It’s hard not to love chenin blanc. It is versatile in style and sweetness and has the ability to adapt to a wide variety of tastes. Chenin blanc makes lithe, dry summer whites and sparkling wines. It also offers oak-aged styles with similar flavours to chardonnay. Thus, there really is a chenin blanc wine for every occasion.
Also called pineau de la Loire, chenin blanc may have come to the Loire Valley more than a thousand years ago. It was firmly established by the 15th century, and like cabernet franc, was also praised by Rabelais, the great epicurean writer. Unlike any other grape except riesling, chenin blanc can be vinified in a range of styles from austere, mineral and refreshing to rich, honeyed and sweet, and its versatility surpasses riesling in that it also makes excellent sparkling wine.
Chenin blanc has the ability to transparently display its place of origin, to age for decades and to tantalize not just with complex aromas and flavours, but with a seemingly paradoxical texture that can be thick yet delicate, rich yet light. It is the primary grape for many of the Fines Bulles (or fine bubbles), the sparkling wines of the Loire Valley. Although other grapes may be added (according to the standards of the individual appellation), chenin blanc is almost always dominant in these delightful wines.
It is also known as vouvray, steen, quarts de chaume, bonnezeaux, pineau de la Loire and savennieres.
South Africa is the largest producer of chenin blanc in the world today. But more than that, it is also a fact that South African wines made from this variety are among the world’s finest. And there’s a group of visionary South African wine producers who are not only fast spreading the word about chenin blanc, but also continually providing hard evidence by producing chenin blanc wines of increasingly remarkable quality. They’re giving this noble variety royal treatment in the vineyard and cellar, and it’s responding as nobility should – with grand personality, regal flavours and stately versatility.
The focus locally is on two main styles which are fresh, vibrant white fruits, with a zest and crisp finish on the one hand and full ripe, rich wines with oak barrel fermentation and aging making for complex powerful wines on the other hand. There is also the oxidative “natural” wine movement, and chenin does really well here.
While most South African chenin blanc wines are still made in a fresh and fruity style, that is changing. More and more producers are focussing on mature bushvines. The fact is unassailable, the most intensely flavoured chenin blanc wines come from older vines that have been carefully managed for balanced yields. They prune these dramatically to cut down on yields, pick the grapes riper and often introduce oak fermentation and maturation.
Chenin blanc is a very responsive variety – it will give back in the bottle what the winemaker has put into the vineyard and in the cellar.
Chenin blanc is renowned for its mineral notes of chalk and flint, commonly encountered in the river valleys of central France. More generally, it features pear and ripe quince aromas when young, backed by hints of acacia honey, candied fruit and lemon. Sometimes, spicy notes of ginger or lime blossom can also be detected.
In the cooler Loire Valley, the ripeness of chenin blanc can be so uneven that grapes are usually selected by hand in successive passes through the vineyard.
Highly acidic, less ripe grapes make a great base for sparkling wines, while riper grapes are used in the richly aromatic, off-dry styles.
Finally, at the end of the harvest season, the last grapes picked are affected with noble rot, which concentrates the grapes’ sugars and lends to rich flavours of orange marmalade, ginger and saffron. These late harvest grapes go into the blending of the famous sweet wines of the region, including Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux.
After 20 years in which the repertoire of American winemakers seemed to have dwindled to a half-dozen grapes, endlessly repeated, the last decade has been one of intrepid exploration. Myriad grapes once deemed unworthy or too esoteric have been rediscovered and revived by winemakers seeking to make fresh, lively wines that are simply delicious to drink nightly, rather than ponderous wines aiming for trophies.
Chenin blanc is one of those grapes achieving new life in the States. Once widely planted in California, it had largely disappeared from fine wine regions by 2000. In the last few years, though, at least a dozen Californian producers have started making chenin blanc, joining a handful who never stopped, along with producers in Oregon and New York.
The biggest obstacle to wider production of chenin blanc in California is a limited supply of grapes. About 6 000 acres are planted in the state, according to the California Grape Acreage Report, but the majority are in the Central Valley and are used for bulk wines. Still, producers are finding small blocks and looking forward to new plantings, though the economics of growing chenin blanc remain an obstacle.
In Sacramento winemakers produce what is considered by some to be a true and fine expression of the varietal … right in there with the Loire and South Africa. Located alongside the waterways of the Sacramento Delta, the Clarkburg AVA happens to have appropriately fertile soils and a microclimate perfectly suited for growing superior chenin blanc. It is arguably the most respected AVA in the US for this grape.
So, what are you waiting for? If the world of wine is embracing chenin blanc, shouldn’t you too?