wine in the spotlight: l’ecole 2009 walla voila chenin blanc

Friday, July 23, 2010

One of the grapes widely planted during the 1970s-era expansion of Washington vineyards was chenin blanc. By and large these vineyards went into to most fertile Yakima valley and Columbia basin sites, were heavily watered, and produced large crops. The chenin blancs that resulted were off-dry, fruity and simple, quaffable white wines with no aspirations to the greatness of which the grape is capable.

Chenin blanc from the Loire valley in particular is as versatile as the greatest rieslings. It produces complex, ageworthy wines, in a full spectrum from bone dry to achingly sweet. Honey, flowers, stone and herbal elements combine with the stone fruits that are the core of these wines. Vouvrays have a tangy tension, a lovely dance of sugar and acid, that makes them especially vivid.

Why then can’t Washington chenins rise to such heights? Well, I’m not certain that they can’t. But economics – basically the price that consumers are willing to pay for a bottle of chenin blanc – trickle back to the price that winemakers can pay to growers, and have kept the wines as cheap and cheerful as ever, while production figures have sharply declined.

It’s a self-feeding downward spiral, much like that which until recently has confined Washington rieslings to the role of entry-level, tasting room pours. For riesling to break free of such limitations has taken over a decade of hard work, the collaboration of global authorities such as Ernst Loosen, and a quality push from visionary leaders, notably Allen Shoup (Long Shadows), Ted Baseler (Ste. Michelle Wine Estates), and Nicolas Quillé (Pacific Rim).

Poor old chenin has no such prospects. But one wine consistently proves the potential. L’Ecole No 41 has been producing a chenin blanc with the playful name of Walla Voila since 1987. Around 1500 cases have been made annually, modeled on Vouvray, but with the brightness of Washington fruit.

The grapes come exclusively from a Yakima Valley vineyard planted in 1979. The Walla Voila has been getting progressively drier with each vintage, benefiting from improved vineyard management, which allows for more delicate aromas of honeysuckle, and flavors of lime, sweet lemon, orange and pineapple.

The newest version, from the 2009 vintage, ramps up production to over 2500 cases, and drops the price to $14. This is just one percent residual sugar and 13.5% alcohol, with lush, fruit-driven aromas that capture the complexity of the grape – rarely seen in domestic chenin blancs. Ripe apples, spice, hints of honey and caramel, and a lovely, persistent floral overtone are some of the highlights.

All of the white wines from L’Ecole are fragrant, fruitful, and fresh. But I am especially fond of this Walla Voila, because it offers clear proof that chenin blanc need not be relegated to also-ran status in the U.S.

Walla Voila

16 comments:

Paul Zitarelli said...

Paul - it kills me when I talk to growers who are pulling up 1970s-planted Washington Chenin due to a lack of demand. Fortunately, there are some dedicated producers (with L'Ecole at the lead) championing this fine grape. Other versions from vines with decent age that I have enjoyed include Hestia, McKinley Springs, Kyra, and Cedergreen.

PaulG said...

Thanks, Paul. Hopefully we can list a few others on here and get some interest going. You're right, the old vines are getting pulled, just when they should be at their peak. A shame.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Paul,

I can't speak authoritatively on Washington wines, but in Sonoma there is a wonderful Chenin Blanc made from 30-year-old vines in Dry Creek Valley from the producer Leo Steen, a small label owned by a former Cyrus sommelier, Leo Hansen. The 2008 is just gorgeous and completely dry. Very much worth seeking out. I think it runs $18.

And I very fondly remember the fantastic old vines Chenins of Chappellet and Chalone. Wow. I know Chappellet's vines are gone, not sure about Chalone's.

PaulG said...

Ron, I haven't had the Leo Steen, but maybe you'll bring a bottle up with you when you come to Walla Walla!?! I remember conversing with (Don?) Chappellet some years ago at the winery, sipping on that old vine dry chenin, and enthusiastically comparing it to a fine Savennières, only to learn that they were going to rip out the whole vineyard.

Chris said...

Scottie Pontin of Pontin del Rosa has been making Chenin in Prosser since 1984, he still has ~4 acres of vines and makes ~350 cases per year which sell out quickly.

Milbrandt is making a Chenin about 225 cases per year from grapes off Upland and Evergreen. A case of this wine disappeared in about an hour at our daughter's wedding last Saturday.

BTW, the L'Ecole vineyard source, Willard, is near Prosser, which is not part of the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. L'Ecole cleared this up in a conversation on Sean Sullivan's blog a few weeks ago.

PaulG said...

Thanks, Chris! I've made the correction.

Gewurz said...

I have always loved the grape as well! Starting with the world of Baumard and moving to the wonderful Chalone and Clarksburg CA versions.
One amazing wine not to miss is the Kiona Chenin Ice Wine. It is a beautiful match of sugar and natural acidity.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Paul,

Now that the Poodles are gone, I might be safe! The Leo Steen is mighty fine Chenin Blanc, but I don't think it quite ranks up there, yet, with those fabulous old Chappellet wines. But when I get to Walla Walla I'll definitely bring a bottle. Wonder if I can rustle up any old Chappellet? Worth a search.

Anonymous said...

Paul,

Chenin... another great varietal that gets no respect. We make our fair share but man it is tough to sell. Most people have walked away from Chenin and it is a shame because it tastes much better than Pinot Gris and we have some awesome old vines in WA (our Chenin comes from a 1968 planting!!!). Thank you for raising your hand.

NicoRiesling

Jon M said...

Hey Paul,

What an ironic topic. I will be making about 600 cases of dry (No R.S.) Vouvray style Chenin Blanc from 35 year old vines next to my French Creek Vineyard property. It was going to one of the big wineries that now can't seem to make it fit in their program. So with the backing from the property owners and the support from my distributor, Maison Bleue will try out a little side project under a different label. The wine will retail for $14-15/bottle. Hopefully this will keep them from pulling out these vines.

Jon Martinez

PaulG said...

Thanks everyone for chiming in. If you make even a few cases of old vine, dry Chenin, I would love to taste it. I love the stuff. Keep the faith!

Chris said...

Great to hear of your Chenin Blanc project Jon, I'm assuming your Maison Bleue club members will get first dibs :)

Shannon Jones said...

We (Hestia Cellars) produce around 500 cases of Dry Chenin Blanc from 30 year old vine at Andrews Ranch Vineyard. It has been an uphill battle for sure, but we are starting to see more support for Chenin Blanc in restaurants. We recently hosted a media group from Quebec, and they were amazed at the quality of our Chenin Blanc (and couldn’t believe the $15 retail price). They couldn’t understand why it was such a difficult sell (although several of them were from Anjou!). Thanks for helping spread the word!

Shannon Jones

Judy Phelps said...

We planted some in 2006 at Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards at Lake Chelan, just a small amount, knowing it would be a hard sell, but Don and I love the wine. Should have our first decent crop next year. We planted it in a challenging, sandy, dry site, so we'll see what it can do for us.

PaulG said...

Just yesterday I was told by more than one well-connected wine industry member that there is rising interest in dry chenin blanc, fueled by sommeliers who are looking for aromatic white wines - unoaked - to pour by the glass and pair with summer foods. I am usually a pretty good barometer for nascent trends – it would not surprise me if dry chenins, especially those from old vines such as we have here in Washington, started to get some real market traction. I'd be locking up vineyard contracts now if I were a winemaker interested in giving it a try.

Rick TYler said...

I was browsing through some of Paul's blog posting that I've missed and I came across this one. I'm sipping Kiona Chenin Blanc while browsing. I think you are right, Paul. Chenin is in the air.

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