You probably haven’t opened a Chenin Blanc recently. The variety is not greatly appreciated and plantings both in France, its ancestral home, and in California which once had large plantings, have steeply declined.
Chenin is an ancient white variety; it is recorded in documents from the 15th Century and was well enough known for Francois Rabelais to write in his book Gargantua, published in1534, of ‘groz raisins chenins’ (large chenin grapes).
Like Chardonnay, Chenin is a winemakers’ grape. It is malleable and can be made in many styles. In France some well known wines are made from it, but drinkers are unaware because its name doesn’t appear on wine labels. The Loire river valley is its home, where among the famous wines it makes are Vouvray, Montlouis, Saumur and Anjou.
In California it was grown in hot regions and irrigated to overproduce large quantities of bland juice destined for jug wines, which tarnished its reputation.
The picture was similar in South Africa which has been growing Chenin for more than 350 years and grows more of it than anywhere else. Chenin is the most planted variety and it was mostly used for brandy and cheap wines. It wasn’t until 1964, however, that the South African confirmed the vine was Chenin. Its origins had become lost over centuries. It was called Steen and many thought it to be a mutation or natural crossing.
In the past twenty years a new wave of South African winemakers has looked afresh at Chenin. Old abandoned vineyards were tracked down and rescued and the Chenin Blanc Association formed to promote the variety.
What is it about Chenin that excites? In a word – versatility. Chenin makes a refreshing crisp lively drink when dry, unoaked and young. Its natural acidity balances the grapes floral and fruit flavours. It makes an excellent match with fish and chicken, as you’d expect, but also with the delicately spiced fragrant local ‘Cape Malay’ curries.
Fermented or aged in oak produces a deeper coloured, more complex wine with great mouthfeel and layers of flavours that stands up well to a wide range of foods.
I am particularly fond of sparkling Chenin. While Champagne can often be mouth puckeringly tart, the natural fruitiness of Chenin gives a softer more approachable fizz. In France sparkling Vouvray, Saumur and Cremant de Limoux are made from Chenin.
Dessert Chenin is a revelation. Sweet versions from late picked grapes emphasise Chenin’s honey and nut flavours.
Fashion is turning again, and some South African Chenins are now that country’s most expensive bottles. Names to look out for are Ken Forrester ‘The FMC’, Mullineaux ‘Schist’, DeMorgenzon Reserve, Beaumont ‘Hope Marguerite’ and Jean Daneel ‘Signature’
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Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.