About the Region
Chenin Blanc and Syrah are two of my top ‘go-to’ grapes when I’m unsure of what to drink. I find the crisp, high acid, and fruit-forward nature of Chenin to be ultra-refreshing, no matter the time of year. These wines are also known for their crazy food-friendliness, which makes them perfect for bringing to dinner parties, happy hours, and various gatherings that involve sipping and snacking. Syrah is just mind-boggling. I’ve been passionate about this grape for a long time now, as it is responsible for producing some of the most thought-provoking wines I’ve ever tasted. Textured, dark-fruited, and terroir reflective, a well-made bottle of Syrah is something I’ll never say no to. I got to thinking, what better way to learn about these grapes than an Old World vs. New World side-by-side tasting? When it comes to blind tasting, determining if a wine is Old World or New World is usually one of the first conclusions to make. To clarify, the Old World represents all of Europe and the Middle East, while the New World represents basically everywhere else (North & South Americas, Australia, South Africa, etc.) Generally speaking, Old World wines tend to be higher in acid, lower in alcohol, and have a more restrained use of oak. New World wines are usually more ripe and opulent in style, with a heavier oak influence and higher alcohol content. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to these generalizations, especially as global warming continues to warm up vineyard sites worldwide. With this month’s box, I wanted to highlight an expression of each of these grape varieties from various Old World and New World growing sites. It’s a bit geeky, but I definitely believe that this is a solid way to understand the concept of terroir (as well as drink great producers from a variety of top-notch growing sites). First, we’ve got a varietal Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, one of the Loire Valley’s top appellations for growing grapes. Vouvray is basically Mecca for this high acid grape variety. Here, fruit is vinified in a variety of styles, from bone dry to unctuously sweet, in both still and sparkling formats. I chose to highlight a dry expression from one of my favorite producers in the region, Domaine Champalou. Owners Catherine and Didier come from long lineages of winemaking history, and have organically farmed their vines for years. Vouvray has a cooler continental climate, which helps keep acid high in grapes, and the soils here are tuffeau dominant, which is a specific type of limestone synonymous with the Loire Valley. Tuffeau has a naturally high porosity, which creates a solid balance between drainage and water retention for vines. Next up is a Chenin from our good friends Eric Railsback and Justin Willett. These two realized their passion for Loire varieties early on in their careers, and eventually decided to pursue them in the marine soils of Santa Barbara, California. What a success! These wines are some of the most fun and easy-drinking bottles to come out of the Golden State. Fresh, fruit-forward, and restrained, I find myself reaching for their Chenin on a pretty regular basis. I could talk about Syrah for days. Seriously, my passion for this grape knows no limits, and the Northern Rhône is a hotbed for it. Here, dozens of passionate winemaking families farm the steep terraced hillsides located along the region’s namesake river.
The Robin family is a perfect example of artisanal winemaking at its best: small, serious, and consistently superb, these wines never disappoint. I love Northern Rhône Syrah so much that my buddy Thomas and I actually founded a biennial charity event around it called Reboule du Rhône. We’ll be hosting the third edition this November. Stay tuned for details!
Great Syrah can be found closer to home, too. California has become a breeding ground for bright, balanced, and insanely food-friendly expressions of the grape. Bedrock Wine Co. is crushing it (literally) in the state’s North Coast. I almost want to call their Syrah ‘Northern Rhône-esque,’ but that would totally demean the profound capabilities of California’s unique growing sites that foster this grape in such profound ways. At its best, California Syrah is peppery, balanced, and marked by truckloads of thirst-quenching acidity. Needless to say, Bedrock’s got the right idea here!
So, what’ll it be: Old World or New World? You be the judge! We’d love to hear your thoughts on these two side-by-side tastings. I hope you enjoy these versatile varieties as much as I do!
Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier
Domaine Champalou Vouvray
Founded in 1983 by Catherine and Didier Champalou, this namesake family domaine organically farms 21 hectares of vines across some of Vouvray’s top growing sites. Their focus is on Chenin Blanc, known locally as Pineau de la Loire, which they vinify in still, sparkling, dry, and sweet formats. Vouvray is highly regarded as one of the best (if not the best) appellation for Chenin Blanc in the world, as the region’s rich clay, limestone, and siliceous soils provide ideal growing conditions for this highly acidic and aromatic grape. Fruit for their entry-level varietal Chenin is hand harvested, ferments with native yeasts, and ages on its fine lees for 11 months in stainless steel. The wine shows stony flavors of lemon zest, green apple and honeysuckle.
PAIRING IDEAS: The naturally high acid and zesty finish on this wine make it perfect for serving with crisp salads, fresh seafood, or a variety of goat cheeses.
Gilles Robin ‘Papillon’ Crozes-Hermitage
The Robin family’s grape-growing roots run deep, though they didn’t begin bottling wines under their own name until 1995. Since then, the Robins have been putting out some of the most consistent and delicious bottles in all of Crozes-Hermitage. The wines are known for their power, terroir-reflection, and precision. The family organically farms 15 hectares of old vines rooted into galet-smattered clay soils, which help fruit optimally mature. Fruit for ‘Papillon’ is destemmed and vinified entirely in steel to preserve natural fruit-forwardness and freshness. Notes of ripe raspberries, violets, cassis, and game dominate this supple and smoke-tinged palate.
PAIRING IDEAS: The full body, sweet spiciness, and well-integrated tannins of this fresh and fruit-for- ward cuvée make it perfect for pairing with game-based dishes and all things grilled.
Lieu Dit Chenin Blanc
After numerous trips to France (and many bottles of wine later), longtime friends Eric Railsback and Justin Willett founded Lieu Dit Winery. The duo first met in Santa Barbara and immediately realized their shared passion for both the region’s unique growing sites and indigenous Loire Valley grape varieties. Since 2011, Railsback and Willett have dedicated their lives to showcasing just how impeccably these grapes thrive in Santa Barbara’s marine soils. Fruit for their Chenin Blanc comes from old vines in Happy Canyon and naturally ferments in a combination of stainless steel and oak. After seven months of aging in neutral French wood, the wine is racked back to tank for a few months prior to bottling. This perfumed and expressive cuvée shows flavors of yellow apple, citrus rind, baker’s yeast, and toast, which lead to a medium-bodied wine with a tangy, mineral-driven finish.
PAIRING IDEAS: This flavorful New World Chenin pairs beautifully with pork chops, baked white fish, or roasted root vegetables.
Bedrock Wine Co. Syrah
Bedrock Wine Co. was founded in a former chicken coop by Morgan Twain-Peterson back in 2007. Six years later, Mark’s best friend Chris Cottrell joined him at the winery and the duo has since focused on producing ‘distinctly Californian wines’ from old vines across the North Coast. Bedrock’s Syrah uses high amounts of whole clusters in the fermentation process, to which small amounts of Viognier are also co-fermented before aging in barrel. Aromatic, peppery, and fruit-driven, this is North Coast Syrah at its finest!
PAIRING IDEAS: This dark-fruited and pepper-driven Syrah is the perfect match for hamburgers, roast leg of lamb, and grilled eggplant.