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The Chenin Blanc renaissance?

The Loire Valley and South Africa are two key regions for Chenin Blanc, where producers are striving for higher quality and greater recognition of the variety. Jim Budd investigates...

Chenin Blanc has a very strong claim to be the world’s most versatile grape variety, successfully producing dry and demi-sec wines, all the way through to lusciously sweet, as well as sparkling – and not forgetting brandy and ‘sherry’ styles in South Africa.

The grape has the rare talent of producing some of the most sublime wines that can age for a century or more – while also being capable of making some of the most disgusting wines if picked unripe and vinified badly!

From workhorse to high quality

It can be difficult to produce high quality Chenin as it’s capable of producing large crops, making it popular as a workhorse variety, especially in South Africa and California. However, as the emphasis has increasingly been on making interesting and high-quality Chenin, world plantings have been cut by half over the last 30 years.


Scroll down to see Jim’s top picks of Chenin Blanc from the Loire and South Africa


As well as Chenin Blanc’s versatility, it has a remarkable ability to age: as mentioned above, great sweet vintages can remain magnificent for a century or more, and I have been privileged to taste several Chenins from the 19th century. And we celebrated my father’s 90th birthday in 2009 with an amazingly youthful 1919 Le Mont Moelleux Vouvray from Gaston Huet – a memorable occasion!

Chenin Blanc’s two principal regions in terms of quality are South Africa, where it is the most planted variety, and the Loire. Vincent Carême, who makes wine in both the Loire and in South Africa, says of the differences: ‘The South African climate is much more extreme – very hot and very dry. Broadly speaking, South African Chenin has more weight with an exotic fruit character, while those from the Loire are more mineral.’


Chenin Blanc renaissance: Loire & South Africa


Awareness

The first International Chenin Blanc Conference was held in Angers from 1 to 3 July. A major aim of this conference is to raise the profile and appreciation of Chenin which, because of its past reputation as a workhorse grape, means that it does not have the same repute as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon, for example.

But it’s clear that the variety has history, its own unique characteristics, is adaptable to climate change, and can be very long-lived.

The next edition of the conference will be held in 2021 in Cape Town.

Chenin Blanc at a glance:

World total 35,000ha

South Africa 17,242ha (53% of production)

Olifants River: 2,821; Breederkloof: 2,796; Paarl: 2,743; Swartland: 2553; Worcester: 1,860; Robertson: 1,546, Stellenbosch: 1,344; Northern Cape: 1,038

Loire 9,700ha (28% of production)

Anjou and Saumur: 5,282; Touraine: 3,668; Loir et Cher: 303; Sarthe: 153

California 1,938ha (9% of production)


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