Chenin Blanc & Gamay: 21st Century Mega-Cool Twins
Chenin Blanc & Gamay: 21st Century Mega-Cool Twins
By Paula Redes Sidore and Stuart Pigott
#chenincheninchenin is the battle cry of a global army of sommeliers fighting to make the Chenin Blanc grape great again and at its head stands a modern Jeanne D’Arc by the name of Pascaline Lepeltier. Like the grape she’s a native of the Loire Valley in France, but this movement is based in New York City where Lepeltier was the sommelier of Rouge Tomate restaurant for almost a decade before moving to Racines in Tribeca early this year. Just weeks ago she became the first woman Meilleur Sommelier de France, so neither her knowledge nor her determination are to be underestimated!
Making Chenin Blanc great again strikes many wine professionals around the world as a worthy cause, not only because this is a drastically underrated grape variety, but also because it enjoys the reputation of being the only white grape apart from Riesling that can impress across the entire taste spectrum from bone-dry to honey-sweet thanks to its vibrant acidity and elegance. Although she acknowledges this comparability Lepeltier is always at pains to point out the differences between the two grapes. “Unlike Riesling, Chenin Blanc has a thick skin so it’s not very susceptible to noble rot, and even if you process the grapes very gently you often get some tannin,” she recently explained at a Chenin Blanc workshop tasting for young NYC somms.
The fact that dry Chenin Blanc generally shows more discrete aromatics than Riesling is also an advantage, since it makes the wine more food flexible. The Chenin Blanc renaissance is all about somms recommending the wines in cool restaurants and wine bars, so this factor is important. For example, Freek’s Mill restaurant in Brooklyn is so committed to promoting it that on the white side of the wine list there are a couple of pages titled “Not Loire Chenin”. Such is the Chenin Blanc and Loire dominance there! On the red wine side they also have a couple of pages called “Not Beaujolais” so committed is Freek’s Mill to pushing the wines made from the Gamay grape from this region just north of Lyon.
That pairing of these grapes may strike regular wine consumers as odd, not least because Beaujolais is still struggling to step out of the long shadow of Beaujolais Nouveau, an image problem that the Gamay grape from which it is made doesn’t share with Chenin Blanc. However, it too is drastically underrated and has great food flexibility thanks to its medium-body, lively fruit and naturally bright acidity. The other advantage the two share is they’re much cheaper than the famous names of Burgundy that wine obsessed consumers around Planet Wine worship. That really helped make Chenin & Gamay the hipster somms twin drugs of choice.
To become a major international trend though these two grapes need to consistently deliver interesting wines in more than one winegrowing country, and this is the crucial point where the two dramatically diverge. In South Africa 18.2% of all vineyards are planted with Chenin Blanc, making it the most widely planted grape (compare with fashionable Sauvignon Blanc’s 9.4%). This is almost double the roughly 10,000 hectares of Chenin Blanc vineyards in France! In recent years there has been a winemaking revolution in South Africa around the grapes from old Chenin Blanc vineyards. Although many of these wines are very limited production – another plus for the somms! – that from Mulderbosch (Hall 09, Stand B 28) and A.A. Badenhorst’s Secateurs (Hall 0) brand both enjoy wide international distribution. The question is how can South Africa successfully build on that?
Although the Chenin Blanc plantings in California are much smaller at just shy of 2,000 hectares there is surely the possibility for similar developments there since more than 85% of those vineyards are mature or old. So far however it has been start up wineries rather than the industry’s giants that have grabbed the chance to turn rather cheap grapes into cool wine. Folk Machine in Mendocino even produce a Chenin Blanc called Jeanne D’Arc! A number of well -known wineries in Napa like Chappellet and Pine Ridge produce wine from the grape, but don’t make a noise about it. Might they do so in the near future? Keep your eyes open at ProWein to see who might be showing one or two of these rare gems.
The Gamay story is completely different. Within France Gamay’s image is slowly gaining traction and gravitas. In 2001 Beaujolais Cru made up 26% of the region's production, but in 2015 this figure was up to 40% and that excellent vintage sold out quite fast. The increasing quality of the wines also helped land Beaujolais on Wine Enthusiast magazine’s list of “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations of 2019.” Outside of France, however, Gamay is still a bit of an anomaly. The only significant plantings are in Switzerland where it accounts for just over 10% of the vineyard area. However, this is mostly blended with Pinot Noir to make a light red called Dôle. The problem is that in Switzerland way more red winemaking ambition gets poured into Syrah (just 1% of the vineyard area) than into Gamay. In Ontario (Wines of Ontario, Hall 9, Stand D 48) , Canadian producers like Château des Charmes, Malivoire and 13th Street are making cult wines from this variety, but they are virtually unknown outside Canada. Can picky, natural-obsessed wine geeks outside of Canada be interested in promoting them? Although the power of wine critics in the West has waned considerably due to the rise of social media, the enthusiasm of some influential wine critics for the grape might be enough to push the fashion for Gamay out into the wider wine market.
Back in the wine bars and restaurants of New York City the Gamay from star somm Thomas Pastuzak’s Terrassen winery in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York is one of the coolest reds. However, production is really small because there is just one vineyard source in the entire region (Sheldrake Point, Hall 9, Stand D28). Again and again in different regions around the world Gamay slams into the brick wall created by limited supply. Even California only has 105 hectares! However, with its approachable juicy characteristics, the hope is it will generate continued attention and eventually more plantings. Might they do so in the near future? The Chenin Blanc trend’s chances of growing are much better, but that would almost certainly cost it some of its current coolness. Either way, both of these grapes are enjoying some well deserved attention, and we are eager to see which producers will be taking up the torch at ProWein 2019.