Pairing Chenin Blanc
Much like Riesling, Chenin Blanc is a wine around which you could build an entire meal, its versatility opening the door to pairing with everything from an aperitif to dessert. The style of wine ranges from bone dry Savenierres with mineral driven electrified acidity to medium bodied off dry (just a hint of sweetness) to semi-sweet either medium or full bodied, to late harvest and very rich and sweet botrytized dessert wine. While the balance of flavor and sweetness can vary, one aspect remains a stable: the driving acidity. In fact, combine the acidity with the high sugar content and you get a wine that potentially has a good couple of decades of aging potential.
The fun in pairing this wine is all in the style of the wine. With the ability to tinker with the balance of acidity and sugar, producers can offer a diversity of styles. If the wine is a dry or off-dry Loire, expect melon, guava, red or yellow apple and quince fruits, possible Chamomile and straw notes, a hint of freshly cut grass and a chalky-mineral driven wine. As mentioned, the classic bone dry version is from Savenierres. This style possesses dried apple and quince fruits, dried flowers, freshly cut grass and straw and hints of chalky earth. The result is a wine with extraordinary structure and capable of aging for decades if stored properly. Vouvray also produces a notably dry style but not quite as austere. If you’re searching for an off dry version (one with a little sweetness), think Vouvray and Montlouis with richer flavors of apple, pear and melon. The wines are often labeled as moelleux or softly sweet.
On the other hand, if the wine is late harvest or botrytized, expect baked apple and ripe cantaloupe, custard, honey, caramel and vanilla. I once knew someone who swore that he smelled Juicy fruit gum! This style is quite a treat… rich and luscious. Look for Quarts de Chaume and Coteaux de Layon wines.
The sparkling version, while not particularly well known, offers a refreshing alternative to the classic French champagne, both in style and price and allows you to pair with dishes that ordinarily would demand champagne or sparkling wine. Many of the wineries, in fact, are owned by Champagne producers using the methode traditionnelle. The Loire center for these lively fizzies is the Saumur region. The vines are grown on classic chalky soils (tufa) with the wines displaying gorgeous apple and lemon citrus notes, a low level of sweetness and a classic chalky minerality. Here, the Chenin Blanc grapes are harvested early in order to retain the acidity while minimizing the sweetness.
While France lays claim to the finest Chenin Blanc worldwide, South Africa produces the highest volume, producing nearly twice the volume. Sometimes referred to as “Steen,” (an older term referring to the off dry style), the flavor and aromatic profile differs slightly from the traditional Loire version. While the rich white fruits are prominent, lacking is the chalky minerality and the Chamomile fragrance found in the Loire. Nonetheless, these wine are delicious and quite affordable. De Trafford, Forrester and Teddy Hall all produce outstanding wines. Other regions producing Chenin Blanc include Australia, New Zealand, United States, Mexico and South America.
Most of the everyday, dry Chenins are fermented in stainless steel vats, cool fermentation and no malolactic fermentation. The result are wines that are clean, refreshing and tasty. On the other hand, the rich and sweet dessert wines do see neutral oak and some malo.
I started out this piece comparing Chenin Blanc to Riesling and that’s a logical place to start when you think about pairing the wine with food: pair as you would with Riesling. As with Riesling, keep in mind that different geographic regions produce different styles of Chenin Blanc (Loire vs. South Africa). Try to match the level of richness in the dish with the alcohol level and sweetness of the wine. A bone dry version (Savenierres) is a winner with lemon accented shellfish such as oysters, mussels or shrimp but don’t overlook fish such as halibut, snapper and cod. The richness of scallops and lobster are a heavenly match for an off-dry version of the wine. Both mild and richer poultry such as chicken, turkey, quail, hen or goose and duck are a perfect match for the off-dry style while the wine refreshes the palate when pairing with sausages and cured meats. Veal or pork scaloppini with a touch of fresh lemon juice is lively way to pair with Chenin Blanc.
Off-dry styles are absolutely magnificent in balancing a spicy Indian or Asian dish or even a rack of ribs based in a spicy barbecue sauce, a great example of a wine contrasting with a dish (vs. comparing). Smoked dishes such as trout, salmon and pork pair very well with an off-dry Chenin Blanc, the smokiness of the preparation countered by the acidity and roundness of the wine.
Dishes prepared with cream or butter based sauces melt seamlessly with an off-dry Chenin Blanc, the wine’s implied roundness working in tandem with the rich sauce. Think pasta or a pork dish in a cream sauce as an example. Sweet or implied sweet vegetables such as yams or roasted turnips are just delightful with a Chenin. And dishes accented with coconut or coconut based sauces are lovely when paired with an off-dry Chenin.
Late harvest wines are absolutely magnificent with sweet white fruit based desserts of baked apple, pear, peach and nectarine. And crème brulee is out of this world! To go one step further, honeyed based desserts or those that taste as sweet, are made for the botrytized version.
Then there is the cheese world. With such flexibility in the acid:sweetness balance of the wine and such an array of cheeses from the soft to the hard, it’s not difficult to imagine a wide range of pairings. Dry, acid driven styles work their magic with the sharp personality of fresh Chevre (goat) cheese such as Brunet, Chabichou du Poitou, aged Grotin, Echo Mountain, Haystack Peak, Humboldt Fog, Lakes Edge, Le Chevrot, Manchester, and Valencay as well as semi-soft cheeses and soft-ripened cheese such as Boursault (triple cream brie). Semi-hard and hard cheeses work well with the sparkling style of Chenin Blanc while blue cheese pairs beautifully with the moelleux style.
Finally, while the inventory of Loire Chenins is thin in Tucson, there’s no shortage of locating them on internet. Check out a few of the producers in the latest Wine Education article on Chenin Blanc and go get em.