Golden Chenin Blanc

Chenin blanc – a noble grape of remarkable potential. Sadly, this grape variety is often underappreciated, perhaps due to the challenges it presents to winemakers. Crafting exceptional wines from Chenin requires knowledge, skill, and dedication; without these, the results may be discouraging.

Chenin blanc, a white grape variety renowned for its naturally high acidity, offers tremendous versatility in wine production, spanning the entire spectrum of sweetness levels, from bone-dry to sweet dessert wines. Additionally, it serves as an excellent foundation for sparkling wines.

One of the most remarkable attributes of Chenin blanc is its exceptional aging potential. The sweet Chenin wines from the Loire region are among the longest-lived in the world, with the finest examples boasting a potential lifespan of at least a century. Some off-dry and semi-sweet Chenin wines require a decade or more to reach their peak, continuing to evolve and improve over the span of 20 to 40 years. Even sparkling and dry Chenin wines demonstrate impressive aging capabilities. It is worth noting that, similar to great Bordeaux wines, high-quality Chenin blanc may experience “dumb phases” before reaching its peak. (for more insights into the aging process of wines, see this article.) Furthermore, young Chenin wines can also be delightful, exhibiting freshness, delicacy, and aromatic charm.

In the world of wine, only one other grape variety, Riesling, offers a comparable canvas for exploring sweetness and aging (for more on Riesling, see this article). In the Loire Valley, winemakers refer to Chenin blanc as the French answer to German Riesling.

Chenin blanc exhibits a remarkable affinity for Noble Rot, a beneficial mold that enhances the flavor profile of grapes. Dessert wines crafted from botrytized Chenin blanc can rival the renowned Sauternes of Bordeaux in their complexity and richness. (To find more of Noble Rot and the natural production methods of sweet wines, see this article).

One of the most captivating aspects of Chenin blanc is its profound sensitivity to terroir, climate, and vintage—second only to Pinot noir in this regard. Heavy clay-based soils lend support to Chenin, yielding weighty and rounded wines with excellent aging potential. Sandy soils, on the other hand, are ideal for producing light, refreshing Chenin wines that quickly reach their peak expression. Chenin grown in soils rich in silex imparts distinctive mineral notes, while limestone-rich soils contribute to acidity and depth. The influence of terroir on Chenin blanc is profound: wines from Anjou exude aromas of quince and green apple, while those from neighboring Vouvray captivate with scents of summer flowers and honey.

Chenin blanc offers exceptional results when subjected to various winemaking approaches, including malolactic fermentation, lees aging, skin contact, and oak maturation. These techniques, among white wines originally adapted for Chardonnay (to find more of these techniques and their impact on wine, please refer to this article, have found a well-suited partner in Chenin blanc. Loire winemakers have embraced these practices, effectively diversifying the flavor profiles of their wines. Interestingly, in addition to oak, they have also explored the use of acacia and chestnut vessels to further enhance the character of Chenin blanc.

Chenin blanc’s sensitivity to vinicultural practices is profound. In its homeland of France, traditional fermentation temperatures for Chenin typically range from 16 to 20 degrees Celsius, resulting in dominant floral and honey aromas. However, in South Africa, winemakers have increasingly opted for lower fermentation temperatures, around 10 to 12 degrees Celsius, which accentuate tropical fruit aromas.

The remarkable versatility of Chenin blanc allows for the production of an astonishing range of wines, unmatched by any other grape variety.

Chenin blanc’s extraordinary sensitivity places it at significant risk in the hands of careless winemakers.

The timing of harvest plays a crucial role, as picking the berries too early, before reaching full ripeness, yields a disgusting taste in the resulting wine. Conversely, leaving the ripe berries on the vine for too long diminishes acidity and leads to the loss of delicate aromas. Recognizing these challenges, the finest winemakers, particularly in the Loire Valley, adopt a meticulous approach, practicing stage-by-stage harvest. Each time, they handpick only the fully ripe bunches, a process that can extend over six stages. The taste of Chenin blanc is so intricately tied to the weather that grapes from the same vine, ripened at different times, can exhibit distinct characteristics. Winemakers in Vouvray, renowned for crafting exceptional and diverse Chenin blanc wines, assess each stage of the harvest to determine the optimal utilization—whether for sparkling, dry, semi-dry, or dessert wines.

Exceeding the maximum yield can result in the loss of Chenin’s distinctive characteristics, rendering the wine tasteless and monotonous. In the Loire Valley, strict regulations set by the AOC govern the maximum yield, enabling the production of wines imbued with captivating floral and honey aromas. Conversely, in regions like California, where yields can be up to four times higher, Chenin blanc often fails to captivate, delivering lackluster and uninspiring wines.

Thus, while Chenin blanc presents winemakers with a wealth of possibilities, it also exacts a penalty for ignorance.

The origins of Chenin blanc can be traced back to the 9th century in the Anjou region of France. By the 14th century, it had gained prominence in the central Loire region, where it showcased its remarkable qualities. The Loire Valley remains the epicenter for the production of the finest and most diverse Chenin blanc wines. Although its popularity waned in the early 20th century, partially replaced by other grape varieties, a renaissance began in the 1980s, heralding a new era of renewed appreciation and modern viticultural practices.
In the Loire Valley, Chenin blanc is crafted into a wide range of styles, from sparkling to luscious dessert wines.

The three central regions—Anjou, Saumur, and Touraine—produce sparkling Crémant de Loire. Chenin blanc serves as the primary grape variety, often accompanied by Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet franc, Sauvignon, and a few other additions. Traditional techniques are employed, with aging on the lees for a minimum of 9 months, resulting in fine sparkling wines. (For more details on Crémant and other sparkling wines, please refer to this article.)

The Savennières region is renowned for crafting intense bone-dry wines, characterized by their pronounced minerality and notes of green apple. On the other hand, Anjou, Saumur, and Vouvray offer a full spectrum of styles, ranging from dry to semi-dry and sweet. These wines captivate with their enchanting floral and honey aromas.

For exceptional sweet dessert wines derived from botrytized grapes, the regions of Quarts de Chaumeand and Bonnezeaux excel. These wines emanate enticing aromas of baked apple, quince, and ripe peaches.

In France, beyond the Loire Valley, Chenin blanc is also cultivated in Languedoc and Corsica.

Just like Sauvignon blanc, Malbec, and Tannat, Chenin blanc discovered a new home in the realms of the New World. South Africa embraced this grape variety wholeheartedly, becoming its adoptive motherland. In fact, South Africa now cultivates approximately twice as much Chenin blanc as France, with one-fifth of all the country’s grapes being Chenin blanc. It has become a true signature grape, producing some of the finest wines in the nation.

Chenin blanc arrived in South Africa during the latter half of the 17th century, courtesy of the Dutch East India Company. Initially known as Steen, it was primarily cultivated for brandy production. However, in the 1970s, a vinicultural renaissance took hold in South Africa, and winemakers began to unlock the true potential of Chenin blanc. They started crafting exceptional dry aromatic wines that have only improved with each passing year. Particularly remarkable Chenin blanc wines are made from old vines in the Stellenbosch and Swartland regions, where they yield rich, full-bodied wines with a captivating tropical fruit aroma.

While South Africa has become synonymous with exceptional Chenin blanc, this remarkable grape variety is also cultivated in other parts of the New World. Chenin blanc can be found in the United States, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Canada, and New Zealand. However, in these regions, it is primarily utilized for its acidity and is often incorporated into inexpensive white blends.

In 2014, a momentous occasion took place in the United States as the inaugural Drink Chenin blanc Day was celebrated. This special day dedicated to Chenin blanc quickly gained traction, and by 2016, it garnered the support of winemakers from South Africa and Europe. Since then, the third Saturday of June has been designated as a day to honor and appreciate this remarkable grape variety.

Discuss on FB

Visit my online store for a unique poster featuring this wine, along with many other beautiful cocktails and other wine-related subjects.
It’s the perfect way to add a touch of sophistication to your kitchen or bar. Click here to shop now!