Chenin Blanc is a highly versatile white grape from the Loire that makes both dry and sweet wines, as well as sparkling. It is often used as a vital blending grape because of its qualities.
The main origin is the Loire valley, the source thought to be a combination of Savagnin from the Jura, and Trousseau. It grows in many soils from sandy that produce light wines, to limestone that delivers a more mineral flavour. It buds early and ripens mid to late season producing a range of potential wines. At vintage time there is no question the lower, more controlled yields deliver the better fruits, just as the warmer years give fuller wines with more flavours and style.
The Loire has long been famous for the quality of its Chenin and produces a wide range. Anjou and Touraine, the original areas, are joined by Saumur, Montlouis, Vouvray, Savennnieres, and Cremant de Loire, to produce wines from a clean dry greengage, apple flavour to semi sweet honeyed creamier wines, all of which can be superb. From Bonnezeaux, Quarts De Chaume and the Coteau de Layon come delicious rich honeyed dessert wines made when the grape is harvested late with noble rot. In years when the acidity is high Chenin is just perfect for the sparkling wines of Cremant de Loire. Chenin is also used in Limoux, where sparkling wine was made long before Dom Perignon visited and took the idea back to Champagne. Chenin has the status of a premium grape in France, so great care is taken in the production of the wines. A range of styles have evolved built on older fermentation techniques, the use of old aging barrels, malolactic fermentations to soften the acidity, and leaving the wine on the lees for some time. The result is a soft, buttery, minerally, apple, greengage flavours that makes this wine so good.
The other main country for Chenin is South Africa, where it is often called Steen. Here, with 20% of South Africa’s vineyards, it has almost double the vineyards of France. Introduced in approximately 1655 by Jan Van Riebeck, the wines take on a different style. It’s much warmer and the aim is to run slow controlled fermentations that extract the maximum flavours and can make a crisper, fresher more tropical fruit style with bananas and guavas. New oak is often used in a variety of ways to impart the spicy, vanilla tones, all with the object of making a younger style of wine. This much lighter style is refreshing and very enjoyable.
Elsewhere Chenin has yet to really establish itself and is more often used as a blending wine because of its great ability and crisp acidity.
Chenin Blanc is a quality wine and great to enjoy on its own as well as with food. The lighter, drier styles suit salads, fish, chicken and light dishes, whilst the semi sweet wines are great with Asian food and creamier dishes.