We’ve all sipped some Chenin Blanc in our day— fine Chenin Blanc such as dry Vouvray, if we were smart, or all that California “chablis” that we may have swilled in the ‘70s and ‘80s, if we weren’t.
No other white wine grape exists that, simultaneously grown in separate parts of the world, can make a ravishingly electric wine like the Loire’s Savennières, as well as the blandest, most lifeless South African Steen, in flavor only one wee step beyond water.
Because it is a true workaday grape and, with even a modicum of skill in the winery, makes an adequate wine, nearly every winemaking country grows some Chenin Blanc [SHEN-ihn BLAHNGK]. For some areas, it is a mainstay. One-quarter of all vines in South Africa, for example, are Chenin Blanc, as are massive (nonetheless diminishing) plantings in California’s Central Valley.
It is also called a “chameleon” wine grape, for its ability to make wines that range in residual sugar from stone-dry to teeth-singing sweet—even in one area in the same vintage.
What it’s like
Chenin Blanc distinguishes itself in two ways. It can retain screechingly high acidity and it ripens late. The acidity is precarious, however. When made with inadequately ripe grapes, no wine is more harsh, nasty or hurtful than “green” Chenin Blanc. When overcropped, its acidity plummets and makes for what may be the world’s flattest, dullest white wine.
On the other hand, that it ripens slowly and late into the harvest (especially in cool climates), allows the beneficial mold botrytis cinerea* to envelop it, concentrating both its sugar and flavors—all the while allowing it to retain its native acidity. Some of the world’s most thrilling (and longest-lived) sweet white wines come from Chenin Blanc, nearly all from the Loire.
While vagaries of climate matter to Chenin Blanc, more so does soil—or terroir, to use the all-encompassing term—much in the same way that it does to Pinot Noir. On sandy soils, it makes for a light, fruity wine. Clay (as in Coteaux de Layon) gives it richness and boosts the work of botrytis.
Limestone gives it verve; silica, a zesty, bracing acidity. Vouvray on calcareous soil will be weighty and round, though with a spine of tangy acidity. Finally, schist (granite that is breaking down) produces Chenin Blanc that is as dry and sharp as licking a razor’s edge.
The world makes two major styles of Chenin Blanc. Cold fermentation produces a fruity white overlain with tropical flavors. In the Loire especially, a warmer, traditional fermentation (upwards of 64°F), often in neutral wood, retains the grape’s high acidity and lean, precise fruit. (Some Loire or Loire-style winemakers tone that acidity down through malolactic fermentation or stirring the wine on its fine lees**, or both.)
Vapid, poorly made Chenin Blanc is less and less the rule nowadays. South Africa, for example, leads the way in improvements of wine from Chenin Blanc. California uses it less and less in generic blends, in favor of other grapes, even those as lofty as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
Chenin Blanc from around Clarksburg, near Sacramento, California, can be remarkably delicious, and pockets of fine Chenin Blanc exist even in Napa.
Aging, Eating, Drinking
When young, Chenin Blanc tastes of green apples, yellow plums, something like sweet celery and—given the soil—lots of minerals and chalk. When it’s been aged—and it is one of the world’s most ageable white wines, upwards of three to four decades—Chenin Blanc smells and tastes of honey, fresh baked brioche and quince paste. Botrytised, it takes on hints of pineapple, cooked green apples, ripe peaches, even cream and almond paste.
As a sweet wine, it is less ponderous or viscous than Sauternes and often more zestily acidic.
Lighter Chenin Blancs are delicious as aperitifs, or with salads (especially, if the wine is blessed with acidity, salads with vinaigrettes) or lighter fish or fowl dishes. Medium-sweet Chenin Blanc is a good accompaniment to cream sauces, again especially if the wine has good acid.
Sweeter Chenins, especially aged ones, are terrific by themselves. And young, vibrant, sweet Chenin Blanc is ravishing with foie gras or blue cheese.
* Botrytis cinerea [boh-TRY-tihs sihn-AIR-ee-uh]—or “noble rot” (in English), pourriture noble, (in French) and Edelfäule (in German)—is a beneficial mold that often enshrouds wine grapes given specific weather. Botrytis is “noble” because, while it shrivels grapes, thereby concentrating their sugar and flavor, it both leaves acidity high and prevents the incursion of oxygen. The wines from such grapes are intensely sweet, elegant and long-lived. (Under damper, less accommodating conditions, botrytis morphs into “grey rot,” a spoiling fungus.)
**Malolactic fermentation is a second, or ancillary, fermentation that changes and softens the wine’s malic acid (from malum, Latin for apple) into lactic acid (like that in milk). Lees are the sediment of dead yeast cells and small grape particles that accumulate during fermentation. Some winemakers stir them for a short while as the wine ages (in French, battonage) to increase and round out flavors.
~ Bill St John