June 19 is Drink Chenin Blanc Day. At this point, what grape variety does not have its own day? But, Chenin Blanc, one of the oldest noble grape varieties, as well as one of the most versatile grapes, definitely deserves a day of honor, even if we never need an excuse to drink it.
Chenin Blanc originated in France’s Loire Valley. An offspring of the French wine grape Savagnin, a half-sibling to the Sauvignon Blanc grape, and an aunt/uncle to the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Chenin Blanc was once the second most widely planted white grape in Napa County.
While Chenin Blanc has found a second home in South Africa, which has the most plantings of Chenin Blanc outside of France which is more than the rest of the world combined, excluding France. In California, Chenin Blanc has been mostly forgotten.
Today there are fewer than 5,000 acres in California, with the majority of it growing in Fresno, Madera, San Joaquin, and Yolo counties. There are less than 30 acres planted in Mendocino and even less in Napa. In 1980, there were 2,800 acres planted in Napa and today there are only 15 acres.
Fortunately, there are some champions of Chenin Blanc in the Napa Valley and one of those champions is Lang & Reed. It is not surprising that John and Tracey Skupny of Lang & Reed are proponents of this underappreciated white wine; after all, they built their winery on another underappreciated wine, Cabernet Franc.
Lang & Reed, named after Tracey and John’s two sons, was born in 1996. After mostly working for Cabernet Sauvignon producers, John and Tracey wanted to explore the distinct charms of Cabernet Franc. While Cabernet Franc is an important component in Bordeaux blends, they wanted to express the range of aromatics and flavors of Cabernet Franc. They produce three different expressions of Cabernet Franc, sourced from different vineyards in Napa Valley and the North Coast.
As much as John and Tracy love Cabernet Franc, it was their son Reed who fell in love with Chenin Blanc and convinced his father to make it. Growing up in Napa, Reed had never been interested in working in wine and was eager to leave Napa when he finished high school. While studying forensic anthropology in college, Reed took a year off and worked at Pahlmeyer in 2005, and then worked harvest in New Zealand in 2006. It was in New Zealand that Reed connected with an old girlfriend, his now-wife Megan.
Reed returned home with one year of college left to complete and with a new interest in wine, considered changing majors. He did not make a change and graduated in 2008. But his interest in wine continued and he, along with Megan, who he was now engaged with, moved to France for seven months. Reed worked for Domaine Bernard Baudry outside Chinon. Megan was not a big wine drinker at the time but a weekend trip to Vouvray changed her mind. They both fell in love with Chenin Blanc.
John and Tracey traveled to France for Reed and Megan’s wedding and John and Reed went to Vouvray to pick up wines for the wedding. After enjoying some wines, Reed asked his father, “What happened to Chenin Blanc in Napa?”
John responded that if they could find some, they would make it. It took three years to find fruit they wanted to use. They found a vineyard in Mendocino and purchased three tons. Making Chenin Blanc is the first wine collaboration between John and Reed and from here, Lang & Reed went from “Franc to Blanc”.
Chenin Blanc is a neutral grape that is influenced by the climate and soil it is grown in, as well as influenced by winemaker choices. It can be made into sparkling wine, such as Cremant de Loire. It can be made as a dry white wine that can range from simple and fresh to complex with plenty of oak. Chenin Blanc can also be made as an off-dry or dessert wine. At Lang & Reed, the Chenin Blanc is made pure and simple. The grapes are picked, fermented in the barrel, with a small percentage in stainless steel, and then bottled. The singular goal is to make the purest expression of Chenin Blanc, to make wines with a sense of harmony and balance.
Lang & Reed produces two Chenin Blancs, one from Mendocino and one from Napa.
For the Mendocino Chenin Blanc, the fruit is sourced from the Norgard Vineyard on the Talmage bench. Planted in 1980, there are approximately 12-16 acres of Chenin Blanc. For the Mendocino Chenin Blanc, the barrels used are two-, three-, and four-year-old barrels, and half of the barrels are fermented with native yeasts. The Skupny’s first vintage from this cool region was in 2013 and tasting the Lang & Reed 2013 Chenin Blanc, it is still lively with floral and fruit notes, as well as honeycomb wax, and with soft acidity that rushes the palate. The current release is the 2019 and this wine has a very pretty nose of floral blossoms, white peach, apple peel, and pear. The acidity is bright and fresh with minerality on the finish, making this wine perfect for oysters or shellfish.
For the Napa Chenin Blanc, the fruit is sourced from the Locey Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District. A flat vineyard with sandy soils, the .9 acres of Chenin Blanc was grafted in 2005. For the Napa Chenin Blanc, the barrels used are new and 1-year old barrels. 2014 was the first vintage from this vineyard and today the 2014 has notes of peach, apple, and honeycomb. The current vintage is the 2018 Chenin Blanc which has aromas of melon, nectarine, and citrus and a weighty acidity that sits on the tongue.
Delicate, vibrant, and balanced, it is hard not to love Chenin Blanc, especially after enjoying the Lang & Reed Chenin Blancs. It is a versatile grape with great ageing potential and while we do not need an excuse to drink it, open a bottle on Drink Chenin Blanc Day.
Taste the Lang & Reed wines at the Spring House, 1244 Spring St., St. Helena. To make a tasting appointment, visit www.langandreed.com/tastingsalon.
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Allison Levine is owner of Please The Palate, a marketing and event-planning agency. A freelance writer, she contributes to numerous publications while eating and drinking her way around the world. Allison is also the host of the wine podcast Wine Soundtrack USA and a co-host of Crush On This videos on YouTube. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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