Chenin Blanc’s champions revive a workhorse white

Tuesday, 15 August, 2017
San Francisco Chronicle - Matt Kettmann
Chenin Blanc is a survivor.

The white wine grape, originally from France’s Loire Valley, was widely planted in California’s early wine-growing days, thanks to a reliably abundant, high-acid crop in almost any conditions. But when Chardonnay was crowned king in the 1980s, surrounded by a royal court of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, Chenin got the hook.

Its once vast acreage, which topped 45,000 acres, was slashed down to about 5,000, leaving isolated pockets across the state, from the North Coast to the Sacramento River Delta to Santa Barbara County. Most of what remained was thrown anonymously into blends or quietly used to energize flabby Chardonnay or lengthen other whites.

Then a new generation of California winemaker emerged in the 2000s, in search of something new, something food-friendly, something zippy. They found romance in these Chenin outposts - at that point growing on rather old vines, usually from old trellising systems, often in somewhat neglected or quantity-focused, rather than quality-minded, conditions. The fruit was also relatively cheap, so the trend set sail.

“I was always looking for an alternative white, a good variety that could maintain acidity,” said Leo Hansen, a Danish sommelier who started his Leo Steen brand in Healdsburg back in 2004. “People were ripping out and planting other things, so I started trying to help preserve these small old spots of Chenin.” (“Steen,” which is Hansen’s middle name, is also what South Africans call Chenin Blanc, the country’s most widely planted grape.)

He’s since worked with Chenin from all across the state, from 34-year-old vines of the Saini Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley to the Santa Ynez Valley’s Jurassic Park Vineyard, where dinosaur-looking oil rigs pump near the ancient, rolling sand dunes that have grown 13 acres of the variety since 1982. He found the latter in 2010, when the vineyard owners could barely give it away. He bought 3 tons.

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Thomas Davidson

Thomas joined wine.co.za in May 2019 after graduating from Stellenbosch University with a BA in History & Ancient Cultures and completing a certificate in Business Management and Entrepreneurship at the Graduate School in Stellenbosch. He moonlights as a radio presenter at MFM - and has an incredible passion for wine. 
We are delighted to have him on the team.