Today I want to talk to you about a white grape variety that, I think, is extremely misunderstood and underappreciated. Arguably one of the world’s most versatile grapes, Chenin Blanc, produces wines from the most basic New World table wines to Old World long-lived elegant botrytis affected dessert wines, sparkling wines and even the base for some fortified wines and spirits. This grape can do it all but many have not heard the mention of its name nor seen it on a restaurant wine list.
Some of the confusion associated with this grape is similar with other varieties, that being multiple names for the same variety. This grape is known by Steen in South Africa, Pinot Blanco in South America and even in its most classic region, Loire Valley, it is sometime referred to as Pineau. In Loire, as in most of France, we see the wines being labeled by area rather than variety. So, in this classic area of Loire, Chenin Blanc can be seen on labels as: Anjou, Bonnezeaux, Chinon, Coteaux du Layon, Jasnières, Montlouis-sur-Loire, Quarts de Chaume, Saumur and Savennières. I know at this point, you are saying “how am I going to keep all that straight?” Don’t fret, it’s a process. As my instructor told me: “It’s like eating and elephant,…one bite at a time.”
In the New World, countries like the United States, Australia, and South Africa have long used this grape as a bulk wine, especially in hot areas when its ability to retain its natural acidity makes it an excellent blending partner. It does, however, have the disadvantage of ripening unevenly, so when unripe grapes are included, it will tend to give a leafy and vegetal component to the wine. Over recent years, some areas of California and South African have begun to treat this variety with more respect and care, finding promising results. We can now readily find single varietal Chenin Blanc wines from California, South Africa , and more recently from Austraila and New Zealand at a myriad of quality levels. For California, I would look to the Clarksburg (Yolo County) and Monterey County areas. And for South Africa, I have been pleasantly surprised with Ken Forrester in Stellenbosch area.
This grape truly finds it potential in France, where its versatility is recognized to the point of sometimes being called France’s answer to Germany’s Riesling. The classic area for Chenin Blanc is the Loire Valley. Here, we seen the grape is used in a multitude of ways and at varying sugar levels: from Saumur and Savennières (very dry), Anjou-Saumur and Touraine (Vouvray) (off-dry), and dessert wines in Côteaux du Layon and subregions of Bonnezeaux and Quartes de Chaume; some of these being botrytis affected. Even the traditional method sparkling wines, Crémant de Loire, made mostly in Saumur and Vouvray, have their base wine from Chenin Blanc.
No matter the style, a certain floral, honeyed character, along with a balanced, crisp acidity, are the trademarks of well-made Chenin Blanc. I have also seen it described as “leafy” (probably from under-ripe grapes), wet wool, apples, pears, and even “wax lips.” For me, it reminds me of peanut butter and honey sandwiches. It’s interesting how some smells can take up to a different time and place; one of the reasons I love food and wine.
If you are unfamiliar with the variety, or you have had a wine made from the Chenin Blanc that was “less than exciting”, I beg you to explore (or re-explore) these wines. They can be extremely unique and highly rewarding. In my opinion, a well made Chenin Blanc can be one of the sexiest white wines in the world. If that isn’t enough to convince you, check for a heartbeat. Keep drinking and exploring. Cheers!