And what is on your plate?

By Celia Strong

Well, welcome again to another meandering look at another new wine. I think we have all, finally, realized that a new wine every week can keep us moving forward. A new wine can make us feel like we’re keeping ourselves younger because we keep learning; it can help make us more interesting – partly because we have something new to talk about and partly because we’re drinking. And, a new wine can be fun and rewarding for each of us personally. If we didn’t like wines we wouldn’t be who we are today anyhow. So, here’s hoping we all like our new wine for this week.

If you’ve looked at the picture of this week’s wine label, you can see it has a pretty interesting name. “Blue plate.”  So, let’s digress for a second and look at this name. “Blue plate” is a restaurant (or more correctly, a diner) nickname for a special, lower priced meal, very common during the 1920’s through the 1950’s.  Traditionally, this special included a meat and three vegetables. Sometimes, the dishes that these specials were served on were actually divided into sections for the different items. The origins of the phrase “blue plate” is not really clear, but some of the guesses are really fun. One is that during the Depression, one manufacturer made plates (platters or trays was more like it) with divided sections for different foods, kind of like some frozen dinner trays are now. These divided plates only came in the color blue. Another possibility is that there were inexpensive divided plates made with a “blue willow” pattern, copies of Spode and Wedgewood.

October 22, 1892 is the date of the first known use of the term “blue plate” on a menu.  In the late 1920’s, the phrase became much more commonly used. An advertisement in “The New York Times,” May 27, 1926, listed “Blue Plate Specials,” and more records of the phrase followed. In Hollywood, in 1940, every time Spencer Tracy went into the commissary for lunch at Metro Studios, all the executives would look up from their blue plate specials. Or so claimed a Hollywood gossip columnist. (It is truly amazing how many records of how many tidbits of history are recorded.) Just so we don’t think all was rosy with blue plate specials, there were absolutely no substitutions. You got what you got. A glass of wine, or beer, was never included with a blue plate special. Maybe, as a bit of revolt against no substitutions, we like to keep looking for new wines?

And on to our wine for this week. It’s a Chenin Blanc from California. We don’t do much with this variety. Partly because over time there have been more than a few slightly sweeter-style ones made in California. Washington state does make many, really good, drier-style Chenin wines, but our preconceived ideas of this grape from the few California versions is a hurdle. In France, the wines from Vouvray, a town in the Loire Valley, are fairly well known and liked, but not everyone realizes that they are made from Chenin Blanc. South Africa also makes some wonderful wines from Chenin Blanc, though they are often called “Steen.”  More confusion.

But, let’s look at Chenin Blanc. This is a high acidity white grape. Which means it can be used to make dry, semi-dry, dessert and sparkling wines. The vine is naturally vigorous so it can easily grow a lot of grapes that end up as bland, neutral wines. Controlling the growth of the vines, how many grapes per vine, can result in well balanced, rich and complex wines. Chenin Blanc originated in the Anjou area of the Loire Valley sometime in the ninth century. It spread from there, through the valley, to the Rhône Valley, to South Africa and on. Including to the United States. DNA research suggests that Chenin Blanc may be a parent of Sauvignon Blanc. (And we know Sauvignon Blanc is a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon. Yikes.) In addition to controlling the vine’s growth of this variety, climate is important too. Chenin Blanc tends to bud early and ripen late. That means that more warm climates are better for it. The climate, and actually the weather of each vintage, plays a large part in determining what is the best style Chenin wine to be made each year.

In California, Chenin Blanc has gone from having more acreage of vines than France during the 1980’s, to a mere thirteen thousand acres in 2006. When there was so much of it, and it was popular to grow as many grapes as possible, Chenin was viewed as a workhorse variety and used for blending in bulk jug wines. Its natural acidity and varying degrees of sweetness made it a perfect partner to Chardonnay and Colombard. Then, close to the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was a move toward better Chenin Blanc – vines, grapes and wines. Producers in the Sacramento Valley were part of this trend. In the Clarksburg AVA. And, we are now one step close to our wine!

The Clarksburg AVA was established in 1984, part of three counties in the Sacramento Valley, Sacramento, Solano and Yolo. It is just under sixty-five thousand acres with dense clay and loam soils and foggy weather with cool breezes from the San Francisco Bay. One of the best known wineries located in the Clarksburg AVA is Bogle, but ninety of the grapes grown in the AVA are transported out of the area for crushing and fermenting. Very few wines actually come with thenClarksburg AVA on them. But, our “blue plate” 2011 Chenin Blanc does!

This wine, our wine, comes from the Wilson Vineyard where the grapes are sustainably farmed. They were harvested in the early morning of September 7, 2011. Then they were delivered to the winery and pressed into the tank by mid-morning, so that the grapes were never exposed to the hot afternoon sun. The fruit aromas of the wine were maintained by this cool treatment. After pressing, the grapes were allowed to cold-settle for three days, and then racked into a stainless steel tank for a long, very cold fermentation to totally dry. There was no malo-lactic fermentation, so the wine’s natural acidity is still crisp. This acid balances and supports the rich fruitiness of the wine. And no oak. The final wine is ninety-three percent Chenin Blanc and seven percent Sauvignon Blanc.  (Kids always find their way home to Mom or Dad, don’t they?) In our glass, we get intense tropical aromas of passion fruit and plantain.

The textures are full, even voluptuous, with peach, apricot and cantaloupe flavors. And the finish is lemon minerality. My favorite part.  “Wine Enthusiast,” in November, 2012, ranked this 2011 “blue plate” Chenin Blanc number twenty-eight in its top one hundred Best Buys list. And Best Buys means not expensive. So, for $10.99, we can all love this wine. As an aperitif and with all kinds of seafood, salads,  cheeses, sushi, luncheons, back porches, hot afternoons and evenings. It really brings a new meaning to “Blue Plate Special.” And you don’t have to have it in a divided plate. Or a blue glass. But it is special. So, here’s to learning to like Chenin Blanc. Enjoy.

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