It is rare to encounter a varietal that arouses such strong emotions as Chenin Blanc.
According to Jancis Robinson, this grape leads a “double life,” producing ethereal, gossamer dessert wines in the Loire Valley regions of Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux, but also producing gallon upon gallon of what best can be described as “plonk” in many wine wastelands.
Perhaps, though, the most important style to be familiar with lies somewhere between these two extremes.
The most important characteristic of Chenin Blanc is its extremely high acidity:
If harvested too early, wine writer Oz Clarke describes the resulting wine as “one of the nastiest wines possible.” It is also very reflective of the terroir and climate in which is planted.
In cooler climates the wines tend to show apple, honey, and floral qualities, whereas in warmer climates more tropical notes begin to emerge. Crop yield must be carefully managed as well. Only when all of the above elements are balanced and harmonious does the true noble character of the varietal really reveal itself.
The first order of business when purchasing a bottle of Chenin Blanc is the question of sweetness.
As the varietal is highly acidic, a degree of residual sugar is often a welcome addition to balance the rapier texture. Starting with the grape’s ancestral home in the central Loire Valley, it is safe to assume that wines coming from the appellations of Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux, and Coteaux du Layon will be dessert styles. These late harvest or botrytised styles are rich, honeyed, extremely long-lived, and exceptionally rare.
Moving into Savennières, there is less fog to encourage botrytis development, so the wines are generally dry. These wines have been called by many the most cerebral wines in the world and require cellaring to express their myriad aromas and flavors.
Anjou, Crémant de Loire, Coteaux de l’Aubance, Jasnières, Montlouis, Saumur, and Vouvray present much more of a problem in terms of classifiction. These wines run the gamut of styles from dry to dessert styles, and in Saumur one finds exciting, brisk sparkling versions.
Vouvray perhaps presents the most variety of styles. Look for clues on the label such as the terms sec (dry) or moelleux (sweet). The term sec tendre also bears mention: these lightly sweet wines often are beautiful partners to ethnic foods or gently sweet dishes at the table.
Moving to the Languedoc in the south of France, Chenin Blanc tends to be made in a dry style owing to the ample sunshine and Mediterranean climate.
In the New World, Chenin Blanc is most associated with South Africa. Indeed, there is nearly twice the amount of Chenin Blanc (or Steen as it might be called) planted here today as there is in France. In recent years there has been a renaissance of quality bottlings of this cultivar due to many producers focusing more on terroir, experimenting with oak aging, utilizing old vine plantings, and relying less on high yields. In quality bottlings one will generally find dry, fresh renditions, and now many top producers are making complex versions that can age many years.
In the United States, Chenin Blanc has largely been relegated to the role of workhorse, and most people view the resulting wines as insipid and uninspiring. However, today there are many new producers that are producing interesting, high quality wines. Look for single vineyard designations on the label and expect to pay a few more dollars. Needless to say, these wines will repay the investment in terms of enjoyment.
Pairing Chenin Blanc with food:
- The dessert styles are gorgeous partners to foie-gras and apple desserts.
- Off-dry versions complement sweet and sour-type dishes or many ethnic cuisines.
- The dry, fresh, and fruity New World styles are great choices for vegetarian fare
- Richer oaked styles work well with poultry in cream-based sauces or triple-cream cheeses.