In recent years, there is simply no grape that has risen into stardom as quickly and explosively as Chenin Blanc.
Chenin Blanc’s fame today is undeniable. The most famous examples are found in its home, the Loire Valley, where a wide range of wine styles are produced from across the region, notably Anjou, Vouvray, Savennières, and Bonnezeaux.
In the southern hemisphere, Chenin Blanc is the mascot of South Africa’s wine industry, with many internationally acclaimed examples produced by respectable wineries like Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines and Ken Forrester.
In the United States, the grape is undergoing a renaissance. Once a popular ingredient in Two-Buck Chuck, it now sees an opportunity to shine with the help of suitable vineyards and the hands of capable winemakers.
Today we can even see Chenin Blanc growing in some of the most unexpected corners of the world, Italy, Canada, and New Zealand.
Where Chenin Blanc Comes From
Chenin Blanc (which also goes by the names Plant d’Anjou, Pineau d’Anjou, and Gros Pineau) is likely named after its birthplace in Loire Valley’s Anjou.
In the 1500s, Denis Briçonnet, an abbot in Touraine, planted a bunch of different grape varieties in the Mont Chenin Monastery. Very soon, he observed that one specific variety proved to be special. This grape stood out among the other varieties as the most suitable for the local climate, and boy, did the news travel fast.
It didn’t take long for this modest little grape to spread across the Middle Loire, where it took on a new name, Chenin Blanc, in honor of the monastery that made this grape variety the region’s rockstar.
The Importance of Chenin Blanc in South Africa
Chenin Blanc made its way to South Africa sometime in the late 17-century. Through much of the country’s winemaking history, it played a supporting role in the vineyards. But with time, new technology (temperature-controlled fermentation vessels) and expertise, it became the region’s star grape in the 1960s and 70s.
Today, nearly 60% of the world’s Chenin Blanc vineyards are in South Africa. There are many Chenin Blanc old vines in South Africa’s most famous vineyards, some over a century old.
“The godfather of South African Chenin”, Ken Forrester, regards the white grape as the perfect variety capable of mirroring the conditions where it grows and capturing the enchanted energy of South Africa’s old vineyards.
The Difference Styles of Chenin Blanc
Like Riesling, Chenin Blanc is incredibly versatile, with excellent examples in all styles, from sparkling, dry wines, to off-dry and sweet cuvées.
Chenin Blanc’s naturally high acidity makes it a great candidate for sparkling wine production. The grape plays an important role in France’s Loire Valley, where it dominates the region’s sparkling wine blends. In fact, the Loire Valley is the largest producer of sparkling wine by volume in France outside of Champagne and with growing potential, especially in the sub-appellation of Saumur.
Saumur is, arguably, the authority when it comes to Loire sparkling wines. This specific stretch of the Loire Valley is famous for its tuffeau-rich soils and a climatic condition similar to Champagne.
Indeed Champagne houses are the first to notice this. Alfred Gratien of Epernay launched Gratien & Meyer in Saumur. Bollinger created Langlois-Chateau in the same region, now referred to as the “Bollinger of the Loire”.
Outside of Saumur, notable sparkling wines comes from all over the Loire, including the famed sparkling Vouvray, the pet-nat of Montlouis, and the catch-all Cremant de Loire. Similarly, Chenin Blanc is is an essential blending partner in Languedoc’s treasured fizz, Crémant de Limoux.
Beyond France, sparkling Chenin Blanc from South Africa also garners international acclaim. The best expressions are often from producers focusing on making bubbly wines via the traditional method, or Method Cap Classique.
Chenin Blanc is destined for great dry whites as much as sparkling and sweet wines.
In the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc wines are the most diverse. There, great dry Chenin Blancs come from all corners of the regions of the Middle Loire, especially in Anjou, Saumur, and Vouvray, where some of the most outstanding examples reign.
For wine lovers searching for rare and quality examples with a price tag to justify their pedigrees, examples from Savennières and Jasnières are some of the best to collect.
Outside of the Loire, Chenin Blanc is the most successful in South Africa, with great examples coming from the ancient vinelands and old vines of Stellenbosch and Swartland. Dry Chenin Blanc from South Africa is likely to be riper and rounder than its French counterpart.
Off Dry and Sweet
The naturally high acidity of Chenin Blanc makes it suitable for the production of off-dry and sweet wine styles, especially in warmer vintages.
Delicious off-dry examples are famous in Loire Valley’s Vouvray. These wines contain between 4 and 12 grams per liter of residual sugar and are popular for aperitifs or to accompany light desserts.
Climbing up the sweetness scale, there are moelleux. This category represents wines that are notably sweeter than off-dry styles but less syrupy than doux.
The most notable sweet versions from the Loire Valley comes from Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Chaume, and Vouvray. Great examples of these wines often exert aromas of honey, and ripe fruits, with pronounced sweetness and searing acidity that makes them some of the most ageable and collectable fine wines.
In South Africa, most producers choose to ferment dry Chenin Blanc. However, its greatest secret is the golden sweet elixir, Straw Wine. To make these rare dessert wines, the grapes are left to dry outside in the shade after harvest until they raisin. This process concentrates the flavors and structure into an intense, complex, and balanced treat.
Food Pairing Ideas
Chenin Blanc is a fabulous food pairing wine thanks to its naturally high acidity levels. Dry and fruity examples pair beautifully with light fare, such as salads and cold cuts. Bolder and more robust styles compliment rich seafood and creamy white meats.
For off-dry versions, try spicy dishes from India, Thailand, and China or a well-curated cheese plate. Finally, sweet expressions would make most tree fruit or citrus-based dessert shine.