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The other ‘c’ word: chenin blanc from California

Lean and luscious, Pine Ridge’s ’04 Chenin Blanc-Viognier is the un-chardonnay.

I think of chenin blanc as the un-chardonnay. It doesn’t take much persuasion to get me to try it, whether it’s a Vouvray or Savennières from France’s Loire Valley, a chenin from South Africa, where the grape is ubiquitous, or one from California, where it is relatively rare. And yet chenin blanc just doesn’t get the respect it deserves, except by those in the know. Just try a glass of the 2004 Chenin Blanc-Viognier from the Pine Ridge Winery in California’s Napa Valley and you’ll see what I mean. This gorgeous wine, made without oak, is as close as you’ll get to lean elegance, a term I use most sparingly when it comes to California wines, red or white. My eyes almost popped out when I noticed on the label that alcohol was only 12.5 percent, which is just about unheard of in California. Then there’s the price. At $13.50 (or less), this wine should be flying off the shelves this summer (the 2005 is about to be released). Okay, I know. I’m gushing a bit, which is unusual for your naturally reserved and often skeptical wine scribe. But this luscious wine, with its notes of ripe pear, melon, grapefruit, honey and touches of herbs and flowers, shows what California can come up with on the lower-priced, leaner end of the spectrum, although this kind of quality is more the exception than the rule there. It may not have the complexity, namely the minerality, of chenin blancs from the Loire. But the fruit is stunning for the price and gives us the chance to taste California unshackled from the typical big oak and alcohol cocktail, as in many chardonnays.

This is Pine Ridge’s biggest-production wine, with some 16,000 cases of the 2004 made, so between what’s left of the ’04 and the release of the ’05 it should be widely available. The blend is 80 percent chenin blanc and 20 percent viognier, a highly fragrant grape that provides greater complexity and is, by the way, one of the great white varieties of France’s Rhône Valley. The grapes for the Pine Ridge wine are sourced, or purchased, from a vineyard in the Clarksburg area, northeast of Napa near Sacramento, that has supplied fruit for this wine for many years.

Pine Ridge’s other wines are estate bottled, meaning that the fruit is grown by Pine Ridge in its Napa vineyards. They include chardonnays and a range of reds — cabernet sauvignons, merlot and cabernet franc and even a limited-production malbec called Onyx. They are significantly more expensive.

The chenin blanc-viognier is a great wine for the warmer days ahead. It’s full of the fruits of summer but light in character. Enjoy it with simple grilled foods like chicken marinated with lemon and herbs and shrimp with ginger, lime and soy sauce. It’s also delightful on its own.

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at EdwardDeitch