The World’s Most Underrated White Variety
From its spiritual home in France’s Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc has spread its wings to further regions, now covering nearly a fifth of South Africa’s vineyards.
Poor grape management from larger producers lead it to be vilified as producing uninteresting wines, but with better focus on quality over quantity, this is a high class and hugely versatile grape. It’s capable of producing superb dry whites, fresh and full-bodied bubbles, and long-lived sweet wines.
Basic Chenin Blanc is known for being refreshingly high in acidity, with a lifting floral aroma. The best Chenins, with that quality focus in the vineyards, adds a deep fruit concentration and honey flavours. It’s the consistently high acidity that makes grape growers risk going for noble rot sweet wines, a technique that adds unctuous sweetness, thicker body, and marmalade flavours.
The high acidity is also very useful for producing sparkling wines in the traditional method. Crémant de Loire is produced in the traditional method, often with less than 1 year of lees ageing, to show off the fresh stone fruit and floral aroma so loved in Chenin Blanc.
As mentioned earlier, the high acidity of Chenin Blanc makes it incredibly versatile as a grape variety, producing everything from refreshing traditional method sparkling wines, to dry whites wines, all the way to botrytised unctuous sweet wines.
Chenin’s main structural crown is the high acidity that allows for many styles, quality levels, and ageability.
Traditional method sparklers go very well with oysters or fried tapas. The sweeter botrytised wines are a perfect match with Jaffa Cakes. Sounds daft, but it’s true! The bulk produced dry styles are designed as aperitifs or with simple fish dishes. The better quality wines, however, deserve some serious food options, so pull out your best fish cake or wild salmon recipes.
Chenin Blanc is buds early and ripens late, so picking the right clone of Chenin is important in the Loire Valley, one of the cooler regions of France. Chenin Blanc is grown across the central Loire Valley, in the subregions of Anjou, Saumur, and Tourraine through which the Loire River snakes. The dry whites of Vouvray are particularly sought after. It is here in the region of Coteaux De Layon where the finest noble rot sweet Chenins are produced.
Also known here as “Steen”, South Africa now plants twice as much Chenin Blanc compared to France. The grapes been here a long time, having arrived in the 17th century, but the big boom came in the 1960s and 1970s as production of off dry and bland wines were offset by their affordability and accessibility. Luckily for the Chenin lovers of the world, the 1990s saw massive improvements as quality focused producers found better sites, cultivated their older vineyards, and reduced yields to produce quality wines.
Chenin has been used in Australia’s and California’s bulk producing wine regions, and blended with grapes such as Colombard, Chardonnay, and Semillon to produce easy drinking whites from dry to off dry. Yields in California can reach 175 hl/ha, whereas yields are limited in Anjou in the Loire at 45 hl/ha. You simply can’t compare the two wines.
There are a few plantings in New Zealand’s North Island as producers look to use Chenin’s qualities to establish their own reputation for sweet, botrytised wines.