Cugnette. Steen. Pineau de la Loire. Vouvray. What do these four wine terms have in common? They're all synonyms for chenin blanc, a stunningly drinkable white wine so worthy of your affection that you may find yourself tempted to consume it in abundant quantities shortly after reading this post (and purchasing a bottle or two).
The fact that cooler evenings are finally upon us should not exclusively preclude your choosing a white wine as an optimal autumnal by-the-glass selection. On the contrary, chenin blancs rank among the very best in terms of versatile white wines, with only Champagne able to do much better from a taste, food pairing, and all-around guzzle-inducing perspective.
The best way to categorize chenin blancs is to think of them as sauvignon blanc's sexier, more mature older sister. Like sauvignons, chenins hail from France's Loire Valley, where the grape's origins stretch back a thousand years. The extraordinary versatility of these wines has a lot to do with the fact that they're produced in pretty much every style imaginable, from crisp, dry, sparklers all the way to fantastically rich dessert sippers.
But the quality that makes most straight-up chenin blancs from France, South Africa or America the absolutely ideal fall white wine (whether drinking them on their own or pairing them with a meal) is their almost hypnotically delicious flavor profile. They just taste freakin' fantastic. While no two chenins are the same, you can expect to experience a fairly recurrent fruit-based theme of ripe pear, green apple and melon (more honeydew than cantaloupe). In the case of a French-born chenin blanc, add to the above several clicks of flinty minerality. Drinking a chenin born and raised in South Africa? Look forward to a bit more citrus on the palate. It matters little where your chenin blanc comes from: what's vitally important is that you simply drink them -- and drink them often.
Here are three that you'll love:
Ken Forrester Petit Chenin Blanc 2009 ($9): A ridiculously delicious wine at an even more ridiculous price. Juicy and tangy, yet with a resoundingly lush mouthfeel, I drank this wine straight from the bottle while waiting for it to come to the right serving temperature. This is South African steen at its best -- unapologetically fruit forward, with clean, crisp Granny Smith apple and tangy lime zest flavors that render themselves almost irresistible after the very first sip. A perfect pre-dinner beverage, this wine's worthy of drinking on every occasion from tonight to pairing with your Thanksgiving hors d'oeuvres.
Champalou Vouvray Pétillant Brut NV ($20): If you like poppin' bottles, but still haven't popped open a sparkling Vouvray, you ain't really pimpin'. Bubbly Vouvrays are truly a thing of wonder. You're getting the same crisp-acidity-meets-stone-fruit flavors as Champagne, but with an added kiss of honeyed sweetness. Need a wine to pair with any seafood starter from oysters to yellowtail sashimi? Look not one inch further. Add to all of the above the fact that this bottle rings up at a trifling $20, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a more refreshing beverage of the sparkling persuasion.
L'Ecole No. 41 'Walla Voila' Chenin Blanc 2009 ($14): Translated from the French, the word 'voila' means "here it is," and there couldn't be a better phrase to introduce you to a chenin blanc that will make you supremely giddy with delight. A bit sweeter than other chenin blancs, this wine delivers crazy good Fuji apple, nectarine and amaretto goodness sip after sip. Don't be put off by a little bit of sugar, though. The ideal fall food and wine pairing for this one's easy: grilled pork chops with apple chutney, served alongside braised red cabbage topped with goat cheese. Drink up and feel the love.