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Reviews Wines

Chenin Blanc: The Quality Revolution

Loire & South African Chenin Blanc

Another week, another flight!  Next grape up to bat is Chenin Blanc. This incredibly versatile white can be made in a range of styles from sparkling, to still (dry and off-dry), to sweet wines.  This week, we are looking at entry level and premium still wines from Chenin’s two strongholds: the Loire Valley and South Africa.

For many years Chenin Blanc has gotten a bad rap outside of its historic home in the Loire Valley.  It is a vigorous grape that grows well in many soil types and climates.  When over cropped, the wines are insipid and forgettable.  In overly hot climates the grapes ripen too quickly leaving insufficient time for much aromatic complexity to develop. This was the case for a long time in South Africa, where the majority of Chenin Blanc was used to add acidity to high volume, bulk blends.  Ditto in California, where plantings were highest in the hot Central Valley for jug wine production.

Happily, the days of cheap and cheerful Chenin plonk are fading.  More and more growers (those that didn’t pull up their vines to plant more popular varieties) are starting to show Chenin the love…and as our friends in the Loire knew already, when the vine is in balance and optimal maturity is reached at the right pace, the wines are stunning. At its best, Chenin has bright, pure fruit flavours ranging from quince, apple, honey and spice in cool climates to more ripe, tropical and peach notes in warmer areas.  The palate is vibrant with bracing acidity, lots of juicy fruit flavours, light to medium body, moderately high alcohol (12°c – 13.5°c) and often a hint of sweet, tangy fruit on the finish.

For dry to off-dry styles of Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Vouvray is king (sparkling through to sweet styles are produced here, but we will look at those at a later date).  The vineyard sits atop a plateau on the right bank of the Loire Valley.  Dotted through the town are the most incredible, cavernous cellars, carved out of the local white Tuffeau stone (a marine sedimentary rock).  The cool, continental climate and diverse soil composition gives wines with racy acidity, intense depth of flavour and lingering minerality. On a visit to see Benjamin Joliveau, viticulturalist with Domaine Huet, I had the pleasure of tasting through a vertical of off-dry and sweet Vouvray dating back to 1985.  With age, the acidity mellowed, and notes of dried apricot, honey and baking spice intensified.

Bone dry, brimming with juicy acidity and richly textured, the Savennières vineyard near the town of Angers, gives another expression of high quality Loire Chenin Blanc.  Once considered austere and hard-edged in their youth, Savennières wine growers are starting to make more readily approachable styles. The vineyard was made famous by biodynamic wine pioneer Nicolas Joly whose wines from the vineyard plot “Coulée de Serrant” are world renowned.

It is thought that the founder of Cape Town, Jan Van Riebeeck, brought Chenin Blanc cuttings over to South Africa in 1655.  The grape, sometimes referred to locally as Steen, is still the most widely planted variety in the country. Dry styles range from light and fruity, to full bodied and oaked.  The Coastal Region, Stellenbosch, and the Swartland are just three appellations (called WO, Wine of Origin, in South Africa) that are making noise internationally with their interpretations of Chenin Blanc.  The secret to great South African Chenin Blanc, according to my dear friend and South African wine guru Pascal Schildt, is the high volume of old vines that produce rich, concentrated flavour.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose classic examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer):

Ken Forrester “Petit” Chenin Blanc 2015 (Western Cape) – 87pts. VW

Ken Forrester is a highly respected Chenin Blanc producer from Stellenbosch. This everyday white is pale golden in colour with green hues.  Ripe melon, guava and candied peach notes dominate the nose.  Dry, light bodied and fresh with a subtle effervescence, and a fruity finish.  Simple, but well-made and easy drinking, representing decent value.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (14.85$)

 Marc Brédif Vouvray 2013 – 89pts. PW

Restrained notes of red apple, quince, baking spices and subtle floral aromas. Bracing acidity leads into a juicy, medium weight core and a lifted, ripe apple finish. A well-balanced, linear wine that is drinking well now but shows little potential for further development.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (20.45$)

 Domaine Ogereau “Clos le Grand Beaupréau” Savennières 2012 – 93pts. PW

The Ogereau family refer to themselves as “vine gardeners” referring to the loving care lavished on each individual vine in their 20 hectare holdings. This heady, enticing white shows ginger, honey, quince jelly and baked apple on the nose. The bright, zesty acidity is balanced by the ample frame, but the alcohol runs a touch hot and a subtle bitterness on the finish stops this wine just shy of perfect.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (30.50$)

 Domaine Huet “Clos du Bourg” Vouvray sec 2012 – 90Pts. LW

Biodynamic estate, Domaine Huet is one of the leading lights of Vouvray.  The Clos du Bourg, one of the domaine’s best vineyards, is reputed for its shallow, stony soils giving intense minerality and generous texture. This dry Chenin has a soft, pretty nose featuring cinnamon, baked apples, honey, quince and mineral notes. Racy acidity, broad, juicy texture and lingering minerality.  This was a wet, cool vintage; not the best example of this vineyard’s potential but nonetheless well-made and enjoyable.

Where to Buy: SAQ (43.50$)

 Bellingham “The Bernard Series” Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2014 (Coastal Region) – 87pts. PW

The Bellingham estate is one of the oldest in South Africa, dating back to the 1690s. This intensely aromatic white has an oak-rich crème brulée character, with tropical fruit and apricot undertones. Lively and full-bodied, with a broad, creamy texture, and a toasty finish. The heavy handed use of oak and warming alcohol throws off the balance.

 Where to Buy: SAQ (25.00$)

Reviews Wines

A Closer Look at Cabernet Sauvignon

Tokara Winery

This week’s wine flight centres around Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. Originally from the South West of France with mentions as far back as the sixteen hundreds, Cabernet Sauvignon is a cross between the white grape Sauvignon Blanc and the red Cabernet Franc. Today, it is the most planted wine grape in the world.

What makes Cabernet Sauvignon so popular to grow? It is hardy, fairly disease and frost resistant and adapts well to a huge variety of climates and soil types. Cabernet Sauvignon has a fantastic aromatic and structural range; from green, herbaceous notes with vibrant acidity and a taut frame in cooler climates to intense black currant and dark berry fruits with more moderate acidity and broader structure in warmer areas. Top Cabernet Sauvignon has high acidity, full body and firm tannins allowing for excellent ageing potential, and with that, the potential for further aromatic development, the mellowing of texture and softening of tannins.

I fell in love with Bordeaux in 2004. It was the eve of my departure for Burgundy to study in Beaune. My father, an unabashed French wine fanatic, decided to send me off in style. Knowing that I would get more than my fill of incredible Burgundies in the months to come, he decided to open a great Bordeaux, from a top vintage; namely a Château Léoville Las Cases 1982 from St. Julien. It was elegant and refined with so many layers of flavour, such a soft, silky mouthfeel and fine grained, rounded tannins. It just went on and on. Incredible…unforgettable. Sigh…

Unfortunately not all Cabernet blends from Bordeaux are that earth shattering. There are poor vintages, mediocre quality growers, lots of mass-produced wines at the cheaper end of the spectrum, not to mention the waiting game…the better Bordeaux need time to soften and develop. They are often quite green, austere and pucker-inducing in their youth. Aromas range from green pepper, graphite, violets and black currant at first, to tobacco, cedar, leather and earthy notes with age.

Stellenbosch in the Western Cape’s Coastal Region of South Africa has also developed a name for itself for good quality (and value) Cabernet. Despite a fairly hot, dry climate, Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon is distinctive for its herbaceous, eucalyptus aromas, restrained black currant and signature singed/ smoky notes. Dry and medium bodied like Bordeaux with similar use of French oak, but more moderate acidity and slightly higher alcohol levels.

The Coonawarra is a comparatively tiny vineyard area (just 15km x 2km) within the Limestone Coast area of South Australia. This out of the way pocket of vines is sought after due to the Terra Rossa (red soil) that has proved an incredible terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines are intensely fruity with black currant and plum notes; and lots of spicy mint undertones. Moderate to fresh acidity, full body, velvetty structure and firm, chewy tannins. Depending on the grower, oak is either restrained, spicy French or more overt, vanilla and coconut scented American.

The Mendoza region of Argentina provides Cabernet Sauvignon a cocktail of high altitude, ample sun and rocky soils. The resulting wines are fresh, with an intriguing combination of power and elegance. Aromas include black currant, black cherry and plum, underpinned with sweet spices and vanilla. Acidity, body and tannin are all high here, though tend to be balanced and smooth in the best examples, with well integrated American and/ or French oak.

Last but certainly not least, the Napa Valley. In a famous 1976 tasting in Paris, Cabernet Sauvignon from the famous Stag’s Leap beat out Bordeaux 1st growths in a blind tasting. Napa growers are, understandably, proud of their terroir. Cabernet Sauvignon grown here is powerful and lush. Ripe black and red fruits, soft menthol, eucalyptus notes and oak aromas dominate. The best examples generally have moderate acidity, full body, broad structure, firm, silky tannins and lots of toasty, vanilla oak on the finish.

For the purposes of this initial overview tasting, I chose classic examples from the following producers (What do VW, PW & LW mean?  Click on my scoring system for the answer):

Château Citran AOC Haut Médoc 2010 – 90pts. LW

Bordeaux blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with ~5% Cabernet Franc. Restrained and earthy on the nose with notes of black currant, menthol, cedar and tobacco leaf. Bright, juicy acidity, medium body, firm, rounded tannins, moderate alcohol and subtle oak. Needs time or, barring that, a couple of hours in a decanter to unwind.

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Ontario or Québec

Les Fiefs de Lagrange AOC St. Julien 2010 – 92pts. LW

The second wine of renowned St. Julien property Château Lagrange. The blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot & 10% Petit Verdot. More elegant and intense with layered aromas of sweet cherry, cassis, violet, earthy notes, tobacco and eucalyptus. Full bodied with a silky texture, vibrant acidity, very firm, fine grained tannins and well integrated oak.

Where to Buy: Not currently available in Ontario or Québec

Le Bonheur Stellenbosch Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 – 86pts. PW

This prominent Stellenbosch estate on the Simonsberg Mountain was established in the 18 hundreds. The wine shows a marked green character with eucalyptus, menthol and bell pepper notes dominating the soft black fruit undertones. Full bodied with moderate acidity and grippy tannins. The juicy fruit character on the palate seems at odds with the green nose.

Where to Buy: SAQ (23.50$)

Jim Barry “The Cover Drive” Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 90pts. PW

Seductive notes of cassis, plum and dark cherry, with underlying minty and dark chocolate aromas. Good balance of fresh acidity and full-bodied, fruity structure. Lots of vanilla-rich oak aromas here. Tannins are pronounced, but ripe. Very pleasant, but no aromatic development in glass.

Where to Buy: LCBO (26.95$), SAQ (27.55$)

Catena Mendoza Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 93pts. PW

Leading Argentinian producer Catena is hailed as a pioneer of top quality, high altitude wines in the Mendoza region. Pretty nose of ripe blackberries, tea leaf, dark chocolate, menthol and subtle cedar notes. The palate is fresh and lively; full bodied with a smooth texture, soft tannins and present, but well integrated oak.  Easy drinking; great value for the price.

Where to Buy: LCBO (19.95$), SAQ (22.30$)

Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – 89pts. PW

Robert Mondavi was known world-wide for his tireless efforts to gain global recognition for the high quality of Napa Valley wines.  The winery has since been sold, but the wines are still well-made. This Cab shows attractive menthol, cassis, raspberry, sweet spice and intense vanilla notes on the nose. Bright, juicy acidity is backed by a full body and firm tannic structure. It is tightly wound; needs time for the oak to integrate and the tannins to soften.

Where to Buy: LCBO (34.95$), SAQ (34.75$)