Ask many wine drinkers about the white wine grape chenin blanc and your apt to get a blank stare. Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio (gris) get all the glory, at least in the U.S., while elsewhere other white varieties star. Riesling is the champion in Germany, gruner veltliner in Austria and pinot grigio reigns over the white wine kingdom in Italy.
Chenin blanc, on the other hand, stars in two wine growing regions of the world. First, it is believed to have originated in the Loire Valley of France where it still is renowned for producing exquisite, sweet, dry and sparkling wines commonly labeled Vouvray, and to a lesser extent Anjou.
Second, chenin blanc is the most widely planted grape in South Africa. Colloquially known as “steen,” it was only identified in 1965 as chenin blanc.
The dominant style for South African chenin blanc is fresh, fruity and loaded with lively acidity. Although most of it is stainless-steel fermented and aged, some winemakers are experimenting with oak aging.
For those who avoid oaky chardonnays or who find some sauvignon blanc too aggressive with their grassy or assertive grapefruit notes, chenin blanc offers a terrific alternative.
We recently tasted a group of South African chenin blancs to survey the current market offerings and were pleased with the results.
A good amount of chenin blanc available in the U.S. is often priced under $20.
We tasted five wines in this category and while they all passed the palatability test, three of them stood out in quality.
The Indaba Chenin Blanc Western Cape 2019 ($12) offered a crisp mineral, citrus experience with nice pear notes. Close behind was the Painted Wolf “The Den” Chenin Blanc Coastal Region 2020 ($13). Peach and pear elements dominated in a soft smooth delivery.
We also thoroughly enjoyed the Bosman Generation 8 Chenin Blanc Wellington 2020 ($16) which presented a very expressive creamy, peach nose and ripe peach and pear flavors.
The Raats Old Vine Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch 2018 ($28) was a premium expression of South African chenin blanc. Crafted from 40-year-old bush vines, this chenin blanc offered tropical fruit notes of pineapple in addition to the typical peach and pear flavors. A streak of cinnamon spice note creates interest in this very drinkable, complex wine.
Rodney Strong Vineyards
While a lot of California wine producers are focused on making expensive wine, Rodney Strong Vineyards has remained intent on delivering value. It is the philosophy of making everyday wine in Sonoma County that inspired the late dancer whose name graces every label.
Justin Seidenfeld has been winemaker since 2018 and has been a keystone to a rejuvenation of the brand. He has embarked on a project to replant most of the vineyard to “set the foundation for the next 60 years.” He said sustainable farming will prepare the vineyards for droughts.
“We didn’t spare any expense or rest on any laurels to plant the best vineyards,” he said in a recent media program.
Although Rodney Strong makes serious wines that sell for more than $50 a bottle, consumers will find these entry level wines a good value.
Rodney Strong Vineyards Rosé of Pinot Noir 2020 ($25). From the Russian River Valley, this fantastic rosé is made from grapes chosen specifically for this wine. Not surprisingly, production has grown to meet demand. Strawberry, watermelon citrus flavors and a long finish.
Rodney Strong Vineyard California Chardonnay 2019 ($17). To keep the price low, grapes were pulled in from Monterey and Santa Barbara vineyards that fit the profile Seidenfeld was looking for. Fruit forward, creamy mouthfeel, medium bodied and simple. You can probably find this bottle for $12 if you look hard. Pear and pineapple notes with a hint of vanilla.
Rodney Strong Vineyards Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($22). The bread-and-butter wine of the producer, this cabernet is a terrific deal. Soft on the palate, it is an approachable, medium-body wine with plum and spice flavors.
Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($28). Seidenfeld is justifiable proud of this wine because it’s the first under his watch. It shows extremely well and surpasses its price point in quality. It has black fruit flavors with a nice, rich finish.
Rodney Strong Vineyards Old Vine Zinfandel 2018 ($25). Ripe blackberry flavors with a hint of pepper and vanilla. This is a delicious wine to serve with barbecued ribs or burgers.
Principi Di Butera Amira Nero D’Avola Sicilia DOC 2018 ($17). Abundant fruit characterizes this well-made nero d’avola from Sicily. Berry fruits dominate with a hint of licorice. Give it a slight chill in warm weather. Delicious.
Ladera Pillow Road Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($66). This silky and delicious pinot noir uses four clones to achieve a rich and broadly flavored gem from the Russian River Valley. Cherry and plum notes with a bit of spice.
La Closerie des Lys Chardonnay 2018 ($16). We don’t think of the Limoux region of the Languedoc for its chardonnay even though it’s the second most planted grape there. But this wine is one of the most delicious we have tasted in the last several months. And, it’s a good value. Citrus and apple notes with great balance and fresh acidity.
Jordan Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2019 ($35). A good deal in the premium chardonnay category, this wine fires on all cylinders. Expressive floral and pear aromas are followed by Meyer lemon and apple flavors with a dash of vanilla. Good balance between acidity and creaminess.