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The Next White Wonder  (April 12, 2006)

I channelled Dionysus the other day and he is not happy with us. The god of wine was in a foul mood, having just discovered a corked amphora. Even a passing nymph could not distract him from his gloom. So I hesitated to ask him why his followers (you and me, gentle reader) had displeased him.

"I give you a cornucopia of grape varieties to enjoy," he thundered, "vines that offer hundreds of different flavours, shades and nuances, and what do you people do? You drink barrel-fermented Chardonnay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and, god help me, Pinot Grigio from anywhere. You don't even drink Riesling."

He adjusted his crown of vine leaves, put down his copy of Hugh Johnson's unauthorized biography, Lord of the Vine, and called for his kylix.

"Every wine writer I know loves Riesling," I ventured. "We write about it all the time but for some reason our readers prefer to stick with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and, god help me, Pinot Grigio from anywhere."

He took a swig of Hippocrene Blush, gargled it and spat it out. "Good enough for the satyrs," he said to himself and then he turned to me.

"Why have you intruded upon my reveries?"

"Well, actually, I need your advice. I agree with you that the consuming public is missing out by not broadening their palates, but it would help me to know what the next popular grape will be. I have a column to write, you see."

Dionysus frowned. "My old teacher Selinus used to say, when he was sober – which wasn't very often – popularity is for athletes and courtesans, not for the beneficent beverage I have bestowed upon mankind. But, since you are a devoted acolyte (you have served me well in spreading the gospel of wine) I will give you a clue. The coming grape begins with CH."


"No, dullard. Chenin Blanc!"

"I knew it. Chenin's time has come and nobody can be more delighted than I am."

The god of wine sighed. "I hope you don't mean those candied, fragrant, inoffensive white wines that captured American palates in the 1970s. Over-cropped and over-irrigated, those confections were not worthy of the grape. You don't know what wonderful range the Chenin Blanc grape has until you've tasted Vouvray, dry, off-dry, sweet and sparkling. Chenin can live as long as Riesling and can enchant your nose with bouquets of quince, honey, lemons, pineapple, melon, guava and apple with an acidic spine even racier than Riesling's. In fact, it is an ideal grape for Icewine for those who care enough to grow it."

"Quails' Gate in British Columbia has," I offered, but Dionysus ignored the Canadian reference.

"Chenin Blanc," he continued, reaching for his kylix, "has a long and venerable history in France. It dates back to the ninth century, when it was first cultivated in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley at the Abbaye de Glanfeuil. I told Jancis Robinson, who wrote it in her book Vines, Grapes and Wines: 'In 1445 it was exported a few miles up river to the squire of Chenonceaux and his brother-in-law, the Abbot of Commery, on the banks of the Echaudon at Mont-Chenin just south of the Touraine countryside which now produces Vouvray and Montlouis.' It is the only grape I created that is named after a mountain. By the way, I thought Jancis was going to dedicate her book to me, but she didn't. Pity, it could have helped her with sales."

"Where is Chenin Blanc mostly grown?" I asked, trying to keep the conversation going, because I could see Dionysus' eyelids begin to droop. He snapped awake immediately.

"Did you know that there is three times as much Chenin Blanc grown in South Africa today as there is in the whole of France."

"I did, actually."

"The variety was transported to the Cape in 1655 but it was only identified as Chenin Blanc in 1965. Then it became the grape of choice for South African growers. I will tell you this, my ink-stained friend, South African Chenin Blanc will be the white wine Canadians will be turning to this year. And if you have never tasted Nederberg Paarl Edelkeur (South Africa's take on Yquem) you are missing out on one of the world's great dessert wines. And you'll also note that Chenin Blanc is the base wine for South African brandy. This grape is arguably France's most exported variety. It's widely planted in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, California, Chile, Mexico and New Zealand. The wines it produces can be drunk young and fresh or, because of its concentrated acidity, can be left to age. Not only is it versatile in the wine styles it can produce, but from a grower's perspective it is very well behaved. It can flourish in sandy loam or clay loam soils. It is resistant to many diseases. Its buds break early and it ripens late, which means lots of hang time on the vine."

"What are your favourite Chenins?" I asked.

"I'm rather partial to the off-dry style made by M. Huet in Vouvray," mused Dionysus. "His Haut Lieu is my current house wine, if you must know. Wonderful with Thai food. In dry style, I like Saumur and Savennières when I'm eating oysters and other crustaceans. And for dessert Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume. I could drink a quart right now." His belly shook with laughter.

So there you have it. The next fashion in white wine will be Chenin Blanc. Thus spake Dionysus.




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