When someone in California asks why I live here, out comes a white lie:
“Actually, I feel sorry for you guys because you have such a short syrah season.”
On the precipice of the Ides of March, when this tough winter should be abating, it’s a good time to switch from weightier syrahs to “shoulder season” wines. I’m talking medium-bodied reds and whites with enough oomph for chillier climes, but sufficient verve and vigor for when we head into spring (soon, please!).
I’m talking the primary grapes of the Loire region, cabernet franc and chenin blanc.
Fittingly, the Loire is sort of a “shoulder region” of France, north of balmier Bordeaux and the Rhône and south of chillier Champagne and Alsace. And while many of these Loire wines are exemplary, the grapes have found happy homes in other regions, particularly the U.S. West Coast for both of them and South Africa for chenin.
Of course, the French bottles won’t have the varietal name, but the place name usually is telling. If a red wine has Chinon or Bourguiel on the label, it’s cab franc; if a white-wine label reads Vouvray or Savennières, it’s chenin blanc.
The confusion hardly ends there, at least with chenin, which can be vinified to land anywhere from bone-dry to dessert-worthy sweet, and all points in between. “Sec” means dry, “demi-sec” is off-dry and “möelleux” is sweet. Sometimes it’s best to just ask the winemonger or waitperson about the sweetness level of a Loire chenin blanc.
The sweet stuff is mostly for collectors; wines such as Baumard Quarts de Chaume and “möelleux” from Huet, Poultière and Francois Chidaine are spendy and best uncorked after lengthy cellaring.
Instead, check out zestier Vouvrays in the $15 to $22 range from Sauvion, Racauderie, Champalou Sablonnettes Les Copines Aussi, Aubuisières Cuvee de Silex and Pichot Le Peu de la Moriette; Saumur from Vieux Pressoir, or Savennières from d’Epiré.
On these shores, chenin was a green-colored stepchild for most of the 20th century, grown for jug wines such as Gallo and Almaden.
Not anymore. Even larger-production renditions such as Dry Creek Vineyard’s Clarksburg chenin blanc and Pine Ridge’s chenin blanc-Viognier blend are serious but eminently approachable, not to mention delicious, bottlings for around $15.
And a trio of erstwhile Minnesotans are at the forefront of making world-class chenin: Gabrielle Shaffer and Adam McClary at Gamling & McDuck and John Skupny at Lang & Reed. Being Loire fanatics, these guys also make fabulous cab franc, as well.
Shaffer and McClary knew from the get-go what they wanted to make when they alighted in Napa less than a decade ago. “We were drawn to chenin and cab franc for myriad reasons, including their versatility,” Shaffer said. “Chenin blanc can be anywhere from searingly crisp and acidic to robust and lushly sweet. While these can be fun upon the right occasion, we seek out and make a style that is dry and medium- to light-bodied with a focus on the savory characteristics so unique to this varietal.”
With cabernet franc, “we try to retain the delicate, high-toned aromatics and fruitiness that this varietal is so beloved for. It’s a perfect shoulder-season red as it has all the comfort of a dry red without being overly extracted, tannic or oaked.”
What comes through as well in their wines (and Skupny’s) are freshness and purity of fruit, depth of flavor and distinctive character. Plus they’re super-tasty.
More New World chenin gems emanate from South Africa. Storm Point, Nabygelegen Wellington, the off-dry Bush Camp “The Sundowner” and Côte de Paradis Chenin Blanc+Viognier are good places to start.
Cabernet franc is grown in this country from coast (Dr. Konstantin Frank in New York’s Finger Lakes district) to coast (Dusted Valley and Northstar in Washington). And especially in California, where the “new guard” includes superb renderings such as Field Recordings, Leo Steen and Broc Cellars KouKou.
But the epicenter remains the Loire, with splendid entry-level bottles from Chinon such as Sauvion and Fabrice Gasnier “Les Graves.” The good news: rosés and sparkling wines made with cab franc are becoming more prevalent in this market; look for Vieux-Pressoir Saumur renditions of both.
The best news: All of these offerings are seasonal gems, but they also truly are wines for all seasons.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.