Why is California chenin blanc so uniformly mediocre? I suppose, given that chenin is not a “glamor” variety, it’s not economically feasible to try to make one from sensibly yielding old vines in an appropriate place. Most California chenin comes from vines in the Central Valley, cropped at 10+ tons/acre- and tastes that way, quite neutral and only the faintest shadow of properly raised chenin. So the cheap mediocrities continue to flow and the concept of making a first-rate wine out of this great variety remains just a concept. Until…
For some years now, Weinstock has been making a cheap, mediocre chenin from a vineyard in Clarksburg. It’s usually better than most, but nothing I would want to actually pay money for. Just as an experiment, in 1998 they did exactly what no one else has bothered doing- try to grow a world-class chenin. They selected grapes from a particularly good block in the vineyard, kept the yields reasonable, and did a blend with about 8% chardonnay. The result is labelled “Contour”.
The first whiff is more suggestive of sauv blanc than chenin- a definite fresh cat-pee/eucalyptus smell. The back label talks about the aroma of “civet”- I guess that’s the variety of cat, but that distinction is beyond my tasting abilities. After a few minutes, the fruit starts pouring out and it doesn’t stop. Rather than go through a laundry list, let me just say that every sniff yielded up something new and that every fruit I know was hinted at over the two hours we spent with this bottle. At the point when I drained the last, it was still changing and evolving.
The flavor end of things was no let-down; this is a wine of great intensity and weight, with melons and cantaloupes leading the charge. I’d guess the residual sugar to be under 1%, with an acidity sufficient to give the impression of total dryness. The Other Stupid felt that the finish could be longer, not in the sense of time, but of how far back on the palate the flavors reach. Persistance in the mouth and intensity of retronasal aroma was definitely not a problem! Did I say “intensity”? Did I say “weight”? Fine, I’ll say ’em again. In fact, my wife couldn’t drink it- she thought it was “too much”. Total fruit focus – no oak or odd spices get in the way, allowing the complexity of fruit to carry through.
There’s a few lessons in this. First, one CAN make great chenin in California and I’m even sadder now realizing the huge wasted potential of vineyards overcropped and vineyards planted to yet-more chardonnay and merlot in inappropriate areas. Second, there was no attempt to make a Loire-clone; this is clearly a wine which plays on the strengths of California viticulture, focused fruit and intensity of character. This use of the strengths of California, rather than slavishly copying a European model, is the common thread of our greatest wines. Third, this wine makes a mockery of the argument that sterile filtration, performed properly, strips a wine of depth or intensity. If this had any more going on, it wouldn’t be able to fit into a 750 ml bottle. Flat-out great wine- with the caveat that you want something this intense. It’s also a flat-out bargain at about $8-9 street price. The package and the quality are more reminiscent of something in the $25 range, so let’s not tell them that they’ve underpriced it. I rate the Contour a Larry Double Curly.
As a side note, this wine is Kosher, mevushal, and Kosher for Pesach- you bet it will be on my Seder table. It might even be a good match for charoset and moror, salted potatoes and parsley. If you have any Orthodox friends, let them open the bottle and handle it after it’s open, lest your pagan uncleanness contaminate the wine. And I would add that aging the Contour is a task for only the bravest (or dumbest) of souls- California chenin does not typically age well and I can’t imagine what you would want from this wine that isn’t already there.