wine School, we embrace the contradictory impressions that wine can offer. We see no need to demystify them or rearrange impressions into simpler, more consistent patterns. We prefer to marvel at how a grape and a wine can produce such paradoxical responses.

As usual, I suggested three bottles of chenin blanc. Rather than choose from a single region or appellation, I proposed chenin blancs from three completely different areas: the Loire Valley, South Africa and California. They were: A.A. Badenhorst Swartland Chenin Blanc Secateurs 2019; Leo Steen Dry Creek Valley Saini Farms Chenin Blanc 2019; and Bernard Baudry Chinon Blanc Le Domaine 2019.

The wines were quite different, though the sample size was far too small to reach any conclusions about whether they represent their various terroirs. While terroir — the combination of soils and bedrock, climate, altitude, angle of inclination toward the sun and the human touch — no doubt plays an essential role with these wines, we would need to do far more studying, over years with many producers, before drawing tentative conclusions.

The Badenhorst nonetheless is a perfect example of the sweet-and-dry paradox of chenin blanc. This wine had the beautiful, rich texture that I often find in good examples. It tasted strongly of lemon, but with an earthy element and a final bright, floral, honeyed impression. The wine was definitely dry, refreshing and lively enough to prompt the next sip.

I have to say, I was thoroughly impressed with this wine. It was a great value at just $16.

The Leo Steen had an even richer texture than the Badenhorst. But what most stood out about this wine was its energy and vibrant acidity. It had aromas of flowers and lemon, as well as that signature touch of honey. Altogether, it was tangy, lip-smacking and succulent, another great value at $18.

The Baudry felt simultaneously light and voluminous, beautifully textured and open. It, too, was floral and lemon-scented. But on the palate it seemed deeper, with lingering flavors of chamomile, herbs and honey, and maybe a touch of the toasted almonds that Ms. Mirandola Mullen found in her wine.

It was the most complex of the three wines. Was it worth paying roughly twice as much, at $35? That’s a question that must be answered individually.

Part of that price is the result of tariffs imposed by President Donald J. Trump (suspended this year as the European Union and the United States resolved a dispute over airline subsidies). But it also includes the added value of getting a wine from a stretch of the Loire Valley that is hallowed ground for chenin blanc, and from one of the region’s most respected producers.

Each of these wines was absolutely dry, and each had the capacity nonetheless to convey an impression of tender sweetness. This is a wonderful, perhaps mystifying characteristic of the chenin blanc grape, assuming, naturally, that it is grown in a proper place, farmed conscientiously and made into wine with care and attention.

Sadly, too much chenin blanc was made historically with quantity in mind rather than quality, which may account for the rather apathetic impression many people have of the grape.

Several readers suggested that the Badenhorst was sweeter than the other wines, but I believe that was just the grape playing its usual tricks. According to the Badenhorst importer, the wine had 1.8 grams of residual sugar per liter, well below the level of 4 grams per liter at which a dry wine might cross the line from dry to modestly sweet.

But that’s just a technical definition. How a wine tastes often depends more on the balance between sweetness and acidity than on the residual sugar alone. All three of these wines were well balanced.

While these wines were dry, chenin blanc also has the capacity, as Josh of Ottawa and Tom of Norwell, Mass., pointed out, to make all sorts of sweet wines, whether the barely sweet sec tendre, the moderately sweet demi-sec, the lushly sweet moelleux or the unctuously sweet wines of the Coteaux du Layon, a Loire region that is home to Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, two appellations that produce gorgeous sweet wines, particularly in the years when the grapes are afflicted by botrytis cinerea, the so-called noble rot.

Many readers took a moment to recall their favorite chenin blancs. For Larry Kantrowitz of Vallejo, Calif., it was a 1989 Huet Cuvée Constance, a remarkable botrytised sweet wine made only in certain vintages.

“Extraordinary is not enough for it,” he said.

Many connoisseurs of Loire chenin blancs prefer demi-secs over the dry wines. One day, if possible, we will examine sweeter chenin blancs, though most consumers today seem to prefer their wines dry. Even so, exploration is always worthwhile.

It was heartening to drink these wines and see how wonderful they could be not only from the Loire but from South Africa and the United States. Very few areas historically have tried to produce top-quality chenin blancs, but I think that number is rising as consumers worldwide slowly embrace this grape.

Paumanok on the North Fork of Long Island has demonstrated that chenin blanc has a home there, and I’ve tasted intriguing bottles from Canada and Argentina, too.

J.B. of Australia reports, “It’s also making a big comeback in Margaret River and the Great Southern,” two regions in the southwestern part of the country.

I did not know it had been grown in either of those places. But for chenin blanc, with our stipulation of conscientious farming and careful production, the more the merrier.

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