Wine column no. 22: A toast to the seasons

Talk about sunshine in a glass.

If you've ever dreamed of swapping Christmas gifts in the middle of a sandy, palm-tree lined island, then just pop open the 2010 Cameron Hughes Lot 259 blend of Riesling and Chenin Blanc and call it a day. That's because this wine will make you think you've reunited with summer even when you're covered with blankets near a crackling fire.

We've written about Riesling before, that type of (usually German) off-dry white wine that can -- but doesn't always -- produce a mixture of lemon and pineapple flavors. It makes up 70 percent of this Cameron Hughes, which we bought at Winetree on Washington Avenue. But the rest is Chenin Blanc, a white wine variety from the Loire Valley in France.

What? You've never heard of Chenin Blanc? Well, we haven't had much experience with it, either. But this grape that may produce dry, medium-sweet and sweet wines has a long history.

According to The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine, Chenin Blanc is the predominant variety in the central Loire of France, in the Anjou and Touraine regions, and is responsible for, among other things, Vouvray (an example of which we'll get to soon).

In California, Chenin Blanc is common, and fruity versions of this varietal are sold as jug wines -- though it is possible to create an award-winning dry Chenin Blanc. Dave Stare's Dry Creek Vineyards, founded in 1972 in Healdsburg, has collected numerous awards for drier forms of this varietal, for instance.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, where there are extensive plantings of Chenin Blanc, the varietal goes by an entirely different name: Steen. We haven't been fortunate enough to taste any Steen, but we were very pleased with Cameron Hughes' latest effort.

According to the Cameron Hughes website, the wine that became Lot 259 started as a Riesling from Columbia Valley in Washington State. Winemaker Sam Spencer then added in about 30 percent Chenin Blanc "to round out an already killer Riesling." This, the site said, balanced the acid and sugar in the Riesling and filled the nose with "gorgeous fruit."

As for us, this blend is just sweet enough to get your attention but also crisp enough to keep you on your toes. Greg said it the nose reminded him of a Sauvignon Blanc without any of the grassy tones usually associated with the New Zealand styles of Sauvignon blanc. I liked how citrusy, slightly sweet and crisp it was. At 10.9 percent alcohol, it's an easy wine to pair with honeyed ham (and poultry). About $13.

Another good Chenin Blanc is the 2007 J. Moreau & Fils Vouvray from Winetree. This $16 purchase was light and refreshing, with inklings of apricot and peach. At 12 percent alcohol, it's just one more way to toast summer in the midst of winter.

Now here's a wine that'd be perfect once we finally do start to have a long spell of blustery cold days: The 2007 Ruffino Riserva Ducale Chianti Classico.

Some people swear by Chianti, saying this Italian Tuscan is a varietal they can drink by itself, no food required. We're just not that way. Dennis Bolin at Winetree really likes tannic Chianti, since the drying feeling tannins create in your mouth go a long way toward complementing very cheesy, fatty lasagna.

But the 2007 Ruffino (we got it at Schnucks on North Green River) is an example of how varied Chianti can be. This blend of Sangiovese plus Cabernet and Merlot was fruity and smooth, and it was almost light. Against a heavily spiced sausage-and-pepperoni infused pizza I had recently, it was a great foil. 13.5 percent alcohol. Also, if it matters, Wine Spectator rated it an 87 out of 100. Under $20.

Finally, this particular wine would go perfectly with these rather warm December temperatures. The 2008 Beringer Stanly Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir from Carneros in Napa Valley, California, is fruity, light and smooth.

We had it with baked salmon with fish rub, dried cilantro, salt, pepper and lemon juice, and this Winetree purchase didn't disappoint. It tasted of strawberries and raspberries, with a bit of woodiness, and whatever minor acidity it had came at the tail end of the sip from the glass. 14.5 percent alcohol. About $36.

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