Chenin Blanc Wine Guide





Native to the Loire Valley or an area commonly called Pineau de la Loire and grown there for over 1,000 years, Chenin Blanc is amongst the world’s most versatile grape varieties that thrives in the New World regions of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the US amongst others. Although it originated from the Loire Valley, South Africa is responsible for the most amount of wine courtesy of Chenin Blanc, and increasingly produces widely championed versions of this notoriously tricky grape to grow. The vine is vigorous, buds early and ripens late which means that the cool climate of the Loire is a far from convenient place to nurture this varietal, and therefore the quality of Chenin Blanc wine is intimately married to the care taken in the vineyard. If the grapes are harvested before ripening the resulting wines are too acidic, while if they are harvested at too high a yield the grapes will lose the very distinctive Chenin Blanc character notes. Yet, as the esteemed wine critic Jancis Robinson duly noted in 'Vines, Grapes and Wines' "Chenin Blanc is a magical chameleon of a grape...one of the world's most under-valued treasures."

Origins

According to the French ampelographer Pierre Galet, Chenin Blanc originated in the Anjou wine region during the 9th century and was probably a mutant of Pineau d’Aunis (Chenin Noir). From there it travelled to Touraine in the 15th century where it was planted near a site known as Mont Chenin by the Lord of Chenonceaux and this is the likely origin of the grape's name. From France it made its way south and the vine was almost certainly one of the original cuttings sent to Jan van Riebeeck in the Cape Colony by the Dutch East India Company. It has subsequently spread far and wide and is now planted throughout the Americas in Argentina (where it is known as Pinot Blanco), Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Uruguay as well in Australia and New Zealand amongst others.

Where is Chenin Blanc grown?

Vouvray, Montiouis, Saumur and Savennières make some of its most acclaimed wines in the Loire where it's also used to craft quality sparkling and superbly long-lived, sweet wines. Chenin Blancs from the middle Loire also tend to be marked by high acidity which results in dry and medium-dry white wines. More than three times as much Chenin is planted in South Africa and this white grape varietal now constitutes 30 per cent of the country’s entire vineyard population. South Africa has embraced this varietal as their own and there are now a plethora of noted Chenin specialists operating in the Cape. California also has more Chenin planted than France yet the varietal tends to be used as a base in a blend and the resulting wines are crisp, every day, commercial ones. In Australia it is also utilised as a blending agent usually to supplement Chardonnay and Semillon. In New Zealand there are number of winemakers that mirror the style of the sweet Chenins from the Loire.

Wine styles of Chenin Blanc

Whether it’s the luscious, longest-living sticky dessert wines from Coteaux du Layon, the dry, medium lemony fruit whites from Vouvray or sparkling Saumur, Chenin Blanc really is the chameleon of grape varieties.

In its most common form Chenin Blanc produces light, zesty, dry table wines. Chenin Blanc is grown widely in the New World mostly in a dry style and takes on tropical fruit flavours in warmer climates. This white wine can range from dry to very sweet depending on the time of harvest, producing flavours that vary from apple, melon, lime and pear with hints of vanilla and honey. Where it was once associated with blends of cheap everyday varietals from California and South Africa the best Chenin Blanc now offers high acidity combined with a touch of viscosity – leaving an oil-like mouth feel.

Some of the best examples - the Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc which wins consistent acclaim during awards season - combine a rich, honeyed, ripe pear and pineapple fruit character with racy acidity to produce a subsequently elegant and full-bodied wine.

When to drink Chenin Blanc

Aside from some of the sweet wines, the majority of Chenin Blanc wine is designed for more immediate drinking yet the natural acidity that is often emphasized by botrytis helps preserve the finest Chenins for decades. Some of the sparkling wines such as Cremant de Loire and Saumur Mousseux can also age well but in the main this deliciously refreshing grape varietal produces wines that a ready to be consumed immediately.
 
A couple of Chenin Blanc wines worth trying

Kleine Zalze Vineyard Selection Chenin Blanc

Hand-harvested premium quality grapes from some of the oldest vines on this estate make up the magic ingredients to produce this elegant, full-bodied wine and widely championed Chenin Blanc. Past vintages have perpetually swept the board at various wine awards, regularly being acclaimed as the perfect food wine, and this really is a beautiful Chenin that typifies the excellence of winemaking in South Africa.

Kleine Zalze Bush Vines Chenin Blanc

The Kleine Zalze Bush Vines is an archetypal South African Chenin with a wonderful minerality and perfectly assisted by delicate tropical-fruit flavours. The grapes for this vibrantly summery wine were harvested from old, low yield-bearing bush vines, from the Helderberg region of Stellenbosch. This is the entry level Chenin from Kleine Zalze who are specialists with this varietal. 
 
Did you know?

Noble late harvest is the South African term for sweet wines which is a technique that purposefully allows ripe Chenin Blanc grapes to be corrupted by a fungus called Botrytis Cinarea, which shrivels the berries, and subsequently concentrates the sugar and acidity. This rot is widely known as noble rot, and the resulting wines, like the Nederburg Winemakers Reserve Noble Late Harvest, are extremely lush, rich, sweet wines with plenty of apricot and peach flavours.

What to eat with Chenin Blanc

South African Chenin Blanc often possess a refreshing sweetness and therefore has the capacity to be a brilliant food wine when matched with something suitable. The fruit character can add an excellent dimension to pork and apple or light white fish dishes like plaice, skate or sole. Some Chenins work superbly with spices such as coriander, fennel, garlic and ginger but also with basil, parsley or tarragon. Much like Riesling, Chenin Blanc has a versatility that allows it to be paired with a dessert such is its variety of different styles and flavours. Chenin can also work well with curried dishes because dry and off dry wines have the capacity to take out a touch of the heat and work well with the flavours of the food. The acidity in Chenins can be a good marriage for rich dishes like chicken in white sauce or perhaps even duck if you are feeling adventurous. Grilled white meats such as chicken, seafood, and indeed sushi are also all often paired well with Chenin Blancs. Young Chenin Blancs require subtle dishes with delicate flavours such as poached fish or a salad.

Perfect Chenin Blanc food match

Nederburg Winemakers Reserve Noble Late Harvest & Apricot Tart

A beautiful South African dessert wine that Nederburg winemaker Razvan Macici suggests typifies the wineries whole ethos, paired with a deliciously rustic yet sweet apricot tart. The Nederburg Winemakers Reserve Noble Late Harvest boasts real honey aromas supported by apricot and dried peach flavours which supplement the apricot tart. On the palate, there is a wonderfully subtle balance of sugar and acidity, enhanced by dried fruit and vanilla spice notes and this will bring out the subtle sweetness of the apricot tart. With this wine you wouldn’t want to pair it with something too sweet because the wine is old and it tends to not handle a very powerful, aggressive, sweet type of dessert.
 

Main image by Chrisada
 

Written by: Ben Moss

Ben Moss 

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