Why one of the world's oldest, but lesser known, varieties is worthy of attention.
Chenin Blanc is one of the world’s oldest varieties and yet is still relatively unknown compared to household names like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Why is this grape worthy of wine lovers’ attention?
The first official record of Chenin Blanc in French winemaking dates from 845 AD and the variety found its home in the Loire Valley. The variety’s naturally high acidity means that it can be made into a multitude of wine styles from still to sparkling, bone dry to lusciously sweet and Botrytised. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Loire Valley where changes in climate and topography along the river valley mean that vastly different wines are produced in regions and wineries only a few miles apart. Although Chenin Blanc is prevalent here, making up over 25% of plantings, French labelling laws mean that the variety need not be named on the label, and often isn’t, so while many a wine lover may know names like “Vouvray” and “Crémant de Loire”, the name “Chenin Blanc” still remains relatively unfamiliar.
In the 17th century, the cultivar travelled to the New World and was particularly favoured by growers in California and South Africa for its ability to maintain acidity in warmer climates. It is in the latter country, particularly in the region of Stellenbosch, that the variety found a new home and a new name, known locally as “Steen”. However, after falling out of fashion in the early 20th century Chenin Blanc became a “workhorse” planting in the New World where its naturally high yields produced dependable volumes of relatively bland wine, which added little flavour but good acidity to bulk blends and made a good base for brandy. It is only in the past 30 years that this trend has changed and wines that show the variety’s true potential have started to be produced.
Chenin Blanc buds early and ripens late, requiring plenty of warmth to ripen fully. While this gives the variety sufficient time to develop complexity and finesse, it can leave it open to frost damage, requiring careful maintenance in the Loire’s marginal climate. Here bunches can also ripen unevenly, so hand-harvesting and multiple passes are usually required. However, even in South Africa, where warmth is not usually an issue, the variety still needs careful attention due to its naturally high yields, which if not controlled will dilute the flavours. Old, dry-farmed vines naturally control yields and produce the best quality fruit, but unfortunately in South Africa many older, well-established vineyards have been grubbed up in favour of more profitable crops. Winemakers therefore have had to search to find the best sites.
Chenin Blanc’s flavours range from intense minerality and green apple to honey and tropical fruit depending on the climate of the growing region. In sparkling wine, it takes on nutty, floral characteristics. Late harvest grapes develop ripe pear and beeswax aromas, while Botrytised sweet wines have well-defined flavours of baked apple and quince. In all growing regions and climates, Chenin Blanc can be relied upon to maintain high acidity.
It is said that the climate in which Chenin Blanc is grown dictates the winemaking technique employed more so than with any other variety, and due to the range of wine styles produced from this versatile variety, the winemaking techniques employed are also numerous.
Dry autumns in Vouvray allow for late harvest and a wine’s complexity can be enhanced with extended lees ageing, whereas the autumnal mists of Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume enable Botrytis to flourish and wines spend many months in barrel to mature. In South Africa, where blends are still more common than in France, the floral and fruit aromas are preserved through stainless steel vinification and the wines add refreshing acidity to Sauvignon Blanc blends, or richness and sweetness to Semillion, Viognier, Marsanne blends. Premium wines from old-bush vines, however, may undergo barrel fermentation and maturation to enhance the development of complex flavours within the wines.
Many people believe that the downfall in Chenin Blanc’s popularity is the variety’s need for ageing, especially as the majority of consumers today want wines that they can drink almost immediately. But while, premium Chenin Blanc requires long bottle ageing to reach its full potential, the entry-level wines’ aromatic, fruity aromas and refreshing acidity also make the variety accessible and enjoyable in its youth. Perhaps all Chenin really needs is for those of us in the know to shout about it louder.