A Master Class Six Bottles with Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc is a historic grape native to the Loire Valley in France. Capable of producing a range of wine styles due to its unusual balance of crisp acidity and rich flavors, this yellow-green varietal shows great breadth in its ancestral homeland.
However, the versatility and adaptability of Chenin Blanc to different growing conditions appeal to winegrowers all over the world. Today, consumers can try Chenin Blanc from South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand, as well as California and Washington. Styles range from dry bone to sumptuously sweet, fresh and fruity to nutty and oxidized, and again to sparkling.
Chenin’s classic flavor profile features floral and honey aromas layered with quince, apple, pear and an occasional accent of lanolin or wool. The grape often produces a textured wine, capable of a generous palate contained by pronounced acidity, with a spoonful of rich fruit on the mid-palate.
A side-by-side analysis of the infinitely fascinating Chenin Blanc is the best way to understand its breadth based on origin, climate, aging process and style.
For a preview of six bottles, organize your tasting into three key categories: Loire Valley vs. South Africa, unoaked vs. woody, and dry vs. off-dry.
As you taste, look for aromas and flavors, but also consider texture and mouth feel. Is the aciditydo you feel tangy, making your mouth water, or is the palate round and creamy?
Of course, you’ll need to pick up a few bottles, so we’ve included some tips on what to look for. If you can’t find an exact match, ask your retailer to recommend alternatives.
Loire Valley vs South Africa
The cultivation of Chenin Blanc in France dates back at least 1,300 years. Popular wisdom cites the Abbey of Glanfeuil, a Benedictine monastery in the village of Saint-Maur-sur-Loire, as the first to document the cultivation of grapes along the Loire.
Chenin Blanc flourishes around the towns of central Loire, Angers and Touraine, in the appellations of Savennières and Vouvray, respectively.
Savennières is renowned for its complex, long-lasting wines which sommelier Christopher Bates, MS, calls “moody”, compared to the “sunny” disposition of neighboring Vouvray. Expect dry, intense wines that offer concentrated, mineral flavors interwoven with beeswax, straw and smoke, especially with age.
Vouvray produces dry and semi-dry styles with aromas of quince, baked apple, ginger and chamomile. The sweeter the Vouvray, the more honeyed and tropical the impression.
Early to bud but late to mature, Chenin Blanc has a long growing season, which can cause spring frost problems given the high latitude and cooler climate of the Loire. But it is precisely this combination of location and climate that gives the grape its characteristic racy acidity.
After France, South Africa reigns as the most important region in the world for Chenin Blanc. Although considered a region of the New World, South Africa has a long history of viticulture. It is believed that the first Chenin Blanc vine cuttings arrived from Europe on a boat in 1655. Registered as “Steen”, the name was often used on bottle labels until recent decades.
As the most planted grape in the country, Chenin Blanc thrives in several wine regions of South Africa, including the districts of Breedekloof, Paarl and Swartland. Initially appreciating the grape for its vigorous growth and high yields, modern winemakers aspire to express the potential of the grape for delicious complexity and terroir expression.
Swartland is home to many top growers working with old vines. It is a parched and sunny region of schist and granite soils, a complete contrast to the verdant Loire. Generally, wines from South Africa have a higher alcohol content, more body, smoother acidity and a more ripe fruit character. These qualities complement the mineral, vegetal and floral notes.
Loire Valley vs South Africa
Wine 1: Find a wine from the Savennières or Vouvray de la Loire appellations.
Wine 2: Look for a Chenin Blanc from Swartland.
Non-wooded versus wooded
Although Chardonnay is known to be a “wine from the winegrower”, Chenin Blanc is just as malleable. A great example is non-woody expressions versus woody expressions.
Unoaked refers to a wine fermented and aged in something other than oak. For Chenin Blanc, it is generally stainless steel. Cement and concrete eggs can be used for micro-oxygenation and texture, allowing an oak-like aging process without imparting the aromas or flavors of wood.
In all of these woodless options, no exterior flavor is imparted. However, stainless steel completely blocks oxygen, resulting in pure, fresh and fruity wines that are generally meant to be consumed young.
Like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc is transformed when it is fermented and / or aged in oak barrels. If newer barrels are used, the wine takes on notes of vanilla and spices. But for many producers who work with oak, the focus is not on flavor. Instead, they use older or used barrels, often referred to as “neutral” barrels, to create texture and complexity. Batonnage, a term for the batonnage of lees, or dead yeast in wine, contributes to a creamier and fuller mouthfeel.
Another reason to use barrels: Without the temperature controls of stainless steel, wines aged in oak barrels undergo malolactic fermentation, a process that softens the acidity of the Chenin.
Some winegrowers, notably in Savennières, use oak for oxidative vinification. They trade in the naturally pale yellow hue and fruity freshness of Chenin for a wine with deep hues, sometimes amber, with a profile of hazelnut, bruised apple and damp wool. These wines may be more of an acquired taste, but it is a appreciation deserves to be continued.
Non-wooded versus wooded
Wine 1: For an unoaked version, look for a Chenin Blanc from South Africa or the Loire at a price between $ 10 and $ 20. These are not likely to see oak weather.
Wine 2: Find a bottle over $ 25 from South Africa or the Loire. These are likely to have seen oak for some time.
Dry versus dry
While dry wines have overtaken sweetness as the stated preference of most wine drinkers, the truth is that well-made sweet wines offer a transcendent tasting experience. Chenin Blanc is the perfect grape to undertake this journey.
When the yeast converts all the sugars in grape must into alcohol, the resulting wine is dry. However, that doesn’t always mean zero residual sugar. Dry typically means less than four grams of residual sugar per liter, although these lines are blurry among winemakers based on how much sugar they think their wine needs to balance. For example, high acidity from a colder vintage may require a few grams of sugar to plump the wine without crossing the line in off-dry territory.
The off-dry category gently moves drinkers towards a milder style of Chenin. Written in demi-sec in French, or sometimes noted on the bottlings of the Loire as dry tender Where tender (which means tender dry or tender), these wines generally contain between 4 and 16 grams per liter of residual sugar.
Due to Chenin’s naturally high acidity, sugar levels at the lower end of the range tend to mimic ripe fruit, whether orchard or tropical like pineapple, rather than having a very sweet taste. A “tender” kiss of sugar lifts and intensifies the aromas of Chenin while adding a little weight and roundness to the palate.
The amount of residual sugar left in the wine can also depend on the winemaker’s preference. Stopping fermentation before it is complete will leave unfermented sugar. Methods to stop fermentation can include lowering the temperature of the wine to force the yeast into suspension. Sulfur dioxide can also be added before racking, filtering and / or fining the wine to eliminate the yeasts which prevent the wine from re-fermentation in the bottle.
Vouvray is the go-to classic in semi-dry wines, although the style can also be found pretty much anywhere Chenin Blanc grows. Next to a demi-sec, a dry version will appear leaner and tastier while letting the minerality of Chenin shine.
Dry versus dry
Wine 1: Find a Vouvray that says demi-sec or demi-sec on the label.
Wine 2: California or Washington options are usually dry.