Now for something completely different, folks. So completely different that many new generation wine drinkers in New Zealand have never even heard of it. So competely obscure that many long time drinkers have never tasted it, or if they have, they've havenít been aware of it. Wine geeks will know of it though, but for hardened kiwi wine geeks, it's usually because it's included as an 'option' in a wine options game. To put it simply, it is not a wine you are not going to find with ease on the supermarket shelf. Not in New Zealand.
It's chenin blanc, the famous grape of the Loire Valley in France, where sauvignon blanc has also found fame. Only they donít call chenin blanc there. Like sauvignon blanc, which is more famously known as Sancerre or Pouilly Fume, chenin blanc is synonymous with Vouvray, the name of the region it grows. Chenin blanc is also the most widely planted grape variety in South Africa, where it's sometimes called 'Steen'. In fact more chenin blanc is grown in South Africa than anywhere else.
So why has this grape, which Jancis Robinson describes as "probably the world's most versatile grape variety" in her pocket-sized 'Guide to Wine Grapes', so infamous in New Zealand? Well, the answer is, they tried it - and like many other varieties that the kiwis planted in the wine rediscovery era of the 1970's, it grew well but it didnít make a resoundingly distinctive wine. So like muller thurgau, the grape variety that chenin blanc played second fiddle to twenty years ago, ahead of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, it has lost favour in a big way.
Now chenin blanc doesnít even make the list of the top ten white grape varieties grown in New Zealand. And most of what does grow here, is primarily used for blending because it's a high acid grape and can add some much needed verve to other wines. But fortunately for lovers of this grape variety, there are still a handful of producers who are persevering with the grape for a varietal chenin blanc. And one of those is Margrain Vineyard in Martinborough. In fact the wine has developed a cult following amongst those that are in the know.
Margrain's chenin blanc vineyard is tiny, but it one of the vineyards that contributed to the statistics twenty years ago because the vines were planted in 1978 by Martinborough pioneer, the late Stan Chifney. When Margrain purchased the old Chifney vineyard, the chenin blanc vines were part of the lot. And fortunately they didnít pull them out.
Margrain Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2006 is lemon gold in colour with fresh, crisp, apple and lime aromas - in fact at this stage of its appreciation you could be forgiven for thinking it's a riesling because the apple and citrus flavours carry through to the palate with a subtle honeyed richness. I had chilled the wine, which accentuated the naturally high acidity even more, and even though the label says it is an 'off dry' style, I thought it dry and crisp and refreshing with a natural fruit sweetness emerging on the lingering finish. But as the wine warms up to room temperature, it becomes richer and fatter and the residual sugar tames that vivacious acidity. When the chill of the fridge has completely gone the limey characters on the nose dissipate to let honeysuckle and dried hay aromas emerge. There's a whiff of wet clay too. And now I taste a hint of pineapple and a touch of tree-ripened apricot. There's a lovely warmth to the texture too and the subtle sweetness lingers. So while at first it seemed a little bit of a departure from Margrain's luscious style, all the hallmarks are there for a wine that will be long-lived with that lusciousness developing in the bottle with time.
It's summer and it's humid, so it's best at this time of the year to cook outside on the barbecue. I decided to try chicken sausages and they complemented the wine beautifully. I also made apple, potato, onion and bacon rosti. For this you need one small potato, which you grate then squeeze to remove all the potato water; equal amounts of grated apple and half the amount of grated onion (I used a milder red onion). Chop up a rasher of rindless bacon very very finely, and add to the grated vegetables and if you have it handy, add a few leaves of very finely chopped pineapple sage as well. Mix well and cook almost immediately before the potato and apple go brown. Rosti are easy to cook on the barbecue plate but cook them slowly so the apple starts to caramelise - though you have to watch them closely so the undersides donít get too burnt. Mind you a bit of burn adds another dimension to the dish. Once the rosti is cooked, plate and dot with crumbled blue cheese. Accompany with a green salad, and if you have it handy, chop a little fresh pineapple and blue cheese into the salad as well. A few leaves of pineapple sage herb will add a contrasting bittersweetness.
Margrain Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2006 is sealed with a screwcap. It has 12.5% alcohol by volume, 22 grams per litre of residual sugar and 8.35 grams per litre of total acidity. It was released on November 1 2006 and has great potential for the cellar. It costs $22 per bottle. Strat Canning is the winemaker.
Margrain also make a hedonistic Botrytis Selection Chenin Blanc. More about this later. Meanwhile, find out more from the Margrain website.
© Sue Courtney
21 Jan 2007