Category Archives: dessert wines

Chenin Blanc an underrated grape that offers so much

I tasted some amazing bottles of wine recently. The depth, complexity and sheer loveliness was so great that it needs to be shared with you.

It may come as a surprise that it was not a Chardonnay, Cabernet or Syrah. Indeed, it wasn’t even from Washington or California. It was from the icon of vinifera grapes, France.

The French make a white Burgundy that every Chardonnay producer wants to hold a candle to. Same with Cabernet. Who can beat a first growth Bordeaux or even a super-second?  Have you ever tried a red wine from northern Rhone? Where Syrah is co-fermented with Viognier? All perfection.

But here is another grape you must taste. It’s a grape that was once held in high esteem, but because Chardonnay, Cabernet and Syrah fetch more profit, this grape’s popularity has waned. This is my shot at convincing you to try a bottle of Chenin Blanc. Or Vouvray. Or Montlouis. Or Bonnezeaux. All from the delightful, versatile Chenin Blanc grape.

The Loire Valley, west of Paris, stretches 630 miles from the Atlantic through the center of France. Dubbed the “Garden of France,” its well-groomed gardens are bountiful, castles and chateaux magnificent, and its vineyards produce great whites.

Indigenous to this region, Chenin Blanc is produced in the center of the Loire Valley with Muscadet to the west and Sauvignon Blanc to the east. Chenin Blanc comes in a wide range of styles from a lush sweetie (Quarts de Chaume) to bone dry (Savennières). Its wonderful sparkling wines are labeled Mousseaux or Cremant.

The climate, soil and topography give the wines a minerality and acidity that balances the concentrated flavors pear, peach, lemongrass and honey flavors. Its greatest asset is its acidity, which is ever present even under warm growing conditions like that in eastern Washington. That balancing acidity also makes these wines age-worthy and food worthy.

Aged Chenin Blancs unveil complex aromatics, body and minerality that make these wines so distinguished. Have you ever had a 9-year old bone-dry Chenin Blanc that was the best white wine you’ve ever tasted?

If not, you may want to try a Domaine des Baumard 2010 Clos du Paillon Savennières. It was sublime. The best wine at the gathering. Everyone was blown away by this amazing, old Chenin Blanc. It paired particularly well with the Thai mussels in coconut milk.

The other outstanding Chenin Blanc we tasted was the Domaine des Baumard 2009 Quarts de Chaume. A luscious, honeyed wine with remarkable acidity for a 10-year old sweet white wine. The 375ml bottle yielded about an ounce and a half in each glass. Enough to enjoy the concentrated aromas for some time before indulging in the taste that lingered forever. A slab of pate is the quintessential accompaniment.

Many years ago, domestic Chenin Blanc was a well-received jug wine with few exceptions. One that stood out was Chappellet Vineyard’s old vine Chenin Blanc. High up on Pritchard Hill in Napa Valley, the original vines were producing when Donn and Molly Pritchard purchased the property back in the 1960s.

In the 1980s, Washington was white wine country. Specifically, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat and Chenin Blanc. Two wineries that excelled in Chenin Blanc were Kiona Vineyards and Bookwalter Winery.

If you wander to Red Mountain’s Kiona Vineyard, their old vine Chenin Blanc is a must. In this AVA, well-known for its powerful reds, this pioneering family planted Chenin Blanc in 1976 and then another block in 1983. If the conditions were right, the result was a heavenly ice wine.

But with warmer and warmer winters, ice wine conditions are becoming few and far between. Kiona rolled with the change in climate. Their newest edition is Fortunate Sun, a dessert wine much like a Vin Santo. By pruning the leaf canopy late in the season, the autumn sun works its magic to raisin the grapes. Thus concentrating flavors, aromas and sweetness.

Not too far away in Richland, Bookwalter Winery has a drier version of an old vine Chenin from Yakima Valley’s Willard Vineyard, planted in 1980. Bookwalter hand harvests and whole cluster presses then ferments at cold temps with 60% in concrete egg for 4 months and the remainder in stainless steel. Delightfully delicious.

Other dry and off dry, crisp, aromatic, full-flavored Washington versions that compare favorably to those produced in the Loire Valley:

Lobo Hills Roth Rock Chenin Blanc

McKinley Springs Horse Heaven Hills Chenin

L’Ecole No. 41 Yakima Valley Chenin Blanc

Cedergreen Willard Vineyards Chenin Blanc

This delightful yet highly underrated grape offers so much. So much complexity, flavors and aromas. And its wine pairs so well with a wide range of foods from appetizer to dessert throughout each season, won’t you try some today?

Cheers!

Swoon-worthy Sweetness in your Glass

While watching all that snow piling up, I was reminded of a year when something like this happened and resulted in a wine made from frozen grapes — an ice wine. Perfect timing is needed to produce this rare and exquisite wine.

Centuries ago, before refrigeration, the first frozen liquid beverage may well have been eisbock. It was not so much invented as one of those mistakes that resulted in happily ever after in your stein.

It happened sometime in the 18th century in a brewery in Kulmbach, Germany. Workers accidentally left a few kegs of bock bier out on a cold winter’s night. In the morning, some brave soul (but not as brave as the guy who tasted the first oyster) decided to taste it before feeding it to the livestock. The unfrozen portion of the beer was pretty potent, profoundly delicious and decidedly sweet in its maltiness. Eisbock was born.

Eisbock is a really strong dark beer, strong in both malt and alcohol. Today making an Eisbock is basically the same but using modern equipment such as freezers to freeze the water and separate a portion of it, thus concentrating the alcohol and malt sugars.

Because water has a higher freezing point than alcohol, when the water freezes, it’s easy to remove. When the ice is removed, the remaining beer is stronger in flavor and alcohol.

One of my favorites is the elegant Aventinus Eisbock, which is dark-colored with aromas of baking spices, plums and almonds. They use open fermentation and a fractional freezing process to produce this concentrated beer with 12 percent alcohol. For you home-brewing types, the original gravity was 25.5 percent.

As you may suspect, making a tasty beverage even more rich and concentrated can be done by freezing the juice, wort or fruit. But back then, a hard freeze could only happen in a northern hemisphere country. Definitely Germany, Austria and northern Italy. In the new world, Ontario and the Okanagan in Canada excel with Washington, New York and Idaho producing when Mother Nature cooperates.

In Germany, Eiswein is an elixir that happens in this most northerly wine-producing country with some frequency. When this wine region suffered a particularly harsh winter, somebody tasted the frozen grapes and decided it was too good for the livestock. Records in the late 1700s and early 1800s talk about leaving grapes on the vine and discovering how sweet they were when frozen.

Still, it was rare for conditions to be just right to make an Eiswein until 1961 when weather conditions were ripe and a number of Eisweins were produced. That was the watershed vintage and being Germany, production became more systematic and rules were applied. Conditions had to be 19 degrees Fahrenheit or colder — no chaptalizing (adding sugar) or cryogenics.

Production was also assisted by technology. Portable generators lit up the vineyards in the early-morning hours so pickers could harvest the grapes before the sun rose and thawed the grapes. When the grapes did thaw, rot would set in.

Pressing was done with a bladder press, which is a gentler way of pressing grapes than the screw press. This allowed the concentrated juice to flow, leaving the ice crystals behind. The higher sugar levels in the frozen grapes also make the fermentation process slower than usual.

During the time spent waiting for the ripe grapes to freeze, your winemaker’s fingers are crossed, hoping you don’t lose the harvest to hungry wildlife. The solution to that problem was nets covering the vineyards to keep hungry birds from flying away with the harvest.

From 1961 through the 1990s, production ramped up. But in the early 2000s, Eiswein vintages became more infrequent. Many think climate change may have something to do with it.

An early and unexpected frost produced Canada’s first known icewine in the Okanagan Valley. It was made by a German immigrant, Walter Hainle in 1972. On the other side of the country, Inniskillin Winery produced its first icewine in 1984 under the direction of Austrian-born Karl Kaiser. Inniskillin’s first ice wine was made from Vidal grapes, a white hybrid grape that is very winter-hardy and produces high sugar levels in cold climates with balancing acidity.

After Inniskillin won the Grand Prix d’Honneur at Vinexpo (held in Bordeaux for over a thousand wine professionals around the world) for its 1989 Vidal Icewine, Canada was well on its way to become the largest producer of Icewine in the world. Other traditional vinifera grapes being used today are Riesling, Gewurztraminer and even Cab Franc.

There are a few producers that freeze their grapes cryogenically, but laws prevent them from using the term “ice wine.” Years ago, Randall Graham of Bonny Doon Vineyards, having too many grapes to deal with during harvest, stashed his Riesling in the freezer to be dealt with later. The result was the same as if Mother Nature had been involved but ice wine was not allowed on the label. He got around that by labeling it “Vin de Glaciere.”

This past fall, with three apple trees laden with fruit, my friend, Josh, talked me into making cider. With advice from my wine and beer guru from Vermont, I learned that freezing the apples before putting them in the turn press broke down the molecules in the fruit and produced the sweetest, purest and very cold juice.

Ice cider was originally created in Quebec in 1989, made possible by the frigid cold temperatures and inspired by German Eisweins. Friends from Vermont introduced me to the Quebecois Ice Ciders made in a similar fashion as their Icewines. And like their Icewines, they’re concentrated goodness of fruit sugars, however, ice cider requires almost five times as many apples as regular cider.

Today, there are over 75 producers of ice ciders. A few producers to try would be Neige, Union Libre and Domaine des Salamandres. Serve these Eisweins and Ice Ciders with apple cake, pour concentrated sweetness into small dessert wine glasses for an out-of-this-world pairing.