RECENTLY FACED WITH A MUDDY BUCKET of wild-foraged oysters, I remembered a French winemaker friend who happily washed down the most enormous mollusks with copious amounts of crisp, white chenin blanc. It’s a wine that’s uncommon here on the Island, but gaining ground with wine lovers exploring their options.
To be clear, we’re not talking about jug-wine chenin blanc grown in California’s Central Valley. It’s a versatile grape with a wide range of styles and serious efforts come mainly from France and South Africa. In recent years, a handful of vineyards in the U.S. have put a few acres here and there. And amazingly, we have world-class chenin blanc right on Long Island. It’s an interesting story.
Many years ago, Paumanok Vineyards owners Charles and Ursula Massoud bought a nearby North Fork vineyard planted with many grape varieties, including chenin blanc. They planned to rip it out, along with other neglected vines. But a visitor commented that the chenin blanc looked healthy, so they kept it. Kareem Massoud, their son, grew up to be the winemaker and decided to experiment with a 100% chenin blanc. It almost immediately gained a cult following and Paumanok made the rather bold decision to plant more, for a total of seven acres.
Paumanok’s 2014 Chenin Blanc ($28) benefits from an outstanding season of sunny, dry weather. The well-ripened grapes reached almost 22 brix, creating flavors that translate into tones of tropical fruit. “It never ceases to amaze how this wine has great appeal, to novices and pros alike,” Kareem said. “I like to call it a sour patch wine. It has a sweetish attack but finishes with intense citric acidity that makes your mouth water and crave another sip.”
The 2015 Minimalist Chenin Blanc ($45) is something special. It’s made of hand-selected clusters, pressed whole after 18 hours skin contact. It is then spontaneously fermented with indigenous yeast and aged for seven months in stainless steel tanks. It’s fairly low alcohol, at 11%, and dry, with only 0.5% residual sugar. Taste-wise, it’s subtle and delicate, with honey notes and a citrus zing. The Minimalist was definitely the winner with the smaller, raw oysters, whereas the 2014 Chenin Blanc really complemented the large “rabbit ear” oysters grilled in butter and herbs de Provence.
Because chenin blanc is in low demand here in the U.S., decent foreign examples aren’t expensive, making them an ideal choice for a casual lunch. Chenin blanc is the white grape of the central Loire Valley, but the first thing to know about French wine is that it’s not going to tell you what it is, just where it comes from. Look for wines from Anjou-Saumur, Touraine and Vouvray; they’re usually next to the Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé in the wine shop. Or just read the back label; often the importer mentions the grape variety.
French chenin blanc ranges from very dry (sec), to sweet (moelleux) wines affected by botrytis, or noble rot. Savennières is a small appellation famous for very dry, minerally chenins. But the more common wines are often done in a light, “medium-dry” style, which is label-speak for slightly sweet. An example is the 2014 Domaine de Vaufuget Vouvray ($12). It’s a pretty wine, very European, with notes of honeydew melon and white flowers, and a perfect choice for a spritzer. From South Africa, Boekenhoutskloof’s 2014 The Wolftrap White ($10) is a blend of chenin blanc, viognier and grenache blanc, with pear, ginger, and just a kiss of vanilla from barrel aging. It’s an outstanding wine at this price point; I actually had to double-check the receipt.