Why I Love Chenin Blanc
I love chenin blanc. I should get a tattoo that proclaims this. You have your cult wine snobs. People who only drink cabernet sauvignon or malbec. Those that swear by buttery chardonnays or grassy sauvignon blancs. Not me. Give me chenin blanc anytime and I will be a very happy drinker.
The Oh So Versatile Chenin Blanc
Chenin blanc is a versatile variety. It can be made in dry, off-dry, and sweet styles. It can be a still wine or a bubbly. It can be rich and luscious or bright and assertive. This is what makes it so attractive. I can choose a wine made from chenin blanc to fit my needs. Do I want something fizzy for the beach? There’s a chenin blanc for that. Do I need a pairing for spicy Thai noodles? Yep, you bet there’s one. Someone shucking oysters nearby? Guess what my wine is going to be?
Making Chenin Blanc
The grape variety has been cultivated in France for nearly 1300 years. It is most commonly associated with France’s Loire Valley. The variety has had its ups and downs throughout its long history. The grape fell out of fashion somewhat in the early 20th Century. Renewed interest in the 1980s has bolstered chenin blanc’s position as a classic and noble grape variety today.
Chenin blanc may be crafted to any level of sweetness, ranging from bone-dry, crisp and sparkling, through to sweet dessert wines. This is reflected in the number of winemaking techniques and styles employed in winemaking. Chenin blanc may be aged in stainless steel, concrete eggs, or with extended-lees contact and barrel maturation. In this respect it is not dissimilar to Chardonnay. In the vineyard, the grape may be subjected to noble rot to make sweet, botrytized wines. Chenin’s natural high acidity is the balancing piece as it enhances and complements the fruit of the wine regardless of style or sweetness.
Where Does It Grow?
Most of the Loire Valley’s significant acreage planted to chenin blanc is around the cities of Angers and Touraine. Intense, minerally white wines with green apple characters are most commonly associated with the Savennieres appellation of the former, while dry and semi-dry Vouvray wines of the latter are a little more tropical and honeyed in character. The sparkling Cremant de Loire wines of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine are largely based on chenin blanc. These lean, racy wines often have a more floral nose and a nuttiness that comes from the lees contact required by the appellation.
South Africa is Chenin Blanc’s most famous New World home. This country has surpassed France to become the largest grower and producer of chenin. The grape arrived in South Africa in the mid-17th century, and was immediately popular for its productivity and its ability to generate high acidity in hot conditions. For much of its viticultural career it was used in bulk-wine and brandy production. A shift in attitudes recently has seen an upsurge in quality today. Old bush-vines in Stellenbosch and Swartland are making concentrated, rich wines. These tend to be more tropical in character than those in Loire Valley, showing flavors of pineapple, melon, and guava.
California grows more chenin blanc than all of France, but most of these grapes are used in generic white blends. There are coastal producers that turn out exceptional wines from carefully farmed single vineyards with ocean influences. These wines have more in common with South Africa in style than those in the Loire Valley, but are known for a linear acidity that flows through the wine.
I can make this promise to you: if you give chenin blanc a try, you too will fall in love.