California’s Most Under-Appreciated Wine

If the Chenin Blanc grape were a department store, it would be Kmart.

If it were a sport, it would be bowling.

If it were a comedian, it would be the late Rodney Dangerfield — or, at least, the persona Dangerfield portrayed.

When it comes to respect in the modern wine world, dozens of grape varieties garner greater degrees of respect than Chenin Blanc.

Until Chardonnay exploded in popularity during the 1980s, there was more Chenin Blanc planted in California than any other white-wine grape. It remains ubiquitous today, but only a small percentage finds its way into varietal bottlings. Most is blended, often used to “stretch” more expensive white wines, including Chardonnay.

Sometimes the most dependable, hardest-working individuals are overlooked by their supervisors, who bestow promotions on more gregarious, if less productive, workers. And so it is with Chenin Blanc, which one winemaker has described as “having the personality of a well-behaved child.”

The grape is cooperative in a number of ways.

It tends to ripen smack in the middle of harvest season, necessitating neither early call-ups of the troops nor brow furrowing over sufficient ripening.

It is easy to pick, growing in compact clusters.

And its tough skin enables it to make the trip from the vineyard to the crusher with minimal damage.

It’s a grape that does not require a great deal of thinking on the part of winemakers, so most vintners simply turn the grapes into wine and save their brain cells for the more cerebral pursuits of crafting world-class Cabernet Sauvignon and similarly flashy varietals.

The only thing the winemaker really needs to decide is whether to make Chenin Blanc in a dry, off-dry or sweet style. It’s among the most versatile of all varieties and worth trying, even if it doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

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