Jason Conti, Paul Conti Wines, WA

Name: Jason Conti

Chenin Blanc - a versatile and hardy variety

Chenin Blanc was first planted in our Carabooda vineyard, situated 40km north of Perth, in 1980. Prior to that, we sourced fruit from various growers in the Swan Valley and Gingin, north of Perth.

We have always used Chenin Blanc to produce a dry, fresh, unwooded white and it is our biggest-selling white wine.

Chenin Blanc is widely grown in Western Australia where approximately 324ha is planted - more than any other State. It is made into various styles ranging from semi-sweet commercial quaffers, barrel-fermented complex whites to fresh fruit-driven unwooded blends and refined single varietals. This choice in styles has sometimes made it a confusing variety for the consumer.

We chose Chenin Blanc as our principal white as it is well-suited to our warm Mediterranean climate. It is versatile and a hardy vine to manage. Its key attributes are its full-flavoured and good natural acidity which gives the finished wine a good degree of refinement even in a warm climate.

The home of Chenin Blanc is the Loire Valley, in France, where it is also known as Pibneau de la Loire. The river Loire and the valley's main tributaries provide a mild, cool climate for wine production. Wine styles in the Loire Valley utilizing Chenin Blanc vary greatly from dry to semi-sweet to rich, highly-botrytised and Sparkling wines.

The Loire's many appellations include some famous names as well as some rarities that we would never see in Australia. The wines of Anjou can be either sweet or fearsomely dry, as in the case of wines from Savennieres. The wines of Vouvray, though comparatively light, have a great ability to age.

Sparkling wine made under the Saumur Mousseux appellation is France's second-largest sparkling wine appellation after Champagne. A common thread with all these French styles is their great ability to age and to do this yields are greatly reduced to ensure full ripeness. Yields of one tonne per acre are often desired.

Chenin Blanc has been in Western Australia since early settlement, most likely since 1829. Cuttings came from South Africa where it is known as Steen. It's the most widely-grown grape variety in South Africa, though its reputation has suffered due to being made into bulk, semisweet wines.

The warm and fertile Swan Valley was a good environment for Chenin Blanc where it was locally known as Semillon up until the late 1960s. Dorham Mann and Max Rive, working at the Swan Research Station, subsequently identified it as Chenin Blanc after noting its similarity with some Chenin Blanc vines that were in quarantine from California. In South Australia it was known as Albilo, a good variety for sherry production.

The legendary late Jack Mann used Chenin Blanc in his OLlorossa and Amontillado sherries in the 1930s and 1940s. These were regarded as benchmark Australian styles. In 1937 a dry, white wine made by Jack Mann at Houghton Winery from Chenin Blanc won a gold medal at the Melbourne Wine Show. A judge commented on its resemblance to a great White Burgundy and so Houghton's White Burgundy was born. It has gone on to be one of Australia's top-selling wine brands. Though today the name has changed (Houghton White Classic) and it is classified as a blend, Chenin Blanc is still the core component of this wine and its ability to age is astonishing considering its price and high production.

We sourced our Chenin Blanc cuttings from Will Nairn of Peel Estate Wines, south of Perth. Peel Estate sourced its cuttings from Houghtons in the mid 1970s so it is likely they originated from cuttings that initially came from South Africa.

The Chenin Blanc grape can be easily identified because of its compact bunches and full berry size. These compact bunches can cause problems if there are summer rains just before bunch closure, resulting in bunch rot. A precise spray schedule is recommended to combat this.

Our Chenin Blanc is grown on its own roots with a standard vine spacing of 2m and a row spacing of 3.35m. It is spur pruned with two clear buds with six to eight spurs per cordon, depending on the strength of the vine. A VSP trellis system is used with wire lifting occurring late spring to early summer.

Crop levels are relatively low at around two to three tonnes per acre. Chenin Blanc will easily crop at levels much higher than this, but the resulting wine would be thin, insipid and lack any flavour. We have found it unnecessary to crop thin as long as it is pruned cleanly and correctly in the first place.

A light hedging of the canopy occurs once the canes have begun to harden. If time permits, some shoot thinning occurs in the crown. We are mindful not to remove too much foliage as it protects the fruit from scorching if the summers are particularly hot. Good airflow through the canopy is desirable to reduce the risk of disease. Powdery mildew can be a problem if the vineyard is not maintained correctly.

Our Carabooda vineyard is located on the Swan CoastalPlain. This narrow strip of land runs from Yanchep to the Ludlow Tuart Forrest near Busselton, 230km south of Perth. The region is characterised by its sandy topsoils over limestone and the majestic Tuart trees that grow only in this area. Because of its close proximity to the coast, the cooling effect from the summer afternoon seabreezes is significant. This, together with good groundwater for supplementary drip irrigation, makes it a good environment for viticulture.

The relatively low natural fertility and the ease of which nutrients are lost by leaching means close attention to vine nutrition is essential. All our fruit is hand harvested usually in mid to late February (though the 2007 vintage was three weeks earlier due to weather conditions). Harvest date is determined simply by observing healthy-looking vines without stress and good ripe flavours reminiscent of cut hay and apples. This normally occurs at between 12.8 and 13.5°Baume. The winemaking follows fundamental dry white winemaking techniques and the wine is bottled as early as possible to retain freshness. We also make a Sparkling wine from Chenin Blanc (cellar door-only sales).

Chenin Blanc is a hardy and versatile variety easily managed if you follow basic viticultural practices, especially keeping crops low. It will produce soft, flavoursome wines when young that will age magnificently if given the chance.

The full Chenin Blanc varietal report can be found in the November/December 2007 issue of Australian Viticulture. To subscribe visit www.winebiz.com.au/ausvit/subscribe.asp

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