The third Sunday of June might be Father’s Day but the third Friday is a special date for wine lovers: International Drink Chenin Blanc Day. Since the first edition of the Chenin Congress, the Fédération Viticole Anjou Saumur, has further extended celebrations for the whole third week of June under the hashtag #FandeChenin.
Time to celebrate the Loire native, South African pioneer variety in all its characterful diversity. And a great pretext to explore the many styles and producers that have earned it worldwide fame.
Indigenous to the Loire, rooted in South Africa
Chenin Blanc is indigenous to the Loire, where it has been grown for centuries, possibly more than a millennium. The French Renaissance polymath, and Touraine native, François Rabelais (1494–1553) mentions the variety, both as Chenin and its common Loire synonym Pineau, in his writings. Other local synonyms were Anjou, Plant d’Anjou, Gros Pineau, Pineau d’Anjou and Pineau de la Loire. The variety’s enduring name has its most likely origin in the monastery of Montchenin, from where it was propagated across the Touraine region, to then return to its birthplace in Anjou under its new name.
However, although Chenin Blanc has its historical origin in the Loire, where its most classical and diverse expressions hail from, it found a second spiritual home in South Africa, the country where some of the variety’s oldest plants, dry-farmed bush vines, can be found.
Further afield, Chenin Blanc can also be found in California’s Central Valley (although mostly for the production of cheap wines from high-yielding vineyards), Australia, New Zealand and throughout South America.
Chenin Blanc shares important characteristics with Chardonnay and Riesling; it has the former’s capacity to respond to different winemaking approaches without losing its character, and the latter’s ability to express minute terroir variations and produce wines across a range of styles. With both, it shares the medium to high acid and the adaptability to different growing conditions, expressed through an aromatic spectrum that ranges from stern minerality to ripe orchard fruit. As such, although perhaps not as highly regarded as those other two historical counterparts, Chenin Blanc can rightly be placed among the wine canon’s must-know classical varieties. Its long history and the quality and diversity of the wines it produces certainly justify it!
The fact that it is a vigorous and fertile grape (although vigour is greatly impacted by soil type) made it a favourite of growers in high production areas such as the Californian and Chilean Central Valleys. But it is on poor challenging terroirs – like Loire’s Savennières schist slopes – where yields are naturally kept in check, that Chenin thrives. In cooler climates, allowed to hang on the vine long, its susceptibility to noble rot produces some of the world’s most elegant and balanced sweet wines.
The latter is the case in the middle of the Loire valley, where Chenin Blanc dominates (further inland Sauvignon Blanc is the main variety, and Melon de Bourgogne reigns supreme as the river meets the Atlantic) and it produces wines across an excitingly diverse range of styles; from traditional method sparkling to age-worthy botrytised sweets, by way of mineral-driven whites that could not speak more of terroir.
In South Africa, where one in every five vines is a Chenin Blanc (or Steen, as it is known locally) plant, the variety was, for a long time, material for less than interesting cheap plonk. In the last decade of the 20th century, however, a renewed interest in the country’s unique stock of old vines – which prompted the creation of the Certified Heritage Vineyards programme – along with a burgeoning community of young, quality-minded producers, has elevated it to national treasure. Names like Ken Forrester, AA Badenhorst, David & Nadia, Eben Sadie and Mick and Jeanine Craven, are producing world-leading examples, focusing on the quality of fruit from historial bush-trained plots and experimenting with skin-maceration and fermentation/ageing in different vessels.
Eight Chenin Blanc wines to try:
Wines grouped by style and ordered by score, in descending order.