The Ebb and Flow of Washington Chenin Blanc

“Wine cheers the sad, revives the old, inspires the young, makes weariness forget his toil.”
Lord Byron

Awhile ago I posted a story on Instagram about a California Chenin Blanc blend that I really enjoyed, paired with Chips and Clam Dip to celebrate the 4th of July weekend. The post generated some great comments including this one: “I tried this wine last week and loved it! At my local wine store I asked if they had any Chenin Blanc and they said ‘How do you spell that?'” This made me laugh and didn’t necessarily surprise me. American Wine consumers have had an Ebb and Flow Relationship with Chenin Blanc dating back to the 1970’s. In specifically searching out Washington State Chenin Blanc wines for this story I have discovered the difficulty in finding the wines outside of the winery tasting rooms.

History shows that before the 1980’s and the rise of Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, there was a larger number of Vineyards in California and Washington growing Chenin Blanc. Surprisingly at one time, the United States actually had more acreage of this varietal than France. Unfortunately, a large number of these grape vines were pulled to make room for more “fashionable” grape varieties, although there are still some stronghold pockets in the United States. Fortunately, there seems to be a Chenin Blanc revival with this chameleon grape getting the notice it so rightly deserves. I think it is time to wake up from our traditional white wines slumber and again explore the possibilities of this grape.

Sometimes referred to as the “queen of grapes” in the Loire Valley of France, Chenin Blanc is a versatile white-wine grape variety that in the United States has gone in and out of favor with Wine Lovers.

Chenin Blanc is a very versatile grape, it has an incredible ability to acclimate to a variety of conditions and it can also skillfully express its regional terroir. The grape has a tendency to bud early and ripens late, which makes it a resourceful contender in the production of dry to sweet and even sparkling wines. Due to its complexity the Chenin Blanc grape can vary greatly in flavor and aroma. The most common flavors found in Chenin Blanc wine include, pear, apple, honey, melon, citrus, nuts, and even some warm spices like ginger. Chenin Blanc is such a adaptable wine and the delicious dry layers of complexity compliment an array of cuisine.

There has in recent years been a shift in the White Wines being produced in Washington State, as a growing number of uncommon grape varieties are altering white wine palates. In a state where Chardonnay and Riesling make up nearly 80% of the white wine grapes harvested each year, a new frontier is being explored with more and more white varietals. A number of Washington wineries are producing 100% vintages and blends with Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion, Gewürztraminer, Viognier, and Chenin Blanc. Add in the Rhone Blends which include any combination of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Ugni Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Picpoul and white wines may soon give Washington Reds a run for their money.

Morning light on Upland Vineyard on Snipes Mountain.
Photo from https://wineyakimavalley.org/upland-vineyard-winery/

A sampling of the Vineyards in Washington State that are currently growing Chenin Blanc:

  • Upland Vineyard: Upland vineyard on Snipes Mountain in Sunnyside is farmed by the Newhouse family. Their parcel of Chenin Blanc was planted in 1979 on a 25% slope, 1,000 ft elevation, facing southwest with a stunning view of Mt. Adams.
  • Willard Farms, Yakima Valley
  • Phil Church, Yakima Valley
  • Rothrock, Yakima Valley: The Rothrock vineyard in Prosser in the Yakima Valley was planted in the 1970s with Chenin Blanc. Rothrock is at 855 feet above sea level with a 15% slope. This south facing vineyard has shallow topsoil that is very fine sand and silt loam on top of basalt bedrock.
  • Pontin vineyard
  • Vineyard del Sol
  • Roza Hills Vineyard: The Chenin Blanc block at Roza Hills vineyard in Zillah was planted in 1982. The vines are on a south facing slope of the Rattlesnake Hills, 1200 feet at the highest point on Moxee series soils which is fine silt loam with chunks of decomposed basalt on top a hard layer of calcium carbonate called caliche.
  • Hahn Hill Vineyard
  • Arete Vineyards
  • Wahluke Slope
  • McKinley Springs Vineyard: This Old Vine Chenin Blanc is grown by father and son duo of Rob and Justin Andrews. Nestled in the heart of the Horse Heaven Hills, this Chenin was planted in 1981 and still yields around 3 – 3.5 tons per acre. Deeply rooted in the Warden silt loam soils around 945 feet in elevation.
Washington State AVAs
Image from Washington Wine Association Website.
https://www.washingtonwine.org/

In 2018 approximatly 380 tons of Chenin Blanc were harvested from Washington Vineyards.

Washington Chenin Blanc

A delicious array of some of the most recent Washington Chenin Blanc wines.

Chenin Blanc is often considered a simple, fruity wine, now some Washington wineries are taking on the challenge to make a higher quality Chenin Blanc, in a more complex dry style. During my tasting of several Washington Chenin Blanc wines last month, which are in fact very similar, each revealed a unique flavor profile authentically their own. Below are the Washington Chenin Blanc wines that I tasted for this article.

2015 Waitsburg Cellars Chevray Old Vine Chenin Blanc

Although I thoroughly enjoyed each of the Washington Chenin Blancs that I tasted during my research for this post, the Waitsburg Cellars is coming in first as my favorite.

The Chenin Blanc grapes for the 2015 Vintage of Waitsburg Cellars Chevray Old Vine Chenin Blanc were sourced in 2013 from Upland Vineyard in the heart of Yakima Valley. Upland Vineyards is located within the Snipes Mountain AVA were they have been farming wine grapes since 1968. This is a beautiful 100% Chenin Blanc single vineyard vintage that was aged in 100% neutral barrels, bottled in April and released in June of 2014. I have to admit that this Chenin Blanc really wowed me in every way. From the color to the aromatics to the flavor this wine dazzled.

With this Chenin Blanc you are immediately greeted by a alluring creamy golden hue. The aromatics on the Waitsburg Cellars Chenin are a wave of minerals and soft pear and ripe banana with hints of salt, like an ocean mist. The flavor of a banana comes through in the first sip with swirls of vanilla, almost like a subtle banana split. This wine has a gentle round sweetness, like honey on the tongue. This is a delicious well balanced Chenin Blanc and although it would pair well with many things my mind went immediately to dessert, like a White Cake with Raspberry filling and Buttercream frosting. I truly hope that Waitsburg Cellars continues to make this Chenin Blanc and I will be looking for another bottle to pair with a lovely dessert.

2017 ORR Chenin Blanc

2018 is the sixth vintage of this Old Vine Chenin, ORR used a blend of three different heritage vineyards from Washington’s Columbia Valley.

The 2018 ORR Old Vine Chenin Blanc is a 100% Chenin and was harvested from Rothrock, Upland and Roza Hills Vineyards. Aged in old French oak barrels for 5 months and stainless steel drums, this vintage has a case production of 280 cases. Winemaker Erica Orr’s Chenin Blanc is always hand picked and whole cluster pressed and Orr uses a slow native yeast fermantation to naturally add complexity to the Chenin grapes.

I was intrigued by the crisp aroma of dried pears and melon blended with a hints of herby saltiness. The color, which is a greenish gold hue, preludes the taste of this wine. Unveiled as a wine that doesn’t want to completely reveal its flavor profile, each sip appeared to introduce different layers of ripe summer pears, sweet mango, and a citrus floral nutty flavor. More mineral than fruit flavor, I loved the salty finish of this wine. Although it is a dry Chenin Blanc, you get a silky richness that with each sip I imagine enjoying with Salmon Cakes topped with a Mango Chutney. Discover more about ORR Wines at http://www.orrwines.com/ .

2016 Basel Cellars Chenin Blanc

The 2016 Basel Cellars Chenin Blanc is incredibly crisp, a perfect wine to pair with summer salads, or creamy Risotto with fresh peas and grilled prawns.

According to the Basel Cellars website this Chenin Blanc undergoes a “Cool and slow fermentation in stainless steel resulting in bright, fruit-forward notes in the bottle, which mirrors the new-world style. It is complemented well by the rich and creaminess of approximately 20% malolactic fermentation in French oak, similar to the old-world. In blending these two styles we achieve balance and finesse.”

The 2016 Basel Cellars Chenin Blanc astonished me with aromatics of salted cantaloupe and sweet honeydew melon. There were the familiar mineral notes, but I could not get past the inviting fragrance of a platter of sliced melons on a warm summer day, lightly sprinkled with sea salt and ready to devour. My first sip of this wine was little more acidic than I would have liked but this quickly changed as the wine softened and opened up allowing the true flavors of the wine to emerge. More mineral in flavor than fruit I could catch notes of the same summer melons that were on the nose, a light citrus, and some herbal undertones in this wine. This Chenin Blanc continued to evolve with each sip and toward the end I was picking up some lovely creamy orange almond flavors. This was a perfect summertime drinking Chenin Blanc.

2016 Lobo Hills Chenin Blanc

Lobo Hills Winery in Woodinville is continuing to raise the Chenin Blanc bar with their 2016 Vintage. With favorable comparisons to the Chenin Blancs produced in the Loire Valley where this iconic vinifera grape originated. With a node to the French and South African sytle of Chenin Blancs Lobo Hills is putting a lot of time and effort into producing an outstanding Washington Chenin Blanc. A nice lot of 160 cases were produced of the 2016 Vintage.

Softer in color and in aromas as the three previous wines, the Lobo Hills 2016 Vintage was almost translucent and had the most elegant softness to its aromatics. The aromas on this wine did not jump right out at me, it was as if they were playing hide and seek with me, only peaking out from each swirl to tease me. Sweet honey dipped pears blended with a herbal flower sent that made me think of cutting herbs on a summer morning underneath my pear tree. This Chenin Blanc is a dry and creamily lush with a full rich flavor of summer fruits and citrus. As with other Chenin Blancs there is a familiar flavor of minerals and freshness that you do not find in other white wine varietals. I enjoyed this wine with pasta dressed with creamy pesto sauce and served with Italian Chicken Meatballs, a delicious pairing. I hope that Lobo Hills doesn’t change what they are doing with this Chenin Blanc because it is a fantastic wine.

2016 Kiona Vineyards Chenin Blanc

Since the inaugural 1980 vintage, Chenin Blanc has been a fixture in
Kiona Vineyards’ wine portfolio.

For some wineries Chenin Blanc is one of their favorite grapes, this is because the grapes grows so well in the Yakima and the Columbia Valley. These regions are known for their temperature swings and abundance of sunshine which allows the Chenin Blanc to ripen perfectly. For this reason there is a big clamoring for this limited quantity old-vine grape. Kiona Vineyards is one of the few producers that is keeping this golden gem in demand with their popular Chenin Blanc vintages. Kiona Chenin Blanc is sourced from 75.4% Kiona Estate, Red Mountain and 24.6% Andrews Vineyard, Columbia Valley. This 100% Chenin Blanc is cold fermented in 100% stainless which gives it a sharper crisper edge when tasted against some of the other Washington Chenins.

What is surprising with this Kiona Chenin Blanc is that even though it is un-oaked you get a creamy color and aroma as if it was stored in oak. On the nose this was such a wonderful wine with vanilla, pears and yes dare I say oak notes. However, what really draws you in are aromas of creamy green pears, like a sorbet made from the ripe fruit mixed with those familiar mineral undertones. One sip of the Chenin Blanc and for a split second I could swear that I was drinking a Champagne without the bubbles. All of the flavors were there and I was completely smitten by my second sip. A little more like a creamy vanilla orange sorbet on the palate, a flavor that wraps around your tongue and gives it a gentle hug. More bottles of this fantastic wine will definitely find there way into my wine fridge in the future. It was divine. You can find out more information about Kiona Vineyards and Winery here, https://www.kionawine.com/

2017 L’Ecole No. 41 Chenin Blanc

“The pathway we chose was not necessarily the easiest, especially with some of our whites, but our old vines Chenin blanc has become one of the hottest wines in our portfolio,”
Marty Clubb: Managing Winemaker and Co-Owner of L’Ecole No. 41
Quote from an Article written by Leslie Kelly for Washington Wine Association.

Walla Walla winery L’Ecole No. 41 could definitely write the book on Washington Chenin Blanc, after all they have been producing this old vine, Vouvray-style Chenin since 1987. Sourced from four Yakima Valley Vineyards, their 100% Chenin Blanc has one of the highest case productions in the state with approx. 3900. Arguabley one of the most know Chenin Blanc wines made in Washington, L’Ecole No. 41 is continuing to show that Washington White Wines can give those bold Washington Reds a reason to sit up and take notice.

The enchanting bouquet on this wine brings up visions of an apple and pear crisp cooling on the window sill while filling the air with warm notes of vanilla and nutmeg. The palate has a evoking flavor walking through an late summer orchard while eating a freshly picked apple. An impressively bright minerality dusted with flecks of salt, gives this Chenin Blanc an memorable freshness. A classic Chenin that can be enjoyed now or tucked away to enjoy for the next five years. This wine would pair extremely well with a dessert that matches its aromas, an apple-pear crisp or a savory dish of lentils and sausage.

2018 Warr-King Chenin

I was so happy to get a taste of this new release from Warr-King Wines. Only 66 cases were produced of their first ever 2018 Chenin Blanc, which is selling fast!

My tasting of the 2018 Warr-King Chenin was an unexpected surprise when it was served at a meeting I attended in Woodinville, WA. I call it serendipity as I was just finishing my research and tastings of Washington Chenin Blancs and this wine auspiciously found its way into my glass that night. Warr-King Wines is a true boutique winery located in the warehouse district of Woodinville. They have a reputation for producing limited production, high quality wines that capture the true essence of the Washington grapes that they source.

“This beauty is our first attempt at Chenin Blanc and we are over the moon with this one” stated Warr-King Wines Owner and Winemaker Lisa Warr-King Packer. “I did not expect Chenin to be as popular as it has been. I like wines with high acidity and crispness so Chenin has always been a favorite. I am so glad this wine is making a comeback.”

This is a true summer wine with touches of citrus, pear and soft minerality on both the nose and the palate. Fermented in stainless steel at a low temperature to preserve the aromatics, this Chenin Blanc is bright, velvety and incredibly refreshing. I was captivated by this Chenin and although I tasted it without food, Lisa will tell you that it “Pairs well with oysters on the half shell, steamed clams and a back porch.” At the time of this blog posting this Chenin may already be sold out, however, if you are patient and sign up for Warr-Kings email you will be one of the first to know when the 2019 production, which Lisa plans to double, is ready. I know I will! https://warr-kingwines.com/news-and-events/

2014 Pacific Rim Chenin Blanc

Pacific Rim Chenin Blanc grapes are sourced from Hahn Hill Vineyard
which were planted in 1968.

Another Washington Chenin Blanc that I have enjoyed in the past is from Pacific Rim. This wine never disappoints and it has become a staple “go to” wine in my house when I am lucky enough to come across some bottles. Pacific Rim Chenin Blanc is aged in stainless steel tanks for 8 months prior to bottling and is a Washington Chenin not to be missed with fantastic citrus freshness and perfect balance. Made from some of the oldest Chenin Vines in the state it is a honey soaked fruit sip on a summer day kind of wine.

2014 Paradisos del Sol Winery  Sève -Chenin Blanc

Paradisos del Sol Owner and Winegrower Paul Vandenberg has been making Chenin Blanc sine 1985. Back then Paul mostly made tank fermented, residual sugar style Chenin. As with the Ebb and Flow of Washington Chenin Blanc Paul changed things up after they planted about an acre of new Chenin vines in Vineyard del Sol in 2010. These vines Paul added, “have had no pesticides of any sort applied. Zero. No sulfur, no oils, no herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, rodenticides… CB is our first cultivar never sprayed, but not the last.”

The word Sève, is a wine term which means lively, fragrant aromas with persistence. However, to understand the meaning of the word, you really need to try the wine. The Sève is fermented in barrels that are at least twelve years old, these barrels Paul says still impart oak aromatics to a Chenin Blanc. For ten months it sits on the lees, and after bottling it is aged a couple more years. The current 2014 vintage was released at the end of 2018 and it is entirely Chenin Blanc. But don’t say 100%! “100% is Technically not possible. A single drop of water in the crusher? Not 100%. 99.999% Chenin Blanc”, Paul says. When I asked about an increased interest in Chenin Blanc Paul told me, ” I do hear there is renewed interest in projects like mine, using ancient techniques and new knowledge to create dry CBs. It is well liked by visitors to our tasting room and fetches a good price. Our first, smaller vintages sold out quickly at $48 a bottle. Current production is much higher and current retail is $28. Our most expensive white.” The case production for this vintage was 104.

The 2014 Vintage is a dry Chenin, with no perceptible residual sugar ” What should you pair this current Paradisos del Sol Sève -Chenin Blanc with? Paul says it is “Killer with Thai food and corned beef hash,” which compliments its delicacy and finesse.
You can learn more about this new release on their website http://www.paradisosdelsol.com/

Save Chenin!!!!!

In addition to the Washington Wineries producing Chenin Blanc highlighted in this post there are more wineries that are keeping this grape alive in Washington. Below are a few of them and many of these Chenin Blancs are currently still available:

  • 2016 Block Wines Old Vine Gnarl Block Rothrock Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Yakima Valley)
  • 2017 WT Vintners Upland Vineyard Chenin Blanc
  • 2016 Cedergreen Cellars Columbia Valley Old Vine Chenin Blanc
  • 2017 DIVISION Chenin Blanc ‘L’ISLE VERTE’
  • 2018 Convergence Zone Sunbreak Chenin Blanc
  • 2017 Chateau Ste. Michelle Limited Release Chenin Blanc
  • 2016 Fielding Hills Chenin Blanc
  • 2018 Eye of the Needle Chenin Blanc
  • 2014 Silvara Vineyards Chenin Blanc

If I can leave you with another article to read about the danger of losing Chenin Blanc to more “popular and profitable varieties”, I would like to direct you to the July 1st, Wine Enthusiast article ‘Chenin Blanc’s New Chaper’ by Lauren Buzzeo. As winelovers we hold a strong hand in the wines that are dealt us by what we drink and how we promote the wines that we love. I would encourage you to let your local Winemakers know that you do not want to lose historical wines like Chenin Blanc and other rare grapes. Lets bring a little variety back into our lives one bottle of wine at a time.

August is Washington Wine Month!
Curious to learn more about The New Epicenter of Wine?
Washington State Wine Commission’s Website is a great resource for all of your questions about Washington Wines.

Images © Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

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