It’s hard to name a West Coast wine whose demise has been so nearly complete as Chenin Blanc. With its roots in France’s Loire Valley and an important outpost now in South Africa (where it’s called Steen), it can be a complex, aromatic white. But demand has plummeted: In 1980 there were some 32,000 acres of Chenin Blanc planted in California; by 2017 there were fewer than 5,000.
Of course, the Chenin of the ’80s was largely uninteresting. The bulk came from California’s Central Valley, where the vines were allowed to crop many tons per acre, much of it funneled into cheap white blends (remember all those jugs of Chablis?), while the varietals were generally simple, with a hefty amount of residual sugar.
Along with the rise of our collective taste for Chardonnay, one more fad of the day probably drove the next-to-last nail into the coffin for Chenin Blanc. In the late ’70s, Napa Valley’s Bob Trinchero attempted to make a dry “white Zinfandel” (he’d done it before), but the fermentation stuck before all the sugar was gone. He famously bottled the wine anyway, and launched the craze for sweet white Zinfandel, along the way pilfering from similarly sweet Chenin’s fans.
But there are producers who have held a torch for the crisp, dry, aromatic Chenin style, including John Skupny, co-owner of Lang & Reed Napa Valley, who calls Chenin “one of the truly noble white varieties.” A number of West Coast producers are using surviving pockets of old Chenin vines to create wines at once delicate and vibrant—and fantastically undervalued. Some of the best bottles are among the most affordable wines on the West Coast, despite the involvement of serious winemaking talent. Try the Chappellet 2017 Pritchard Hill Signature Chenin Blanc Napa Valley ($42), a perfectly balanced tapestry of peach and pear flavors, vibrant minerality and interesting textures produced from a precious block on the winemaker’s Pritchard Hill property. Or, for phenomenal value, seek out the refreshingly crisp and dry L’Ecole No. 41 2018 Old Vines Chenin Blanc Yakima Valley, with gorgeous texture unfolding from delicate white blossoms to exuberant citrus, white peach and apple. It might be the best wine 15 bucks can buy in the States.
Here are a few more Chenin stars we love:
Le Mont 2016 Domaine Huet Vouvray
A touch of sweetness marks this Vouvray (as is true of many Chenins from the region), but it’s delicately balanced with fresh acidity, minerality, and pretty stone fruit flavors. ($47)
Leo Steen 2016 “The Steen” Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc Santa Ynez Valley
Exuberant floral aromas, honey, and hints of almond lead to a rich palate of peaches and citrus that good acidity carries through a long, lovely finish. ($27)
Orr 2018 Old Vine Chenin Blanc Columbia Valley
Hints of vanilla and honey join beautiful floral notes, melon, and a wet-stone minerality on the nose, leading to bright flavors of white nectarine and lime zest. ($25)
Palladius 2015 Chenin Blanc Swartland, South Africa
Slight petrol aromas—common to the variety, and pleasant in moderation—wrap around peach and pear flavors on a fascinatingly textural palate. ($96)