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The Death of Chenin Blanc

July 09, 1997|DAN BERGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vince and Audrey Cilurzo, owners of the Cilurzo Winery in Temecula, were so in love with the Chenin Blanc grape that they named their daughter Chenin.

But that was more than 20 years ago and Chenin Cilurzo has grown up. She now works for Groth Vineyard & Winery, which makes no Chenin Blanc. In fact, few wineries make Chenin Blanc these days and even California's top Chenin Blanc maker is moving away from the grape.

American wine historians would have told you it could never happen, but Charles Krug Winery is discontinuing production of Chenin Blanc; the 1996 vintage will be its last.

Two decades ago, that would have been unthinkable. Krug, the nation's leader in Chenin Blanc production, was making as many as 125,000 cases a year. It was a staple on restaurant wine lists everywhere and was in national demand.

"It's very sad," said wine historian William Heintz of Sonoma. "Chenin Blanc was a milestone wine for Krug."

Heintz noted that in the days before the invention of White Zinfandel, two slightly sweet white wines sold out year after year: Krug Chenin and Wente Bros. Grey Riesling. Now both are history.

"I would never have believed that Wente's Grey Riesling would be gone, and now the Krug Chenin," said Heintz, shaking his head. Wente eliminated its once-popular Grey Riesling just months ago.

Larry Challacombe, vice president of marketing for Krug, said sales of the wine had declined steadily in the last few years while those of Chardonnay and White Zinfandel continued to climb. Moreover, as Krug was retooling its image to make more upscale wines, the Chenin Blanc, which sells for $6 or so, doesn't fit the new image the winery wants to create.

Challacombe said, "We noted that the demographic audience for Chenin was an older crowd. We had to be more contemporary in what we did, and that wine was virtually unchanged."

Krug has begun replacing the former slightly sweet Chenin Blanc with a totally dry, barrel-fermented wine made from Chenin Blanc grapes that it is calling Pineau, which is the first part of the grape's alternate Loire Valley name in France, Pineau de la Loire. Krug's 1996 Pineau sells for $12 a bottle; fewer than 1,000 cases were produced.

"You can be in love with a wine, like we are with Chenin," said Krug's owner, Peter Mondavi, "but this is a business. And in this valley [Napa], land is too expensive to be making a wine for $6. Heck, even $10 wine from this expensive land doesn't pay the bills."

Although about 75 wineries make Chenin Blanc in California, production has declined every year since the early 1980s. In data from Nielsen Scantrak, which tracks wine sales in supermarkets, Chenin Blanc is the only varietal wine that has consistently shown double-digit declines during the last decade.

Even when industry leader Gallo is included, along with all the bag-in-box wines, total production of Chenin Blanc is estimated at less than 5 million cases. Compare that with White Zinfandel at about 20 million cases and growing.

Chenin Blanc is a superb variety that simply is misunderstood by American consumers, said David Stare, owner of Dry Creek Vineyard, one of the handful of wineries remaining in the fine Chenin Blanc game. Of those left making Chenin Blanc, each is passionate about the grape.

In her "Oxford Companion to Wine," Jancis Robinson declared Chenin Blanc probably the world's most versatile grape variety. It makes delicate white wines that can be dry, off-dry, very sweet or sparkling and has a flavor profile that is quite appealing, with melon, apple, pear and leafy elements.

Stare is saddened by the loss of the Krug Chenin Blanc. "I wouldn't have believed it a few years ago," he said. "At one time, I think it was the No. 1 varietal wine in the country."

He believes that it may have declined in popularity because it was too sweet for contemporary wine lovers who are seeking drier and drier wines. But it is also possible to make a Chenin Blanc too dry.

"The first few years we made it totally dry," Stare said. "We found a certain stemminess in the wine and we couldn't get rid of it. By leaving a half percent of [residual] sugar, the wine still tasted pretty dry, but the sweetness masked the stemminess."

Dry Creek now gets its Chenin Blanc fruit from one of the finest regions in the state for the grape, Clarksburg in the San Joaquin Delta. Stare makes about 8,000 cases a year, and the 1996 version ($8) is perfectly balanced with lime, melon and a trace of juniper in the aroma, with a faint sweetness in an otherwise dry wine.

One of the best Chenin Blancs in California, Baron Herzog's, is a kosher wine that has won more medals than any other white wine in California competitions in the last few years. It is similar in style to some of the driest wines of the Loire. The 1996 Herzog Chenin Blanc ($7) is melony and soft with a lovely crispness in the finish.

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