by Tim Atkin

Chenin Blanc

If patience is a virtue, as the old saw would have it, then it’s a virtue that’s deeply unfashionable. We live in a world dominated by immediacy, instant gratification, attention spans that can be measured in seconds rather than minutes. One of the worst things you can say to someone in America is ‘you’re history’ – the implication being that the person you are insulting is marooned in the past, and therefore fit for the knackers’ yard. Real people live for the moment.

The same trends apply to the wine world. The wines that most of us buy today – and consume within a matter of hours, if statistics are to be believed – are ready to drink a few months after the harvest. The cult of youth is so well-established that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find older wines. That’s why New World examples – and comparable wines from warm areas in the Old World – have proved so popular in the past decade. We want something we can drink now, not in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time.

Where does this leave Chenin Blanc, a grape that frequently needs time to reveal its idiosyncratic charms? The answer is, pretty low in the popularity stakes. Of all the world’s great white grapes, Chenin is the least appreciated in my view. At times, it must be said, the grape doesn’t deserve anyone’s appreciation – bad Chenin leaves your teeth feeling as if they’ve been seen to by the sadistic dentist Laurence Olivier plays in the film Marathon Man – but the best stuff (of which more in a moment) is sublime. In fact, it’s so good I’m almost reluctant to tell you about it, the way people who discover wonderful hotels or restaurants keep the names to themselves.

The home of Chenin Blanc, or Pineau to give it its somewhat confusing local name, is the Loire Valley. Chenin, rather than the more famous Sauvignon Blanc, is the most planted white-grape variety in this large, straggling French region. The front label might not tell you so, but Chenin is the grape responsible for Vouvray, Montlouis, Anjou Blanc Sec, Saumur Blanc (where it’s sometimes blended with a little Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay), Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume, Jasnières and Savennières. It’s also the main grape for sparkling Crémant de Loire. And I’m sure I’ve probably forgotten a few appellations.

Loire Chenin is distinguished by its high, sometimes aggressively high, acidity, which makes it a good partner for creamy cheeses and richer fish dishes. That acidity is the reason it ages so well, but it’s also what makes it a little too assertive in its youth. Time in bottle – and these wines can age for 50 years or more, if they’re good – allows the wine to develop what wine buffs call ‘secondary characters’ of honey and beeswax to offset the chalky, minerally edge I find in most Loire Chenin. I’ve had sweet wines dating back to 1921 that were as crisp as a new £20 note.

Chenin is a very versatile grape, at least in the Loire. Its adaptability is only matched by Riesling and (arguably) Chardonnay. Chenin can be still or fizzy, dry, medium-dry, sweet or occasionally very sweet. You need a little bit of knowledge (and all too often guesswork) to predict what you are going to find in the bottle. The worst example of this is Vouvray, where producers favour a BBC management approach to their labelling: tell the public nothing.

The wines here range from ultra-dry to sweet, so pay attention to back labels or look out for tell-tale French words, such as sec (dry) demi-sec (medium dry) and moelleux (sweet). Dry and off-dry Chenin can be perfectly enjoyable (even when young, providing you don’t mind a wine with tingling acidity), but the really great Loire Chenins are the sweet wines of Vouvray, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume.

When the grapes are affected by botrytis (an unsightly, but highly desirable mould that concentrates the flavours in the grapes) the resulting wines are mind-blowing. They combine weight and concentration (sometimes backed by the vanilla characters derived from fermentation in oak barrels) with freshness and grace. I’d rather drink great Coteaux du Layon than Sauternes any day, especially given the difference in price.

The good news is that the last decade has included a run of very good sweet-wine vintages, especially 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2010. Top sweet-wine names include Huët, Château Gaudrelle, Claude Papin, Pierre Bize, Domaine des Aubuisières, Domaine Richou and Domaine de Juchepie.

Despite its unfashionability, Chenin Blanc is grown in a large number of places. Chenin pops up, like a traveller on a round-the-world ticket, in California, South Africa, Argentina, Canada, New Zealand, Uruguay, Mexico and Brazil.

In most cases, it wouldn’t merit a postcard home, however. There are one or two good dry Chenins in New Zealand (Collards and Millton are the star names) and California (Chalone’s is the best I’ve had). But in the New World, Chenin is regarded as a workhorse rather than a thoroughbred, planted because it retains its acidity in hot climates, ripens late and gives reliable (and usually reliably large) yields in the vineyard.

The only New World country producing world-class Chenin Blanc, albeit of a very different style to the stuff you’d encounter in the much cooler Loire Valley, is South Africa. Plantings of the variety are enormous – it covers more than a fifth of the Cape’s vineyards, making South Africa the world’s most significant producer of Chenin. Not so long ago, the figure was even higher.

That said, it’s only recently that Cape producers have begun to take Chenin seriously. Traditionally, Chenin was regarded as base material for brandy or as something suited to basic table wines. This is still the case in many parts of the Cape, but in the last decade or so there’s been a move to elevate Chenin to front-rank status as a South African speciality. There’s an annual Chenin Blanc challenge, courtesy of a local wine magazine, and even a Chenin Blanc Association, with 80+ committed members. Their problem is in persuading grape growers not to pull out their old vines – the source of the best and most concentrated wines – on economic grounds.

As you’d expect, Cape Chenin is made in a New World style. You still get decent levels of acidity, but the fruit flavours are much riper than the ones you find in the Loire. At its best, the variety shows notes of melon, mango, pineapple and grapefruit, rather than the much tauter apple and mineral characters of a Vouvray or a Savennières. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t age well as Loire Chenin; three to five years is the extent of Cape Chenin’s longevity.

This needn’t be a problem, mind you. The wines being made by the likes of Raats Cellars, De Trafford, Ken Forrester, Morgenhof, De Morgenzon, Rijks, Beaumont, Jean Daneel, Old Vines, Kanu and Mulderbosch are drinkable from the outset, even if they can age for a bit, too. In a market where almost everyone wants to drink young wines, the Loire’s loss could be South Africa’s gain.

Crib sheet

  • SMELLS AND TASTES OF: Green apples, pears, greengages, nuts, wet wool, wax, minerals and (especially when it’s old) honey. 
  • GOES WITH: Depends on the style and sweetness level, but anything from seafood to crème brûlée.
  •  COSTS: Ranges from £3.99 for a basic Cape Chenin to £30 or more for a top Loire moelleux. Most Chenin is cheap, however, especially when compared with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Viognier. You won’t see it on the label, but it’s also the grape behind: Vouvray (in all its forms), Montlouis, Crémant de Loire, Anjou Blanc Sec, Saumur Blanc, Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux, Saumur Blanc, Jasnières, Savennières and Quarts de Chaume. 
  • DO SAY: ‘I’ve always said Chenin, especially sweet Chenin, is one of the world’s most underrated wines.’
  • DON’T SAY: ‘I like Steen and Pineau de la Loire much more than Chenin Blanc.’
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