Chenin blancs worth the search for summertime sipping

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 8, 2014 

Chenin blanc is one of those white wines I can't get enough of, especially during the summer.

This food-friendly, easy-to-drink wine was extremely popular in the late 1970s and early '80s, and was a mainstay among Washington's inaugural wineries, such as Quarry Lake, Preston Premium Wines and Tucker Cellars.

But its popularity waned shortly thereafter, and the decline can almost certainly be linked to the upsurge of chardonnay, which muscled its way into the vineyards and wine glasses of consumers three decades ago and has since cemented its status as one of the state's most prevalent grapes.

To give you an idea of the disparity between chardonnay and chenin blanc, consider this: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Statistics Service, in 2013 Washington wine grape production of chardonnay grapes was 40,500 tons. For chenin blanc, the figure was a mere 1,300 tons. (Riesling, by the way, weighed in a close second for white wine varietals at 40,200 tons.)

Even though today's chenin blanc is a small fraction of the state's total production, its star appears to be on the rise, with the 2013 totals over 40 percent higher than the year before. That's the biggest jump among any of Washington's top 10 red or white wine grape varietals.

So despite its small numbers, Washington chenin blanc is still out there, to be sure. Just recognize that in order to find it, you'll probably have to do a little extra searching through the shelves of the white wine section at your local grocer and wine merchant, or when ordering online.

Your reward; a tasty, fruity white wine that is generally high in acidity and can be made in a range of styles from ultra-sweet to bone-dry. It pairs beautifully with a wide variety of light salads, fresh seafood, and creamy cheeses. In other words, it's a perfect wine for dining al fresco, picnicking, and warm-weather sipping.

Here are a couple of Washington chenin blancs to start you off. I will follow these up with several more recommendations next week.

Proof that chenin blanc is on the rebound: The Kiona Vineyards and Winery 2013 Chenin Blanc (about $15) took "Best White Wine" honors at this year's Northwest Wine Summit in Hood River, Oregon. I have yet to try this particular wine, but it's made in a barely sweet, off-dry style that many prefer.

Kiona also currently produces a 2012 Chenin Blanc Ice Wine (about $25 for 375 milliliters) with a flavor profile that consistently explodes with tropical fruits and a seemingly endless, honey-like finish. Sourced from estate vineyards on Red Mountain, this particular vintage features a mind-numbing 17.2 percent residual sugar content.

Dan Radil is a wine enthusiast who lives in Bellingham. Reach him at danthewineguy.com.

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