Chenin Blanc is a deeply versatile grape responsible for a wonderful array of still, sparkling and sweet wines. It has been harnessed by winemakers across the globe and turned into some of the world’s most greatly respected wines. Yet, it rarely takes up as much space on shelves and wine lists as other grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. We think it’d be a big mistake to ignore Chenin Blanc. If you love white wine, or just wine in general, then there will definitely be a Chenin Blanc wine for you.
So, to make sure that you’re all clued up on this stunning grape variety, we’re going to take a deeper look into all things Chenin Blanc. We will cover the key structural aspects of the grape, as well as the most common tasting notes for this grape variety and the techniques winemakers employ in the vineyard to get the best out of this tasty treat. Then, we will look at Chenin Blanc wines across the world.
There are many regions where this grape variety flourishes, but there are two where the quality is almost always unmatched. One is Chenin Blanc’s homeland – the Loire Valley. The other is South Africa. This grape has taken hold of this new world wine nation and South Africa is responsible for some astounding Chenin Blanc wines.
However, you can see it cropping up in more and more winemaking regions, (particularly in the new world). Australia, New Zealand and Argentina have found success with Chenin Blanc and its popularity is only likely to grow and grow.
By the end of this article, you’ll be ready to go out hunting for a bottle of Chenin Blanc. Who knows what it could be? Dry and fruity, crisp and fizzy, or maybe rich and sweet. This grape variety does it all, so if you love all things wine you should start sampling some soon.
Let’s take a deeper look into the world of Chenin Blanc – you won’t be disappointed.
The Chenin Blanc Grape Variety
The primary characteristic of this grape variety, which allows for such versatility, is its high levels of acidity. This means that it can be used to produce everything from tart and crisp sparkling wine to rich and luscious dessert wines.
Much like Chardonnay, it also means that it has the ability to take on a wealth of different flavours and aromas. Wines grown in cooler climates will generally retain notes of apple and pear, while warmer climates can display notes of peaches and mango. The cooler climates will produce more tart and austere examples, while hotter climates can often accentuate the tropical tasting notes that are common with this grape variety.
The amount of residual sugar can also greatly affect the taste. You can expect to find notes of chamomile, ginger, jasmine, passion fruit flower, honeycomb, almond and dried wildflowers. Any of these could pop up. Chamomile will generally appear at the drier end, as the other notes will generally be found the sweeter the wine gets.
The reason winemakers are able to make wines with these increased levels of sugar is thanks to the high levels of acidity. Grapes with high levels are acid are able to stay on the vines for a greater period of time. Over time the acidity in the grapes drop. This allows for the sugars in the grape to concentrate.
You’ll find sweet Chenin Blanc wines produced in two key ways. The first is a process known as passerilage. With this, the grapes dry up on the vine. Outside of France, you’ll see this practiced across the globe. For example, in Veneto this is common practice with Corvina grapes. However, here it is referred to as the ‘Appassimento’ method and it used in the produce of various kinds of off-dry to sweet Valpolicella wines.
You’ll also see a similar practice in California. Yet, they simply define this as giving the grapes more ‘hang-time’. It’s particularly useful with Zinfandel which tends to ripen unevenly. They lose their water which means the sugars become more concentrated. This can give wines anything from an off-dry to rich and sweet character.
Another key method of producing sweet Chenin Blanc involves Noble Rot. Here, a fungus known as ‘bortytis cinerea’ attacks the grapes and creates small holes in the skins. The water in the grapes then evaporates through these whole and once more the sugars are allowed to concentrate. The grapes are then hand-picked to ensure they are still in an appropriate state for production.
This practice may sound slightly unappealing but it is used by winemakers across the globe to produce some of the world’s most revered sweet wines. Sweet Sémillon from Bordeaux is a particularly well-known example of Botrytis effected wines. You will also find it in ‘Selection des Grains Nobles’ wines in Alsace and the world-famous Tokaji Aszú wines of Hungary.
Some winemakers also see Chenin Blanc as a neutral palate. A blank canvas which allows itself to be imprinted with a number of different tasting notes and styles. This means that it can be deeply affected by terroir, winemaking techniques and vintage variation.
This can give this grape variety a real sense of place and explain even further why a Loire Valley expression of this grape variety can seem world’s apart from a new world example such as those of South Africa, or why the dry and bracing still wines are miles away from the luscious sweet wines. With that in mind, let’s look at the two key regions for this grape variety and the Chenin Blanc wines which they produce in greater detail.
Loire Valley Chenin Blanc
Loire Valley Chenin Blanc is some of the most revered French white wine. The Loire Valley is sometimes called the ‘Garden of France’ and this luscious and sprawling terrain covers a gargantuan 124,000 acres. It is far from uniform through. The Loire Valley is divided up into three small sub-regions. They are the Western, Middle and Eastern Loire. It is the Middle Loire in which Chenin Blanc has established a name for itself. This is in still wines, sweet wines and the sparkling wines of the region.
Chenin Blanc features heavily in both Crèmant de Loire and the regional specialities of sparkling Vouvray and Saumur. Both of these often go through secondary fermentation in the bottle which is used in the production if Crémant and Champagne. This will impart a bread-like, biscuity character due to extended contact with lees.
Other key appellations include Savenniéres (Middle Loire) and Touraine, (Middle Loire). Barely ripe fruit is used for sparkling wines with a lower ABV. Then, riper fruits will provide gradually sweeter wines.
In terms of the dry white wines, you’ll often find Loire Valley Chenin Blanc to have a real mineral quality, that mixes with notes of wet wool, tart green apples, juicy golden pears, rich tropical fruit, subtle zesty kicks and delicate floral characteristics. Chenin Blanc was first produced in it’s homeland and the native terroir is clearly well suited to it as the wines which it produces are often beyond compare.
South African Chenin Blanc
Now, we move onto South Africa. While the Loire Valley may be this grape’s native home, it has found an amazing amount of success in South Africa. Perhaps, today it is South Africa with which most people associate this grape variety. Again, the variety is remarkable. The zesty and herbaceous examples which are rich in green fruit flavours can be found, as can riper versions which display stone fruit flavours as well as touches of butter and honey. The latter styles are often blended with the Rhône Valley grape varieties of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Chenin Blanc is planted throughout the winemaking regions of South Africa. Each area has their own take on this grape variety but it excels in Swartland. This section of the ‘Coastal Region’ has become a centre for innovation and many winemakers are opting for dry-farming methods which limited the yields of old vine Chenin Blanc. This allows for rich, concentrated offerings with intense flavours to rival the best white wines of the world.
South Africa also has their own traditional method sparkling wine. This is known as the ‘Methode Cap Classique‘. Usually, this will be made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, but Chenin Blanc will regularly make an appearance.
Other Key Chenin Blanc Winemaking Nations
The Loire Valley and South Africa undoubtedly lead the way in the production of Chenin Blanc. This is both with regards to quantity and quality. However, plantings of this grape variety are on the rise. We will be taking a look at some of the wine regions which are responsible for excellent examples of this grape variety.
The first stop on our list of lesser known producers of Chenin Blanc is Australia. Within Australia, Chenin Blanc can be found in both the cool and warm regions. You’ll see it cropping up in chalky, mineral and bracingly acidic offerings across Tasmania and Victoria. Whereas, you’ll find wines with more tropical flavours and a touch more sweetness in the warmer areas of the Margaret River in Western Australia.
Next is Australia’s neighbour to the south – New Zealand. New Zealand is split into two, when it comes to winemaking. The North and South Islands. The South Island includes the world-famous Marlborough and is well known for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.
However, the North Island has found great success with grape varieties that aren’t as closely associated with this country. For example, the Bordeaux-style blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Gimblett Gravels, or the ripe, tropical and honeyed Chardonnay of Gisborne. It is the latter of these regions which has also produced some great Chenin Blanc. After all, a region which is known for ripe and tropical still white wines sounds like a good fit for this grape variety and it is. You can find powerful and deeply complex Chenin Blanc within Gisborne.
Next up is Argentina. In terms of Argentinian wine, we think first and foremost of Malbec. Then, even with white wine, the Torrontés grape is seen as the premier Argentinian white wine. Yet, in the southern section of Argentina, you’ll find Patagonia.
This stunning region is home to a rich array of wildlife, but largely the area is a desert and viticulture is only possible due to flood irrigation from the Andes Mountains. Flood irrigation is the process whereby melting snow is funnelled from the mountain ranges, into the vineyards. This process is practiced in many areas of Argentina, such as Mendoza. Generally, it is far too impractical and wasteful, but it is an option in mountainous areas that have an abundance of this ‘meltwater’.
The region is known for warm days and cold nights, with a long growing season. All this means that a slow ripening process can allow the grapes to concentrate in flavour, while retaining their acidity. These natural factors mean that Chenin Blanc will thrive in this location. They will be vibrant and fresh wines with a deep concentration in flavour.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this look into the wonderful world of Chenin Blanc. It truly is one of the world’s great grape varieties and can produce a brilliantly diverse style of wines. Whether you like sweet, honeyed dessert wines or dry and bracing still wines – this grape variety has something for you. It even makes fantastic fizz! Don’t miss out on the good stuff and get yourself some Chenin Blanc as soon as possible.
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