We first started drinking California Chenin Blanc back in 2014 when winemaker Tegan Passalacqua first released his Sandlands label. Now there’s a slew of California winemakers producing chenin blanc including Broc Cellars, Jamiee Motley, Forlorn Hope, Dasche Cellars and Maître de Chai. And if you haven’t had chenin blanc before, maybe you remember your parents pouring a glass of Inglenook Chablis, made back then from chenin blanc grapes with residual sugar often added to balance out the acidity, which is chenin blanc’s calling card. Side note: in France, Chablis is traditionally made with chardonnay grapes from the Burgundy region.
Maître de Chai (aka MDC wines) was founded in 2012 by Marty Winters and Alex Pitts who both started out in restaurant kitchens and eventually met at Cyrus in Healdsburg before transitioning to wines. Alex was the assistant winemaker at the Scholium Project while Marty was the founding Estate Director of Ashes & Diamonds. We found their wines at a CUESA tasting event a couple of years ago and have been drinking them ever since. We especially like their chenin blanc (MDC also produces chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and cabernet) with Dungeness crab, the gripping mouthfeel (the way a wine feels in your mouth—acidity in white wines, tannins in red wines—pairs nicely with the salty and buttery crab meat.
Per the MDC website, this sparkling chenin blanc was produced with the classic Méthode Champenoise, aged for six months in a combination of stainless steel and neutral oak barrels, with the secondary fermentation (tirage) in February 2020. They riddled and disgorged the wine in July 2020 with a dosage of two grams per liter. Esther Mobley, the SF Chronicle wine critic, recently noted in her list of recommended California sparkling wines: “the shorter aging regimen results in a more forward and direct wine, full of bright green apple and quince.” We’d also say there’s a hefty backbone of minerality to go with the flowery bouquet that makes this sparkling chenin blanc nicely balanced.
As part of our ongoing effort to glean more info on the provenance of the wines we drink, we pinged Marty and Alex for some insight into how the grapes for this sparkling chenin blanc are grown and harvested. This vintage comes from the Woods Ranch Vineyard, which was planted with chenin blanc grapes 22 years ago, just south of Clarksburg, in the Sacramento River Delta. The Clarksburg AVA is well known for producing chenin blanc and the hallmark of this particular site (block 20) is electric acidity (grippy 😉). Woods Ranch viticulturist David Ogilvie has overseen the transition of the 28-acre chenin blanc vineyard from conventional farming to organic farming, and although not certified, there’s no usage of synthetic herbicides, including Roundup. All inputs that are used in the vineyard are 100% Organic. The Wilson family has full-time employees that make up the harvest crew and they are paid a living wage.
As you can see in our photo, we’re not a fan of flutes when it comes to sparkling wines. A regular wine glass is essential because you can give the glass a couple quick swirls (which you definitely should do), exposing the surface area of the wine to more oxygen and thereby releasing essential aroma compounds. Your brain picks up those aromas and instantly associates them with flavors (apples, strawberries, earth, tobacco, etc.) priming you to enjoy the wine even more when you take a sip. This isn’t possible with a flute, but if you like to taste a lot of foam and fizz, go with the skinny glasses. As the CEO of Krug Champagne noted: drinking champagne from flutes is like going to a concert with ear plugs.
We purchased this wine from Fig & Thistle Market.
Photo: Bruce Cole