Chenin Blanc is very aromatic with a high natural acidity, and depending on the winemaker or regional style, it can be light and crisp or full-bodied and lush, with oak notes similar to Chardonnay.
Guide to Chenin Blanc
by Michelle Lim Warner
Johnny’s Half Shell doesn’t sound like the name of a spot where one would have their first palate-altering experience with Chenin Blanc, but it was where I discovered Vouvray. Being in my 20’s and not really knowing a lot about wine, I would typically order what I had enjoyed in the past. I went up to the bar to place my usual order, but hesitated. The bartender, sensing my hesitation, engaged me in a conversation.
“Not the usual today?” Brian asked.
“I’m not sure yet. I kind of want to try something new,” I responded, looking at the by-the-glass list.
“Here, see if you like this.” He had a chilled bottle of white wine in hand and poured. I tasted. I liked it. It was slightly sweet, but not sugary. It felt refreshing. Alive. Delicious!
“What is this?” I said with an inquisitive smile.
“That is Vouvray,” Brian stated, expressing “vray” with a flourish. I ordered that wine all summer long, feeling fancy whenever I did. I came to understand, over time, that Vouvray is a region in Loire Valley, France and the grape is Chenin Blanc.
Chenin Blanc is a highly versatile grape and can be expressed as a sparkling, still, and even dessert wine. Its origins are French from the Loire Valley where it’s also known as Pineau de la Loire. These days, Chenin Blanc is grown in other parts of the world like the United States, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa---where it has become the country’s white signature grape known as “Steen.”
Chenin Blanc is very aromatic with a high natural acidity, and depending on the winemaker or regional style, it can be light and crisp or full-bodied and lush, with oak notes similar to Chardonnay. Here are a few types of Chenin Blanc that are fun to explore, not surprisingly many from the Loire Valley.
Vouvray is located in the Touraine district of France and produces a variety of styles of Chenin Blanc including dry (sec), off-dry (tendre), sweet (demi-sec), very sweet (moelleux), and of course, sparkling wines that can be dry (brut) or sweet. Perhaps the most commonly-known is Vouvray sec, a delicate yet lively style of wine that leaves a sweet smile with each sip. It has notes of juicy white peach and pear, held up by a bracing minerality. Other fruit notes that can be exhibited include quince, green or yellow apple, and honeysuckle. Vouvray sec often reminds me of a dry Riesling, which can leave you cheerfully pursing your lips for another sip. Vouvray’s high acidity also makes it a good wine for decades-long aging. However, most of the Vouvray found in the market are ready-to-drink now and are good for up to five years from the vintage date. The best way to know whether you can age a particular Vouvray is to ask for help from your favorite retailer (we’re ready at DCanter to assist!).
Saumur Blanc is another style of Chenin Blanc that can make your lips pucker with its bright acidity. Chenin Blanc from this wine region, also in the Loire Valley, is mostly made in a dry style, unlike Vouvray that makes a wider variety. You can also find sparkling Saumur Blanc wines in this area. Similar fruit flavors can be found in Saumur Blanc as in Vouvray wines, but Saumur is not as popular so it is often more difficult to find.
If you’re interested in trying a bolder, richer flavor of Chenin Blanc, then Savennières might be the one for you. Savennières, the wine region, is one of the smallest in the Loire. Its Chenin Blancs take on a deep golden yellow color---a signature of oxidative aging, which means that the wine is exposed to air through barrel-aging (though there are other methods)---in order to improve its texture and complexity. Savennières is full-bodied, and the aging process gives it honeyed, dried stone fruit flavors and a touch of nuttiness. It’s best after a bit of decanting, some requiring 2 days, before it can fully open up to its potential. This is the kind of wine that is meant to be savored and enjoyed after a little patience. Savennières is an elegant expression of Chenin Blanc, and I love to pair it with meals that require the same kind of patience to make (like roasted chicken with an orange glaze). The reward is worth it!
South African Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc has a centuries-old history in South Africa. Vine cuttings were likely brought to the country by the Dutch settlers to make brandy. Even though Chenin Blanc’s viticulture birthplace is the Loire Valley, South Africa has the most acres under vine of this chameleon grape. It is also the most widely-planted white grape variety in the country. Some of the best examples of Chenin Blanc can be found in South Africa’s wine regions including Stellenbosch, Swartland, and the Coastal Region. Wines made from Chenin Blanc include the grape name on the label, unlike the French wines mentioned above, which take the name of the region. South African winemakers, not being tied to a particular regional style, are a bit more experimental with this grape and have developed a variety of expressions from still to sparkling wines. You can find South African Chenin Blanc blended with other grape varieties, taste one made as an orange wine, or experience it with a velvety creaminess akin to a white Burgundy from Meursault.
Chenin Blanc is a versatile grape that can be enjoyed by anyone, no matter your preferred wine style. If you like lighter, more mineral-driven wines--there’s a Chenin Blanc for you. If you prefer more structure and richness in your white wines, there’s a Chenin Blanc for you. If you love bubbles, there’s a Chenin Blanc for you. If you love funky, orange wine, there’s a Chenin Blanc for you. So while my palate-altering experience with Chenin Blanc began with Vouvray, I have had quite an adventure with this grape over the years, and it’s been nice to be surprised by its many personalities. What kind of Chenin Blanc will be your go-to wine?
Stop in at the shop and let me help you find your Chenin Blanc style. Or better yet, be my client and join Concierge by DCanter, our personal wine shopping and delivery service.