Chenin Blanc is a very versatile white grape, which produces one of the greatest range of wine styles of all, from searingly dry sparkling wines, through fresh, fruity dry whites, to luscious dessert wines. It can produce wines that are sublime, ethereal, and unique; it can also produce gallons of dull, entry level table wine, from different parts of the globe.
What Is Chenin Blanc?
Chenin Blanc is a grape, which is fairly neutral in character, but has very high natural acidity. Like the Riesling, it is one of the relatively few white grapes, which can produce wines, which are capable of ageing and develops incredible complexity and character, as it does so. The very best of these will last for 30 years.
It plays different roles in different countries; in its natural home, the Loire Valley in France, it produces a wide range of high quality wines, ranging from searingly dry, through off dry, to rich, botrytised dessert wines. However, at the other end of the scale, it is viewed as the white, workhorse grape of South Africa, where it produces vast quantities of fruity dry white, some superb, and the rest showing increasing quality and reliability, although there is still much bulk produced Chenin Blanc, at the entry levels, which is well worth avoiding. It is the most widely planted grape in South Africa, accounting for almost one fifth of all vineyards.
What Is The Background To Chenin Blanc?
The Chenin Blanc grape originated in the Loire Valley, and is one of the longest established grape varieties in France. Records show reference to this grape as far back at the 9th century, close to Anjou, with the grape firmly established as the main grape variety of the central and western Loire region by the 15th century.
South Africa is its second home, having been planted there, way back in the 17th century, taken over by the Dutch East India Company to the African colony, that had been established by Jan Van Riebeek. Here it was initially used to produce both jug wine and also grape brandy. The grape was very popular because of its natural high acidity, which meant it coped well with the heat of South Africa. Known locally as ‘Steen’, for years it was renowned for cheap, unexceptional wines, and used in grape brandy; it was only in the late 20th century, that it was recognised and nurtured as a quality grape, capable of making some superb single varietal wines, rather than just being a blending component. It still has a reputation as being the workhorse of South African white wines, with less prestige than Chardonnay or Sauvignon, however some top South African winemakers, including the ‘king of Chenin’, the characterful, top winemaker Ken Forrester, has spearheaded a campaign to produce world class Chenin, proving its quality potential in the right terroir, and his FMC is testament to this.
It is also grown widely in California, but here it is used primarily as a blending component into some of the international big brands.
It is a grape that buds early and ripens late, therefore is best suited to warmer climates, where it can reach full ripeness; that is why it works so well in South Africa. In the Loire it can produce wines that are searingly high in acidity, yet when the weather is good, it results in ripe, fruit-driven styles, still with the long lasting, zippy acidity; its propensity to develop botrytis (noble rot), leads it to produce sweet wines, of great depth and complexity
What Does Chenin Blanc Taste Like?
Chenin Blanc is one of the most versatile grapes in the world, in terms of the styles that it produces, ranging from zippy, mouth-puckering dry whites, through fruity, fleshy, juicy whites, to lively sparkling wines, gentle off dry styles of white, right through to rich, botrytised dessert wines.
The stand out quality of this grape is its acidity, which makes even the sweetest Chenin Blancs remarkable for their fresh, lively finish and longevity.
In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is still used to produce the majority of the entry level, volume geared wines, including some of the biggest brands in the world, and entry level supermarket wines. However, it is increasingly being marketed as a single varietal in its own right, producing very fruity, juicy, styles of dry white which have characteristics of melon, peach, guava and other tropical fruit, yet with lively, citrussy, fresh apple, balancing acidity. The majority is unoaked, however, at a premium level, Chenin Blanc, which is oaked develops a rich, toasty, buttery character, with trademark, citrussy finish.
It is in the Loire valley, that the Chenin really shows its versatility. Firstly it is the main grape in the fresh, crisp, lively sparkling wines of the region, Cremant de Loire, Touraine Brut, Saumur brut – all wines, which are relatively light, and floral in character, with a zesty edge. The natural high acidity of the grape lends itself very well to the production of sparkling wines, for which high acid is a necessary requirement.
As still wines, it is the main grape used for Anjou blanc, Touraine blanc, and Vouvray. In the Loire, one of its main characteristics, apart from its acidity, is its distinctive, quince-like aroma and flavour, and this is seen in many Anjou and Touraine wines – fresh, yet intensely fruity, with this quince, apricot, and fresh peach character, balanced by its trademark green apple freshness. Savennieres is another sub region, which produces the drier, zestier styles of Chenin.
In the regions of Vouvray and Montlouis, it undergoes malolactic fermentation, which softens the acid levels, leading to soft, off-dry wines, with incredible depth, and character – ripe plums, quince and apricot aromas and flavours, with rich, off dry balance of flavours. These wines are happily be cellared for several years, as the acidity will hold them, and the flavours mellow.
The cool, misty, Autumn conditions, in some parts of the Loire valley, enhanced by the many rivers and lakes in the area, are perfect for the development of botrytis cinerea, or ‘noble rot’, in some wines, and Chenin produces some of the very best and most long-lived sweet wines in the world. Less rich and intense than Sauternes and other Bordeaux dessert wines, the Loire ones benefit from a lighter, fresher, more floral and fruit driven style, still with the characteristic quince and apricot character, but with a refreshing edge to balance the intense sweetness. Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaumes are some of the best known dessert wines from this region.
Where Is Chenin Blanc From?
Chenin Blanc originated in the Anjou region of the Loire Valley, and is the dominant white grape variety for the majority of the western and central Loire Valley, with the exception of Muscadet and Sancerre.
It was taken to South Africa in the 17th century, where it is now the most grown white grape variety. South Africa currently has twice as many plantings of Chenin Blanc as France! It is also grown in California and other New World countries, where it tends to form part of a blend, rather than starring in its own right.
What Does Chenin Blanc Go With?
Chenin Blanc is one of the most versatile and food friendly wines, due to its natural fruitiness and acidity. In its sparkling form, it’s a great aperitif wine, and suited to light canapés, smoked trout and salmon blinis.
Its natural fruitiness makes it a great match for any white meat dishes that are cooked with fruity sauces – it is a dream with roast pork and apple sauce; turkey with cranberry and apricot stuffing; and chicken with fruity, citrus glaze.
It also goes well with North African and Lebanese cuisine, where it offsets the sweet dried fruit and cinnamon-spiced character of the dishes – chicken or lamb tagine, and couscous salads work well. Asian and mile Indian curries are other styles of food, with which it works well, since its overt fruitiness copes well with the varied spicing.
In its sweet dessert wine guise, it is perfect with baked apple pie, apricot tart, and other fruit-based desserts, as well as soft blue cheeses.