Do not blanc out chenin


Whenever I pour a Millton chenin blanc, I am reminded, not of the acidic rubbish that passed for New Zealand chenin blanc in the 1980s, but of just how good white wines produced from the classic grape of Vouvray, in the Loire, can be.

And yes, I do mean classic grape, which might come as something of a surprise to those who can cast their minds back 30 years to that vin ordinaire which was produced from the nearly 400 hectares of vines that grew here then.

Today there are less than 50 hectares which generally produce wines that are much closer to the quality which prompted Jancis Robinson, the eminent British winewriter, to classify the grape as a classic in her book, Vines , Grapes and Wines, the first consumer guide to wine grapes.

While this judgment is based primarily on her admiration for the extraordinarily long-lived, uniquely flavoured, sweeter botrytised chenin blancs from the Loire, Robinson is also a fan for the drier styles which also take time (sometimes up to 10 years) to reveal their many and often varied charms.

Whichever, the grapes must have been ripened sufficiently to reflect in the finished wine the damp straw, the flowers and the honeyed flavours that are unique to chenin blanc, or to have been infected by the desired degree of botrytis to produce chenin in its most complex, golden form.

Unfortunately, and in spite of climates around the world that perfectly suit chenin's production (more is planted in both California and in South Africa than in France), only a few serious examples of the variety deserve or get much praise.

The same applies to that grown in Australia and throughout South America, where it is sometimes called chenin bianco.

In a recent article, Robinson did, however, single out two wineries which represent what she called "lone outposts of chenin blanc veneration" - the Millton Vineyard in New Zealand and Can Rafols dels Caus in Spain.

At the winery run by James and Annie Millton at Manutuke, near Gisborne, organic, biodynamically grown grapes are now converted into three different chenin blancs.

The best known is the Clos de Ste Anne Te Arai Vineyard model, regarded as the finest example of the variety produced in this part of the world.

The least expensive is an unusually dry variation, which has Millton's Crazy By Nature label.

The latest is a new ultra-premium ($70 a bottle) wine, also part of the Clos de Ste Anne range, but from a section of the hillside vineyard named Les Bas ("down there") by Francophile James Millton.

It is inspired by the drier wines of Savennieres, in the Loire, which makes it distinctly different from the Te Arai, which is closer to those sweeter chenins from Vouvray.

Millton is not, of course, the only chenin-blanc producer in this country, with several others about to come on stream. Which can only be good news - for the variety and especially for those who have already been introduced to it.

Something for everyone:

Millton Vineyard 2009 Clos de Ste Anne Les Bas Chenin Blanc, $70

This a very classy dry white wine , notable for both its purity and presence, its florals and its honey, mouthwatering acidity, minerals and what the maker describes as a waxiness. It has many happy years ahead of it.

Esk Valley 2011 Hawke's Bay Chenin Blanc, $30

Another good example of the variety, this is also in the drier style, with trademark honey and quince flavours and refreshing mineral acidity. Available from the winery or by mail order.

Margrain 2011 Sauvignon Blanc, $30

Made from fruit grown on vines planted more than 30 years ago by the late Stan Chifney, one of the Martinborough pioneers, it is a good example of a sweeter, apples and citrus chenin finely balanced by mouthwatering acidity.

The Southland Times