Chenin Blanc is an ancient variety that originated along the Loire River in the south west of France. It was taken to most of the new world wine countries where it grows well with little difficulty and can produce large amounts of rather neutral juice. So it came to be used for cheap jug wines. In California it was the source of the bland sweetish house wines sold as ‘chablis’ and this connection with large volumes of poor wine struck a blow to its reputation that has been hard to live down. But treat Chenin properly, stop it from overproducing in the vineyards and handle it with care in the winery and the difference can be amazing.
Chenin is a versatile grape and it makes both crisp dry wines with piercing acidity and a taste of green apples and guava as well as sweet dessert wines of honeyed pineapple marzipan and greengage. And it makes Vouvray (voov-ray), the famous sparkling wine from the Loire.
In France you rarely see its name on a wine label. The names to look for include Vouvray which can also be still and dry or sweet, Coteaux de Layon, Saviennieres, and Saumur, although there are many more places that make Chenin.
Chenin was one of the first vines to be taken to South Africa 350 years ago but its origins were lost and over the centuries they believed it was a local variety which they knew as Steen. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that Steen was finally identified as being Chenin and now the Steen name is no longer used. South Africa has more plantings of Chenin than anywhere else and it is the most planted variety by far there.
This is because most of the easy growing Chenin is used to make brandy, a drink that is very popular in South African.
Because of the large plantings of Chenin in South Africa you’ll find it used in every conceivable wine style. A Chenin Blanc Association has been formed to improve the image of the variety and to encourage producers to improve the quality of Chenin wines. One result has been the use of very old vines and aging in new French oak barrels. As with most things in life you get what you pay for.
If you are prepared to pay a little more for Chenin you can taste a wine that surprises with its complexity and elegance. I love Chenin and I hope you will too.
Do you like Chenin? Discuss on our forum.
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, also available for the KIndle.