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Beau Rivage

Raising the Bar: A Renowned Wine Critic’s Vivid, Succulent Chenin Blanc
Beau Rivage
William Kelley is far better known as the Wine Advocate's mould-breaking wine critic. Yet he is also a very gifted winemaker and, now, winegrower. Kelley’s micro-Burgundy project released its first wines from the 2019 vintage, and the ambitious pricing has not dampened the fervour—the wines are as remarkable as they are rare. Yet Kelley’s first foray into winemaking did not start in Beaune, Pommard or Gevrey-Chambertin but in the quiet, pastoral AVA of Clarksburg on the outskirts of Sacramento. 

Rolling back to 2016, Kelley recalls that he and friend-slash-business partner Frank Ingriselli were looking for organically farmed old vines in Californian sub-regions where variety aligned with climate, which led them to Chenin in Clarksburg. “We then applied artisanal French winemaking techniques and sort of waited to see what happened,” he recalls. What happened is that Beau Rivage promptly reset the conversation around the potential to craft world-class Chenin Blanc from Californian soils. 

The 2020 is the fourth release, and with due respect to its predecessors, it is by far the most exciting release yet. Kelley is inspired by the great French growers he so often visits, and this, along with his winemaking experiences in Burgundy, has had a pronounced effect on the quality and style of his Californian wine. In particular—and sorry to name-drop—he has introduced practices from Domaine Guffens-Heynen (ultra-precise pressing) and Domaine Coche-Dury (extended lees aging) with impressive results.

Whatever the future holds for Beau Rivage—don’t quote us, but there was talk of a Cotat-inspired rosé from the Alexander Valley and a low-alcohol, pan-Californian Grenache blend—here and now is a Californian Chenin Blanc that holds its own against the best of the Loire Valley and South Africa. 

The Wines

Beau Rivage Chenin Blanc 2020

Beau Rivage Chenin Blanc 2020

This increasingly impressive Chenin Blanc is drawn from some of Clarksburg’s oldest vines, planted in the 1960s and sourced from a long-term organic grower. The grapes are picked in two lots: those from the sunny side of the vine were crushed to release extract, while fruit from the shadier side was pressed as whole clusters using a very long, firm cycle. The musts are fermented with indigenous yeasts and were raised in eight-year-old, low-toast Burgundy barrels. Kelley uses more and more solids each year, with the wines building texture and drive from their time on lees.

This year, the fruit was picked at about the same ripeness as in 2019, but the winemakers modified how they pressed the grapes to capture brighter acidity. Simply put, the less you break the ‘cake’ of solids during pressing, the lower the pH of the resulting must. This modification means Kelley can pick several weeks later than in previous years while achieving lower pHs—and thus greater freshness—in the finished wine. Expect a tension-filled and chalky white marrying the engaging texture of well-ripened Chenin Blanc with lovely clarity, fine-boned texture and impressive length. It doesn’t seem too early to call this out as a new Californian benchmark.

From 2020, longer élevage again and more precision at harvesting (based on the experience of the previous years) have come into play. This year the fruit was picked at about the same maturity as 2019, but the winemakers modified the way they press the grapes in order to capture brighter acidity. Simply put, the less you break the ‘cake’ of solids during pressing, the lower the pH of the resulting must. The result is that Kelley can pick several weeks later than previous years and achieve lower pHs, and therefore freshness, in the finished wine.

Beau Rivage Chenin Blanc 2020

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