Chenin blanc (pronounced ‘shen-nin blonk’) is widely regarded as the most versatile grape in the world, thanks to its ability to produce different wine types. This grape variety is native to France, specifically the Loire Valley region. Outside of this region, it is popular in South Africa where it goes by the name Steen.
The grape shares similar DNA characteristics with Sauvignon Blanc and has an ‘uncle’ relationship with the Bordeaux grape Cabernet Sauvignon, giving it an interesting heritage. For a long time, France was the only region where Chenin blanc was produced, but it later made its way to South Africa where it became the most widely planted grape variety. Other production regions around the world have taken up the grape, including California (in the United States) where it remains popular.
Chenin blanc grapes bud early and start to ripen in the mid-season. The age of the vine is a factor in the quality of the wine, with lower yields gained from older vines. Infection by noble rot also leads to lower yields, though the trade-off is that certain flavours intensify and the resulting wine has more layers and depth.
The grape can grow in a variety of soils, including heavy clay-based soils that produce weighty wines (which need time to mature). Well-drained sandy soils produce lighter wines that mature faster. Silex soils produce minerally-rich wines, while limestone contributes to more acidity in the wine.
Chenin is susceptible to several viticultural hazards, including powdery mildew, fungal disease, springtime frost and botrytis. The last condition, also known as noble rot, is a beneficial form of fungus that grows when the grapes are ripe and requires moist conditions. Grapes picked at a certain point of botrytis infestation can end up producing fine and sweet wine.
Old World and New World
Different approaches to the Chenin blanc grape can affect the overall flavour and aroma of the wine, and this is apparent in the Old World and New World styles. In France (considered Old World), the fermentation temperature is much higher, resulting in a semi-sweet wine. In the New World regions of South Africa and California, the fermentation temperature is much lower and results in tropical fruit flavours not capable in warmer temperatures.
Another notable difference between the two approaches is how the grape is used. Old World producers tout Chenin blanc as the main aspect in single-variety wines, while their New World counterparts prefer to blend it with other varieties. Old World producers also tend to stay away from using new oak barrels to store the wine, which can impart additional flavours such as spice and vanilla. A New World producer, on the other hand, is likely to embrace these flavours.
Flavours and Uses
As a white wine, Chenin blanc has various flavour profiles that come from the winemaking style employed. Keeping the grapes fresh and fermenting them dry provides a dry flavour that has hints of ginger, chamomile, tart pear and quince.
An off-dry flavour results from leaving the grapes’ natural sugars in the wine, leading to additional flavours of honeycomb, jasmine and passion fruit.
A sweet style has flavours of mango, toasted almond and dried persimmon, while the sparkling style can give off plum, yellow apple, ginger and floral flavours.
Thibaut de Roux, a former senior banking executive, has more than ten years of experience in wine tasting, a skill that comes in handy when trying out new wines.
Chenin blanc’s versatility is apparent when considering the food and wine pairings it can go with. Due to its inherent sweetness and acidic nature, it pairs well with Asian cuisine, for example, which offers sweet and spicy elements. A high-quality Chenin blanc can also pair well with meat varieties such as turkey, trout, veal, terrine, chicken and pork chops.