This week, we're looking at a grape that's maintained popularity in Old-World France while also becoming a major player in New-World South Africa: Chenin Blanc!
We've used the word 'workhorse' to describe grape varietals in the past (our article on Grenache comes to mind), but it's hard to find a better contender to the title than Chenin blanc. Used in making some of the longest-aging sweet wines as well as dry whites in France, table wines in South Africa, sparkling wines in various regions around the world, and even in fortified wines and spirits, Chenin Blanc is one hardworking grape!
So, where do we start? Well, how about Chenin Blanc's homeland: France's Loire valley? Here, Chenin blanc is made in a few different varieties. The first, and perhaps most approachable, is in dry, crisp white wines, particularly from the appellation of Anjou. These are usually vinified as 100% Chenin blanc, although occasionally blended with another white grape, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, to add structure. These wines tend to be crisp, light, and refreshing, with notes of honey and flowers on the nose. Slightly to the South-East of Anjou, we find Vouvray, where Chenin Blanc is often used to make slightly sweet (or off-dry) white wines. In addition to making dry and off-dry wines, Chenin Blanc is also used in making sparkling wines (crémants) and dessert wines throughout the Loire valley.
Leaving the Loire Valley (and France) behind, there is no shortage of regions where we can find Chenin Blanc. It is often used in inexpensive white wine blends in Argentina to make wines that are refreshing and easy-to-drink. Califronia used to have more Chenin Blanc than France in the 1980s, and, although the state's white wines have since become dominated by Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc is still used in various parts of Califronia's central valley to make ripe, ready-to-drink white blends, as well as some noteworthy single-varietal wines that often display melon aromas.
Finally, we arrive in South Africa, perhaps the region most strongly associated with Chenin Blanc today. South African chenin blancs can range in flavours from fruity (such as the melon notes noted earlier) to floral and even herbal. Many South African producers are now also oak-aging their Chenin blancs, causing them to develop butfoie gras, salmon with dill sauce, or quiche. Non-oaked, dry Chenin blanc is great on its own, or paired with a Greek salad or cold cuts. Off-dry Chenin blanc is best paired with slightly spicy dishes, such as mild curries, or a rich dish, such as carrot risotto.
tery flavours and textures. These pair particularly well with rich dishes, such as
Wherever it is planted, Chenin blanc often produces high yields, but ripens late, which can be problematic in cooler climates where snap frosts or (as has happened recently) hailstorms can hit towards the end of summer. Winemakers must also control yields to avoid producing 'watery' or 'bland' wines. So, this 'workhorse' grape does require quite a bit of work! Because of its popularity around the world, Chenin blanc is an excellent grape for exploring a previously unfamiliar region. So the next time you're shopping for wine, why not take a look at what sort of Chenin blancs are on offer?
The Short Version
Names: Chenin Blanc, Pineau (Loire), Steen (South Africa)
Flavour Profile (Dry, Unoaked): Aromas ranging from floral to herbal on the nose, sometimes with notes of honey. Nice crisp acidity.
Flavour Profile (Dry, Oaked): Fruity and spicy notes on the nose, with buttery aromas and flavours.
Flavour Profile (Off-dry, Unoaked): Aromas of peaches or acacia on the nose, with nice acidity and sweetness on the finish.
Food Paring (Dry, Unoaked): Greek salad, cold cuts, bruschetta.
Food Pairing (Dry, Oaked): Quiche, salmon with heavy sauce
Food Pairing (Off-dry): Mild-to-medium curry, carrot risotto
Best-Known Regions: France (Loire), South Africa, California, Argentina
Price Range: $10-$30