"Working by Hand" (Winemaking)
- Most common styles
- Still, sweet
- Winemaker choices and options
- Virtually all winemakers keep intervention to a minimum, preferring resulting wines to be all about purity of the fruit (low, if any skin contact, malolactic, etc.) Lees stirring often utilized to enhance texture
- Stainless steel, concrete, large oak (vats, foudres), small oak (older, though a few producers espouse new oak)
- Aging potential (yes/no). If “yes,” give range
- 2-10 years, pedigree-dependent; the best can live even longer; the finest sweet dessert styles can last for decades.
- Presented solo or frequently blended with
- Both. Often a mono-variety wine, Chenin is also used in white blends, both inexpensive and more premium, for increased acidity.
Given the variety of wine styles produced from this fantastically diverse grape, the flavors and aromas of Chenin Blanc can vary greatly. Even when comparing two remarkably similar Chenin Blanc wines, it is not unusual for them to exhibit different profiles. And while the variety historically has not been an especially dramatic wine in California, something is going on in the Golden State to reshape that perspective -- namely, a wave of adventurous winemakers drawn to Chenin Blanc for its potential to deliver interpretations that are more robust, layered and persistent than commonly perceived.
To read more on Chenin Blanc, visit The Sacramento Bee.
Leave the fermenting wine must (grape pulp and solids) in contact with skins before, during and/or after fermentation
What it does
It “pops” the fruit character by extracting components from the skins that make the wine very opulent and flashy. The downside is that the wines often brown and oxidize (that is, age) more rapidly, and can ultimately seem more like sherry than still wine.
Skin contact delivers its biggest dividends with aromatic white grape varieties: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, and in this case, Chenin Blanc. The grapes that have aromatic punch are the ones most worth exposing to skin contact with the aim of getting more olfactory richness into the wine. If used, it is most practiced with Chenin to enhance its perfume profile. As with other aromatic white grapes, the challenge is to mitigate pulling out too much tannin (phenolic) bitterness in the wine. If one finds any bitterness in the finish, a longer pre-fermentation skin contact time is likely the reason why.
What it does
Proponents of blending Chenin believe that, at its best, a little added to an otherwise acid-deficient white grape (Viognier being a prominent example) can provide needed scaffolding to the finished still wine. At its worst, it provides an acid backbone to otherwise flabby non-descript basic blended wines. Of course, when making sparkling wine, a little Chenin mixed with Chardonnay or other grapes (as in France’s Loire Valley) can be a signature of style while again amplifying freshness and acid structure. Less ripe grapes have more acid and are a perfect base for making sparkling wine.
When deftly applied, both blending possibilities can be effective and a best-practice for using the grape as a member of a choir rather than as a soloist.
The wood employed for most wine barrels, used for aging the wine or actual fermentation in the barrel. Barrel decisions include the type of wood, the amount of toast (when the staves of the barrels are bent over an open flame), size (smaller = higher ratio of wood to wine = stronger oak influence) and the age of the barrels.
What it does
- Heavily toasted barrels impart more intense roasted flavors (caramel, molasses, toffee, coffee, and burnt sugar).
- Oak bestows a waxy, velvety texture and can add a sweet buttercream flavor to the wine.
- New oak contributes much more flavor than older, previously used oak which, depending on the wine and the grapes, may be a better choice.
- Small (barrique-size) barrel fermentation at warmer temperatures than those in stainless steel, and over shorter increments of time, also imparts a richer, smoother texture than would be the case with a w ine not fermented in barrel.
Few would dispute that Chenin does not like new oak. New wood is generally a buzzkill all over the variety’s flavors. For those that do employ oak, it is large (foudres and vats), older, and distinctly neutral in impact. The exception would be when making late-harvest, botrytised or dessert styles where the use of smaller barriques, and otherwise semi-impactful oak, is a given.
Converts wine's malic acid (the sharp acid found in tart green apples) into milder lactic acid (as in sour cream, yogurt, etc.).
What it does
Softens the wine's acidic edge, contributes a velvety smooth texture and can add a strong buttered-popcorn flavor. In red wines, it is mandatory for stability’s sake (few exceptions).
Chenin Blanc is occasionally put through malolactic fermentation to give the wine more weight and to decrease acidity when perceived as excessive.
Stirring or agitating the dead yeast cells (lees). During alcoholic fermentation, as the yeast metabolizes the sugar and produces alcohol, dead yeast cells tumble slowly to the bottom of the fermentation vessel, where they can be stirred, aka bâtonnage.
What it does
Adds smooth texture (a rounder “mouthfeel”), additional toasty flavors and an extra dimension of complexity.
Considered particularly important in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir production, for those desiring either pure or blended styles with texture, roundness and creaminess, lees stirring is an important tool. A common practice with dry Chenin Blanc, designed to add roundness and texture.
Some grapes, most white, are extremely versatile and capable of producing world-class wines in all styles, from bone dry to sparkling to intensely sweet.
What it does
Targeting a sweetness level for the wine determines its style -- dry, off-dry, medium-sweet or sweet.
There are four basic levels of sweetness as modeled in France’s Loire valley, but not usually bottled as monikered. 1) Sec: This bone-dry, very fresh style will produce a wine that has a clean, mineral aroma, 2) Demi sec: When a little extra of the natural sugar remains, leading to a slightly smoother, dry Chenin Blanc with slightly lower acidity, 3) Moelleux: Usually made from botrytized grapes, this style can age gracefully for decades, constantly evolving in the bottle, and 4) Doux: a mostly syrupy sweet style. Further, some fresh and fruity styles are made to drink well immediately. In California, wines tend to be (and are) labeled as Dry, if made in the above “Sec” interpretation, or off-dry (and labelled by the varietal name with no comment about sweetness level)