Chenin Blanc: The taste of terroir

Historical records show that it was in the ninth century A.D. that the first recording of the grape Chenin Blanc was found. This was in an area of central France in the Loire River Valley. To this day, Chenin Blanc remains the predominant grape in this area, and its presence has expanded throughout the world as well. With respect to the subtle rivalries that are present amongst French winemakers, I will say that while Burgundy and Bordeaux want to be the headliners, the winemakers of the Loire are out to steal the show.

Chenin Blanc, as the name implies, is a white grape. It is generally high in acidity, and its flavor profile is dependent on the region in which it is grown. In general, the grape is described as neutral in its flavor profile and the winemakers and viticulturists in the Loire Valley tend to describe its flavor as an expression of the terroir of the land. Terroir is a word used on an increasing basis today to describe a wine’s relationship to the soils the grape originated in. The term terroir is somewhat controversial in the academic and research word in that it is somewhat hard to define scientifically. When sensory scientists get together to describe a wine, they are looking for specific flavor descriptors, like citrus, mango and apple; terms that have a specific meaning. When you talk about Chenin Blanc with the producers in the Loire Valley, they are quick to talk about the wines expressing the terroir of the vineyard site. When prompted to be more specific, they come up with a term called “minerality.” Historically, and of record with my writings, I have purposely avoided the subject of “minerality” in articles because it was a term that was ill defined. It could mean “tasting like a rock” or refer to many of the minerals contained on the periodic table of the elements. The same as I thought of the word terroir. As I learn more about terroir, I tend to think of it as a term that describes the wine, in relation to the origin of the fruit, as well the people who made the wine. A recent visit to the Loire Valley confirms this personal feeling as I heard on numerous occasions the passion of the local winemakers, as they described their individual vineyard sites and how their families had cultivated the same sites for hundreds of years.

The terms terroir and minerality are apparently controversial, yet everyone is using them. Thus someone sought out to at least start working to define them. Recent research conducted at UC-Davis sought to attempt to define the term minerality, as it is used so often to describe a wine, and not just limited to discussions about Chenin Blanc. This research showed that when prompted, trained sensory panels described minerality as a wine with, “little fruit character, if any fruit, than that of citrus, little to no oak characteristics and of generally high acid.” At last, it is described as something tangible that I could latch on to. The Loire is a cooler region of France and thus supports the higher acid wines. Another characteristic of Chenin Blanc is that its mouthfeel tends to be very thin, resulting in a short finish. This is something I understand with respect to Chenin Blanc, because this is what I taste. The best Chenin Blancs in the world taste as I have described, and while very simple in nature, the way that the winemakers who made them described the process further defined how I have come to understand the true meaning of terroir.

My recent visit to the Loire Valley offered me the opportunity and the honor to taste through many classic examples of Chenin Blanc and hear the winemaker’s individual stories. The general theme, with no exception, was that the story started in the vineyard, with soils consisting of largely rocks on rolling hillside, to clay and schist. The vines were trained in the typical guyot style seen all around France. In the US and Canada, we collectively refer to this training as head trained-cane pruning, but because the soils are so limiting, the vines have just two shoots. The land is farmed in what is known as a biodynamic method, which means there is very little, if any, use of pesticides, herbicides or fungicides. There is a balance in the normal microscopic flora of the vineyard, and the winemakers respect that flora as the grapes come in to the winery. In the winery, the grapes are crushed and pressed and allowed to undergo a natural yeast fermentation.

We tasted through what seemed like a hundred barrels, and while most were dry, there was a small percentage that was still sweet and we were just a month and a half away from the next vintage. The winemakers showed no concern as they understood their wines, and know that patience is the key to producing an outstanding wine. Some of the wines were barrel fermented; others fermented in stainless steel tanks. All of them seemed to have some type of barrel aging. They were allowed to undergo a natural malolactic fermentation as well. One winemaker described his “cave” as shaping the wines with its own natural terroir. Simply described, the black mold and the cloaks of spider webs made for some pretty interesting pictures. The same winemaker also was bringing out Chenin examples that were over twenty years old. The older wines, while a bit more yellow in color, were still very fresh in nature and I was extremely jealous of the ageability of the wines. This is something that is not easily carried out in the world of California winemaking where I come from. California doesn’t have the same soil profiles leading to wines with such solid acid profiles.

Chenin Blanc in the Loire is a very versatile grape. It is made into a sparkling wine called Crémant de Loire, dry white wines in the Anjou and a sweeter style in the Vouvray. Fruit yields are regulated in the Loire to produce quality fruit. Sometimes the producers are fortunate enough to get the proper conditions for the noble rot, Botrytis, and an intensely sweet style is made. However, the decision for which style of wine the grape would be made into is not a decision solely based on the sub region of the Loire, but rather the conditions of the season that the various regions are experiencing. Cool conditions yield grapes low in sugar and high in acidity, prompting the winemakers to produce a dry wine, and perhaps putting it through sur lie ageing and the malolactic fermentation to soften the wine’s presence on the palate. If the conditions are warmer with the potential for high sugars, either a dry or off dry style with riper flavors of apricot or melon could be produced. Some winemakers have been known to make several harvest passes in the vineyard and produce a myriad of styles in any given vintage based on the optimal condition of the grape. Aside from the Crémant, Chenin Blanc from the Loire valley can age very well if made with sound winemaking techniques.

Chenin Blanc’s presence in the rest of the world is not as storied as the Loire but notable in its own right. Unfortunately, its notoriety is that of a “workhorse” variety. Its high acid makes it a perfect variety for the warmer viticultural regions of the world. It was not known as Chenin Blanc in South Africa for many years, rather being produced using the variety name of Steen. The vineyard area of South Africa currently exceeds that of France. In the United States, specifically California, the grape is grown in the warmest regions of the state, primarily to be used as a blending grape for bulk wines being produced by the large wineries of the Central Valley. Some of the acidity in bulk-produced Chardonnay can directly be attributed the acidity of Chenin Blanc. Sadly, varietal character is lost in these plantings as the vines are pushed to produce upwards of 15 to 20 tons of fruit per acre.

n contrast to the bulk wine it supplements, one producer in the Clarksburg AVA in the Sacramento River delta has been producing a quality Chenin Blanc for many years now. There are isolated plantings in the Mendocino County region of Northern California, then in Oregon and Washington, but these do not amount to much. Other regions of the world where it is planted are Canada’s Okanagan Valley, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and Spain. So there is hope that it may catch on as a variety capable of producing a quality wine outside of the Loire, albeit fruit yields are controlled and the climate is on the cooler side.

The history of Chenin is long storied. It’s ironic, to me, how many wine writers could classify a grape with such a long history as a “workhorse” variety. It would seem it is, indeed, a workhorse if you look at where the bulk of Chenin Blanc goes to in the world wine market. But often, in today’s winemaking world that is so convoluted with corporate acquisitions, label “floating,” and wine sales that are only driven by consumer demand, we forget there is a story behind a grape and its wine. I am beginning to capture the true meaning of terroir, but my definition of the true meaning of terroir goes beyond what is being hyped out of marketing departments of corporate wineries or cult wineries that have only been in existence for a few years. Terroir is an expression of the land, the people who cultivate that land, and the wines they produce.

Chenin Blanc Recipe

(yield: 5 gal/19 L)

• 100 lbs. (45 kg) Chenin Blanc fruit, or 6 gallons (23 L) clarified commercially available juice.
• Distilled water
• 10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution: Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 75 millliters (mL) of distilled water. When completely dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.
• 5 grams Lallemand QA23 yeast (Premier Cuvée can also be used as a substitute for QA23 – 5 grams)
• 5 grams Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
• 5 grams Di-ammonium Phosphate (DAP)
• Freeze dried malolactic bacteria (ChrHansen)

Other equipment and needs
• 5-gallon (19-L) carboy
• 6-gallon (23-L) carboy
• 6-gallon (23-L) plastic bucket
• Airlock/stopper
• Racking hoses
• Equipment cleaning and sanitizing agents (Bio-Clean, Bio-San)
• Inert gas (nitrogen, argon or carbon dioxide)
• Refrigerator (~45 °F/7 °C) to cold settle the juice. (Remove the shelves so that the bucket will fit.)
• Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 55 °F (13 °C)
• Thermometer capable of measuring between 40–110 °F (4–43 °C) in one degree increments
• Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 milliliter
• Clinitest® tablets to measure residual sugar at the completion of fermentation
• Ability to test or have testing per formed for sulfur dioxide

Step by Step
1. Crush and press the grapes. Do not delay between crushing and pressing.

2. Move the must directly to the press and press lightly to avoid extended contact with the skins and seeds.

3. Transfer the juice to a 6-gallon (23-L) bucket. During the transfer, add 16 milliliters of 10% KMBS solution (This addition is the equivalent of 40 mg/L (ppm) SO2). Move the juice to the refrigerator.

4. Let the juice settle at least overnight. Layer the headspace with inert gas and keep covered.

5. Measure the Brix.

6. Adjust the acidity to 0.6-0.7%.

7. When sufficiently settled, rack the juice off of the solids into the 6-gallon (23-L) carboy.

8. Prepare yeast. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42 °C). Measure the temperature. Pitch the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension. Measure the temperature of the juice. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the temperature of the yeast and the must temperature difference exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter.

9. Add Fermaid K or equivalent yeast nutrient.

10. Initiate the fermentation at room temperature ~(65–68 °F/18–20 °C) and once fermentation is noticed, (~24 hours) move to a location where the temperature can be maintained at 55 °F (13 °C).

11. Two days after fermentation starts, dissolve the DAP in as little distilled water required to completely go into solution (usually ~ 20 mL). Add directly to the carboy.

12. Normally you would monitor the progress of the fermentation by measuring Brix. One of the biggest problems with making white wine at home is maintaining a clean fermentation. Entering the carboy to measure the sugar is a prime way to infect the fermentation with undesirable microbes. If your airlock becomes dirty by foaming over, remove it and clean it and replace as quickly and cleanly as possible. Sanitize anything that will come in contact with the juice.

13. Leave alone until bubbles in the airlock are about one bubble per minute. Usually about two to three weeks. Measure the Brix every 2–3 days.

14. The wine is considered dry, or nearly dry when the Brix reached -1.5 Brix or less. Measure the residual sugar using the Clinitest®. When the result is less than 0.5%, raise the temperature to about 65 °F (18 °C) and then inoculate with your malolactic bacteria.

15. Monitor the progress of the malolactic fermentation using paper chromatography.

16. When the MLF is complete, add 3 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon of wine. This is the equivalent to ~40 ppm addition. Transfer the wine to the 5-gallon (19-L) carboy and lower the temperature to 38–40 °F
(3–4 °C).

17. After two weeks, test for pH and SO2 adjust as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. (There is a simple SO2 calculator on the Web at www.winemakermag.com/guide/sulfite). Check the SO2 in another two weeks, prior to the next racking and adjust while racking. This is done at about four to six weeks after the first SO2 addition. Once the free SO2 is adjusted, maintain at the target level by monitoring every three to four weeks.

18. Consult winemakermag.com for tips on fining and filtration.

19. At about three months you are ready to bottle the wine. Maintain sanitary conditions. Periodically check the wine every few months.

Some winemakers have been known to make several harvest passes in the vineyard and produce a myriad of styles in any given vintage based on the optimal condition of the grape. Aside from the Crémant, Chenin Blanc from the Loire valley can age very well . . .