WINE ENTHUSIASTS who zealously seek out chardonnays and sauvignon blancs are ignoring one of California's most refreshing and reasonably priced white wines in favor of high-priced familiarity. They should consider the new chenin blancs.
Chenin blanc has a reputation as a cloyingly sweet wine, a reputation that has often enough been deserved. After all, along with the ubiquitous Thompson seedless grape, chenin blanc is an integral component of virtually every cheap jug wine. Its typical one-dimensional sweetness, however, is more a factor of geography than variety; more than 85 percent of the chenin blanc production emanates from the hot Central Valley regions of California. There, this delicate grape is baked by a hot sun, rendering sweet, alcoholic, clumsy wines destined for one of the area's bulk wine operations. When given special treatment -- as it is increasingly receiving from a number of North Coast California wineries -- chenin blanc is California's most versatile, attractive and reasonably priced white wine.
Among producers of the best-known chenin blancs, there remain several distinct philosophies about the style best suited for this wine. The chenin blancs that are most consistent and take best advantage of the grape's character are being produced by North Coast wineries that emphasize harvesting the grapes slightly underripe so as not to obtain too high an alcohol content, vinifying the wine dry and bottling the wine as soon as possible after the vintage to preserve the freshness and delicacy of the grape. In general these wineries eschew oak aging.
The best results from such treatment are lovely bottles of wine that have in common a fresh, lively character, medium body and a delicate fruitiness. These wines are released in the spring following the harvest, and the fresh, lively character marries happily with the personality of this season. Like spring, the life of these wines is often fleeting, and these chenin blancs should be consumed within two years of their vintage.Perfect aperitif wines, they are also suitable accompaniments to lighter veal and poultry dishes.
Chenin blancs that represent this refreshing style can be purchased for $5 to $7. I highly recommend the following, which are all relatively dry, fresh, fruity, crisp, medium-bodied wines with considerable charm: 1980 Dry Creek, $5.99; 1980 Kenwood, $5.49; 1980 Shown and Sons, $4.99; 1980 Stevendot, $4.99; 1979 Cassayre-Forni, $6.49, and 1980 Robert Mondavi, $6.49.
The other philosophical approach to making chenin blanc also aims for a dry-styled wine, but with high alcohol content and obvious oak aging. In essence, these wineries try to treat chenin blanc as if it were a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. The results of such treatment are a double whammy to the consumer. The wines are not only variable, but also more expensive. One of the successful examples of the full-bodied, oakier style of dry chenin blanc is the 1979 Burgess, $6.59. This winery seems to consistently produce a big-styled chenin blanc that still does not totally submerge the delicate flavors of chenin blanc under layers of oak and alcohol.
Three grotesque and expensive examples of full-bodied, alcoholic chenin blancs on the market are the 1979 Villa Mt. Eden, $8.99; 1979 Mt. Veeder, $6.99, and the 1980 Buehler, $6.29. These three wines have excessive oak in evidence, harsh alcohol content and a heavy, clumsy feel in the mouth, which obscures any traces of the delicate fruitiness of chenin blanc.
Finally, one must contend with medium-sweet chenin blancs. The best of these wines are acceptable aperitif wines, but unless they possess sufficient natural acidity to balance their sweetness, they often are one-dimensional and too cloying. Traditionally three wineries have been able to produce medium-sweet, nicely textured wines with sufficient acidity, although I didn't taste any of their recent releases for this review. These three wineries are Charles Krug, Parducci and San Martin. All three wineries usually market their chenin blancs at prices of $4 to $5.
Although Harry's, MacArthur's, Eagle, A & A, Woodley and Morris Miller have the largest selections, chenin blancs are available throughout the city. Consumers should look for the new 1980 releases of chenin blanc, which are just arriving on the market, and remember to drink up their 1979 chenin blancs by the spring of 1982. Wine Briefs
Values in good California cabernet sauvignons are indeed rare. Perhaps the best value in cabernet sauvignon on today's market is the supple, well-structured, new release of 1978 Beaulieu Beau Tour Cabernet Sauvignon.Selling at a very reasonable price of $4.49 to $5.49, this medium to dark ruby wine has an appealing, spicy, black-currant fruitiness, good intensity and adequate tannin to prevent its decline for at least two to three years. It is good enough to please even the most demanding connoisseurs of cabernet sauvignon.
Lower prices for French wines? Yes, prices of most French wines have dropped, and are expected to continue to decline, at least slightly. A stronger dollar, declining French wine sales in this country and some backlogs in the distribution channels have resulted in some attractive values. Overpriced wines such as pouilly-fuisse, after skyrocketing to double-digit prices of $14 to $16 per bottle, can now be found at $9 to $11, and 1979 bordeaux future offerings are 20 to 35 percent lower than the same future offerings of 1978 bordeaux a year ago. A firm dollar, a continuation of America's growing infatuation with its own wines and the finer wines of Italy, and a good and big 1981 harvest in France could set the scene for futher declines in French wine prices.