It’s Chenin Blanc, the white grape that can be bone dry, or lusciously sweet, or splendidly sparkling. Sometimes all at the same time.
No wonder people in the Middle Ages valued it so much. Yet, strangely, it’s been abandoned in many places and it’s only recently that drinkers are, once again, recognizing its fine qualities.
Chenin’s an old grape
Originally from Anjou in France, Chenin Blanc may go back as far as the ninth century. By the 15th century, it was showing up in Touraine, in the Loire Valley. It’s also believed to have been among the first vine cuttings taken to South Africa in 1655, where it’s still often called ‘Steen.’
In the 20th century, it was widely planted in South Africa and was often used as a base for fortified wines and spirits. Today, old bush vine Chenin Blancs are highly prized and are among South Africa’s most lauded wines.
Chenin’s ability to resist disease has seen it somewhat abused in the past. In California, for example, it was often used as a disrespected workhorse variety, to churn out bland, characterless wines. Such plantings have fallen in California, Israel, Australia, and Argentina.
In its home in the Loire Valley, however, Chenin Blanc has become the region’s signature white grape and is made both as a still wine and as a sparkling wine. Such wines include Saumur Mousseux, Crémant de Loire, and the rich and delicious Vouvray. The finest wines from the Loire, South Africa, and even California can live a long time.
In its youth, Chenin Blanc can show a range of flavors, depending on where it’s grown, from quince and pear through to peach, honey, hay, and lanolin. The best have a pronounced minerality.
It’s a grape that is only going to grow in popularity.
5 bottles to try:
There’s no shortage of good Chenin Blanc from South Africa. It’s the country’s most widely planted white grape variety. The Chenin Blanc made at Neethlingshof Estate, which has produced wine in the Stellenbosch region for more than 300 years, gets a full-bodied edge with pronounced stone and tropical fruit flavors. “This wine has a fuller body than what many drinkers may think of for white wine,” says Brielle Buckler, the wine educator behind Viva la Vino in New York City. “This wine has a story to tell with its aromas of stone fruit and florals. This is great with a cheese board or sushi or anything savory.”
“And the category is…tropical fruit!” wine educator Brianne Cohen says of this bottle of Chenin Blanc produced by one of South Africa’s top sommeliers-turned-winemaker Tinashe Nyamudoka. The tropical fruit flavors of Kumusha’s Chenin Blanc are abundant, and tastes of pineapple, papaya, and mango burst from every corner of this wine. “I first enjoyed this wine when I shared Thai takeout at home in L.A. with a friend, and it paired famously,” says Cohen.
In the mood for bubbles? Look no further than Maison Foucher. Since 1921, the French winery has produced outstanding bottles of still and sparkling wine in the heart of the Loire Valley that displays a range of flavors that are “stellar value for the price,” according to Kelly Cornett, wine educator and founder of A Cork in the Road in Atlanta, Georgia. Chenin Blanc is the predominant grape of this particular sparkling wine. However, some Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is included to influence the wine’s “lovely green apple, pear fruits, and sandstone and flint characteristics,” says Cornett, who adds, “This is a go-to when I want all the joy of French sparkling at an approachable price.”
You can’t drink sunshine, but a glass of Lubanzi’s vibrant Chenin Blanc may leave you feeling like you’ve just sipped on the sunrays of Swartland, according to sommelier Sara Lehman. Produced in the Western Cape of South Africa, Lehman says this wine is “incredibly complex” for the price point. “This wine is so rich, bright, and fruit-forward, with plenty of lychee and apricot. I love sharing it with friends,” notes Lehman, the New York City-based wine consultant behind Somm in the City.
For Chenin Blanc that packs a crisp and refreshing punch, turn to Gail Wines in Sonoma, founded by yet another sommelier-turned-winemaker, Dan O’Brien. It’s one of the “most exciting wines out of California,” Matt Whitney, a sommelier and general manager at New York’s The Tavern by W.S., has tasted in recent times. “It shows beautiful fruit but is complemented with great acidity and has a brightness reminiscent of the Loire Valley,” says Whitney.