Reed Skupny is spreading the gospel of Chenin Blanc.
This winemaker at Lang & Reed fell in love with this traditional varietal when he was working in the Loire Valley of France, so much that he and his wife Megan had five different styles of it served at their wedding.
“We had a light sipping Chenin Blanc for appetizers, a very intense and rich Chenin Blanc to go with the main course, a sweet Chenin Blanc for the fois gras course, and then we had both dancing bubbles and toasting bubbles,” he says.
“The dancing bubbles were delicious, but if you spilled it, nobody cared, and for the actual wedding toasts, we had a very special, barrel-aged vintage. We got married in Vouvray in Chinon, and Chinon is ground zero for Chenin Blanc.”
But coming back to the states, most people’s memories of Chenin Blanc were the jug wines of the 70s and 80s. In fact, it used to be the second most planted grape variety in Napa, but today, it’s mostly been a forgotten varietal. Skupny has been working to change that ever since he and his father John started working on this wine in 2013. “The little nuances my dad and I were able to coax out of it is what turned us on to it,” he says.
Skupny uses whole cluster pressing, barrel ferments it, and makes a burgundian style of Chenin Blanc, which he hopes will introduce more people to its delights. “Chenin Blanc isn’t Chardonnay, and it’s not Sauvignon Blanc, but it spans the gap between the two,” Skupny says. “A good Chenin Blanc can be a chameleon – it can have the mouthfeel of a Chardonnay and the bracing acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc.”
But it’s definitely it’s own, unique varietal, with aromas of honeysuckle, lychee, beeswax and key lime. And it’s got a long history. It was, as Skupny points out, the preferred wine of kings, as it is grown in the Loire Valley. It originated sometime in the 9th century, and DNA analysis shows that it is a half-sibling to Sauvignon Blanc and an aunt or uncle of Cabernet Sauvignon. “It’s the white wine of the valley of the kings,” he says. “Royalty drank this all the time.”
But it’s not an easy grape to grow. “It has a thick skin and a small cluster,” he says. “I liken it to Pinot Noir. There’s a serious gap between different Pinot Noirs. It’s either ho-hum or really great. And once you try a good one, you seek it out.”
In his tasting room, Skupny encourages people unfamiliar with Chenin Blanc to give it a go.
“It’s not this weird, esoteric white wine,” he says. “It’s this serious, old world, noble grape, and we have been able to give it a fresh face.”
Once they’re introduced to it, they’re receptive to it. “We’ve found people have been very receptive to it,” he says. “Very few people leave the tasting room without buying it or raving about it.”