Bottles of Chenin Blanc range from still to sparkling and include producers such as (from left) Constant Crush, Patton Valley, Elkton Wine Co., Division Wine Co. and Ledger David Cellars. ##Photo by Kathryn Elsesser

Climbing Chameleon

Versatile Chenin Blanc begins its ascent

By Tamara Belgard

Chenin Blanc is frequently referred to as a chameleon grape, not for an ability to change color, but for versatility in style when vinified. From austere, mineral and acid-driven to rich, floral and honeyed wines, Chenin Blanc runs the gamut, both still and sparkling. Though it’s been home to France’s Loire Valley for over 1,000 years, Chenin Blanc now grows in vineyards throughout the state of Oregon and beyond.

Thomas Monroe, co-owner of Division Wine Co. in Portland, believes the Pacific Northwest shows great potential for Chenin Blanc. In 2012, he started seeking vineyard plantings in Oregon. “It turned out to be much more challenging than we thought it would be, and while we heard stories of Chenin plantings in Oregon during the ’70s and ’80s, they were all gone (ripped out or grafted over),” Monroe said. “There was really only one planting we could find in 2012, which was Idiot’s Grace Vineyard in Mosier.”

A chance tasting of some Washington Chenin Blanc pointed Monroe and business partner Kate Norris to the Columbia Valley. There, they discovered an original block of ’70s own-rooted Chenin Blanc farmed by Jim Willard in the Yakima Valley near Prosser, where they’ve been sourcing Chenin from ever since.

Still committed to Oregon however, Monroe and Norris partnered with their friend and grower, Herb Quady, in the Applegate Valley to plant a few acres. They are hopeful this will be an excellent Oregon option for Chenin Blanc and look forward to the first wines from that site in 2021. “While there are some fruit-bearing plantings now in the Willamette Valley, our experience with Chenin has shown us it needs a long maturation cycle,” Monroe explained, “which is really tough to accomplish in the Willamette Valley, year-in and year-out, with the current climate. But maybe in the future it will be perfect!”

Until recently, Ledger David Cellars represented the only grower and producer of Chenin Blanc in Southern Oregon. According to owners Lena Varner and David Traul, the grape is ideally suited to their site in Talent, resulting in bright and complex flavors with good acidity. They consider it their signature white.

“Our site in the Rogue Valley AVA produces wines with mineral character, a layered mouthfeel and acidic finish,” Varner explained. “We do have to let the fruit hang into October for the more complex flavor components but welcome a bit of botrytis in the years it develops.”

Farther north in the Elkton Oregon AVA, Casey Zarnes, co-owner of Elkton Wine Co., planted his 3.5-acre vineyard in 2017, dedicating one acre to Chenin Blanc, the only planting of the varietal in the area. Zarnes sees great promise in Chenin. “In the vineyard, it’s a late ripener, throws huge clusters and is a grower,” he said. “And the birds don’t like to eat it, which is huge bonus.”

“[The site] feels very Loire-esque due to its location along the Umpqua River where the maritime influence is dramatic compared to some of our more elevated sites.” Zarnes said. “With its ability to crop generously and work well as both a still and sparkling wine, we felt like we would have plenty of latitude to produce an interesting wine, regardless of growing season. Plus, since Elkton is planted to almost entirely Alsatian whites, we thought it would be nice to experiment with some new varietals.”

Bree Stock of Constant Crush Wines, co-owned with husband Chad Stock, champions the grape’s versatility. “We think this variety is suited to most AVAs within Oregon due to its nature as a chameleon and its ability to make high-quality wine in a range of styles that suits a cool-climate region.” The couple sources fruit from the Eola Springs Vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA — they helped develop the site with the owners. According to Stock, “The yields are generous, not overly so, but definitely enough to be a more economically stable farming model compared to the other three primary white varietals that dominate the Willamette Valley.”

Laura Cusick, winemaker for Craft Wine Co., sources her Chenin Blanc from Omero Vineyard in the Ribbon Ridge AVA. She inherited the white’s production from her predecessors. “Honestly, this was a choice that was made by Chad Stock and Meredith Bell when they grafted fruit at Omero several years ago, so I can’t take credit,” she explained. “But, if it were up to me, I would have chosen to make Chenin, primarily out of curiosity to be able to see an example from the Willamette Valley.”

Describing Oregon Chenin Blanc, Cusick notes straw, lanolin and floral aromas, common descriptors for the wine found in other international regions. On the palate, “the typical minerality and acidity is present. I think in vintages warm enough to fully ripen the fruit character and balance the acidity — which is more frequent than not these days — Chenin could be a star in the Willamette Valley.”

When relating Oregon Chenin to those in the Loire and other places, Stock says it’s difficult to say how it compares this early in development. “The most important thing to achieve here is an expression of Oregon through the grape varietal. We should not pigeon-hole it into a regional style, we should play with it and showcase how adventurous our landscape can be, making it a more interesting place to drink and work.”

Derek Einberger of Patton Valley Vineyard says they planted Chenin Blanc, grafting over 18-year-old Pinot Noir in 2016, because practically no one else was. He and his fellow owners, Monte Pitt and Dave Chen, are pleased thus far. “Fruit set is really good and with strong established roots in one of the warmer and windy areas of our vineyard, the Chenin comes to ripeness easily,” he explained.

Chenin remains popular with Patton Valley fans, partly because of its singularity in the Willamette Valley, but also because they make so little and sell it fast. Einberger enjoys the variety’s challenge in the cellar. “It’s fickle in a way, like Pinot Noir. I love wines that have to earn their stripes, wines that can be great but take a lot of work to get there. Chenin can be blah or it can be incredible; it’s the kind of grape that makes winemaking fascinating.”

Scott Flora, owner of Native Flora, recently planted Chenin Blanc at his vineyard on the north side of the Dundee Hills. He is a white wine fan — save Chardonnay, he apologizes. “There is more subtlety, nuance, and transparency in great white wines,” he explained. “Everyone in the Dundee Hills is committed to making exemplary Pinot Noir; I just don’t feel everyone has a similar commitment to whites, other than Oregon Chardonnay. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.”

According to Flora, Chenin doesn’t mind cooler climes, showing more floral, apple and quince notes when grown at lower crop levels. The block where he’s planted it tends to be a warmer spot in the vineyard. “I really have no worries about it doing well,” he said. “It will either work or it won’t; that’s why we experiment.”

Decades ago, Bethel Heights made the only known commercial foray into Chenin Blanc. According to Flora, “Terry Casteel told me they used to grow and bottle it, but they had trouble selling it. I think they grafted it over to Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, but of greatest interest to me were his remarks about having no issues growing or ripening it.

“If I can’t make a version of it that consumers like and will buy, that’s on me,” he continued. “I think the Casteels were just way ahead of their time. The Willamette Valley, in general, simply didn’t have the reputation or foot traffic to support non-core varietals back then. It does now. If I can introduce and delight consumers with Pinot Gouges, Chenin should be a no-brainer. Famous last words.”

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