Vino Veritas: An Ode to Chenin Blanc

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Easter is one of my favorite events of spring, probably because growing up in Hawaii there were few other markers of the change of the season.s  In Hawaii, there are essentially two seasons: one that’s sunny and so hot (88 degrees! What?!), and one that’s rainy and so cold (sometimes down to the 60s at night. Break out the sweaters). We spent every Easter camping at the beach when I was a kid, on the east side of the island where we lived so that we could watch the sunrise on Sunday morning. We’d set up in tents, roast marshmallows and other grillable items, listen to the ocean, and watch the stars come out.

Or that’s how I tell the story. In reality, we probably spent two Easters at the beach in the fourteen years we spent in Hawaii, and “camping” was two tents pitched roughly ten feet from our parked fifteen-passenger van, and usually the sand was mixed with pokey pinecone-like spawn of ironwood trees and previous campers’ charcoal remnants from their marshmallows and grillable items, making the powdery, death-gray sand stick to our legs and arms and s’mores-crusted faces, meaning a dirty, sticky hoard of children (all seven of us) piling back into the fifteen-passenger van to be hosed off at a later destination, usually in the front yard of our house.

Now, a little older living on this coast, spring brings more than just ashen limbs and the occasional beach campout. The rotation of all four seasons is one of my favorite things about living here, and though Maryland seems to mix up the weather patterns a little bit, spring more or less means something new every day (like snow, perhaps?), not the least of which is a switch in the wine brain.

I didn’t much believe in that idea, that weather dictates what kind of wine you actually enjoy, but that first year in the wine shop changed my mind. It was Daylight Savings Time, yet another seasonal phenomena I still don’t understand courtesy of growing up in the middle of the ocean, and all of the sudden the sun was still coming through the windows at 7:30 at night. And it was warmer. And there were things growing. And suddenly, you’re looking at the tasting bar and you’re thinking, “my GOD, why is there no white wine?!” It wasn’t that my tastes had changed; it was just a response to everything else changing. We drink in seasons, too.

To me, that shift is something to celebrate. Spring means I get to throw a lot of dinner parties for all of my favorite people as a reward for laboring through three-to-five months of chilly weather and root vegetables, and my all-time favorite seasonal celebration was last year. A bunch of us wine nerds got together and decided to have a dinner built exclusively around one kind of grape, one that is as vivacious, lively, and declarative as spring itself: Chenin Blanc.

Let me just take a minute to issue a formal statement of deep, undying affection for this grape. Hailing from the Loire Valley of France, this green-skinned grape makes white wine and is used in a whole host of styles, from very dry to very sweet to very sparkling, all depending on what it is the winemaker is trying to do and where the grape is growing. It can be insanely mineral-driven, meaning the kind of soil the grape is grown in is translated very clearly through the fruit itself, in this case giving some wines an aroma of the riverbeds they grow so near in France. But it also has these crazy flavors of honeyed pear, underripe white peach, and candied lime in different quantities and balances, some accentuating the naturally sweet profile of the grape, but some streamlining the vibrant acidity with light saber-like precision. It can be cheap and cheerful. It can be classy and age-worthy. It has a dress for every occasion.

So what could possibly stand up to all this hype, you ask? What food did we dare bring to this single-minded adventure? Why, brunch-for-dinner, of course.

Brunch is the best meal, almost without question. It’s everything good about breakfast—waffles, coffee, eggs, bacon—with everything good about the rest of the day mixed in. As it turns out, Chenin Blanc wants the same things that we do: more brunch. Get this: Chenin Blanc’s natural acidity, vibrant fruit, and stony minerality make it an unbelievable accompaniment for shellfish, the perfect thing for tart, creamy goat cheese, a great sidekick to light and fluffy eggs, and ideal for dishes with herbs like parsley, chives, dill, and cilantro. Sound like an amazing omelet already? Just wait…

There was quiche with springy asparagus and mushrooms! We made a crab lettuce wraps with chive aioli! A tangy herb salad! Cauliflower gratin! French toast with peaches! And to complete it all, a lime angel food cake with pears poached in Chenin Blanc itself. It was, truly, the Brunch of Champions. Our seven or so bottles of Chenin Blanc, all we could lay our hands on, ranged from traditional examples from Vouvray in several price brackets, one from Savennières (Chenin from a different part of the Loire Valley), and zippy, tropical South African Chenin Blanc (where it’s known as “steen”) ranging from nine to sixty-five dollars. It was quite the cast list, and if you’re interested in actively learning about wine…there are few better ways to do so.

I always think of the beach this time of year, always think of us as kids waking up and walking a few yards to the beach and seeing the cotton candy sky unfold into Easter, always the hallmark holiday of our springtime. I’d like to go back one day and relive all that, with a few revisions: somebody bring quiche, and somebody bring a bottle of Chenin Blanc.

Katie Callahan is a wine educator and former manager of  Bin 201 Wine Sellers in Annapolis.



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