Uncorked: Aperture finding success with nontraditional chenin blanc

There are plenty of rocks to look under.

That is a good thing for Jesse Katz. As a sleuth of undiscovered or long-forgotten California vineyards, Katz has relished the chance to work with older vines and nontraditional varieties.

The Aperture Chenin Blanc 2020 ($30) stands out because it’s delicious and because it’s an anomaly. Among total acreages of white wine varieties planted in California, chardonnay is by far the league leader, with 92,311 acres, according to the California Grape Acreage Summary Report of 2019. Chenin blanc checks in at a paltry 4,595.

There’s the right mix of tropical fruit, bay laurel and honeysuckle flavors, and while the wine is driven by a striking beam of acidity, there’s plenty of mouthfeel and texture to go around.

It originally was a passion project for a favorite seafood restaurant in his hometown in Colorado, and the results drove Katz to further explore chenin blanc.

“After the very first vintage, I knew we had something special,” Katz said. “The wine was bright and aromatic, but because [of] how we treated it with barrel fermentation, aging on the lees, and creating a lot of texture through winemaking, it was also very complex.”

With vineyards planted in the 1940s, there’s hard work to be done during the growing season. While the old vines can self regulate when it comes to crop yields, the “very large clusters need to be well manicured.”

“It’s almost like they know what they can ripen,” said Katz about the chenin blanc vines. “You won’t get the bumper yields of some younger blocks, but you will get a level of consistency. They also have very deep roots, and are more buffered from extreme weather like drought, heat spikes and frost.”

After a gentle press in the cellar, the wine spends time in neutral French oak and stainless steel barrels. Katz said the wine’s great texture comes from stirring the lees.

It’s not just chenin blanc that Katz has embraced as an underdog among its peers. He’s also produced acclaimed malbec.

When the New World wine industry in the United States went dormant for 13 years under Prohibition, numerous vineyard sites were forgotten or their development stalled. Even with a planting boom in the last 20 years, there’s still new land to tame.

Compared to its Old World brethren who have generational winemaking experience, California is like a teenager at the grownup table at Thanksgiving.

“With California being a young wine region, there are still a lot of opportunities, and I think some of the best sites are still being found or rediscovered,” Katz said.

As an avid explorer of untapped vineyard potential, Katz has ventured into less densely planted sites in Sonoma, and even bucked the trend when it came to varieties planted.

While the Russian River Valley has gained a deserved reputation for excellent pinot noir and chardonnay, it’s Katz’s vision that cabernet sauvignon can show well there with new plantings.

“Often, I think some sites in California that might be better suited for chenin blanc or another white might be planted to sauvignon blanc or chardonnay because it’s more well known but not necessarily what’s best for the site,” Katz said. “I am thankful when growers stay true to what they think is best for the land, and keep these old blocks of varietals like chenin blanc.”

Even as he’s enjoyed the challenge of finding long-forgotten vineyards or sites, Katz has an eye on what’s to come for Aperture.

“We continue to push the limit of what others might think can be done,” Katz said. “We want to stay true to our mission of creating the best wines possible now and looking into the future.”

• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at jamesnokes25@yahoo.com.