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The Chenin Blanc Grape

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About Chenin Blanc

(Synonyms: Anjou, Blanc d'Aunis, Capbreton blanc, Confort, Coue Fort, Cruchinet, Cugnette, Feher Chenin, Franc blanc, Franche, Gout Fort, Luarskoe, Pineau d'Anjou, Pineau de Briollay, Pineau de la Loire, Pineau de Savennières, Pineau Gros, Pineau Gros de Vouvray, Pineau Nantais, Plant de Brézé (archaic), Plant de Salces, Plant de Salles, Plant du Clair de Lune, Quefort, Rajoulin, Rouchalin, Rougelin, Steen (South Africa), Stein, Tête de Crabe, Vaalblaar Stein, Verdurant, Blanc d'Anjou, Gros Chenin, Gros Pinot Blanc de la Loire, Plant d'Anjou, Gamet blanc)


Map showing the Loire region

Chenin Blanc is a white-wine grape originating in the Loire Valley of France. It is a famously high-acid grape, and can make wines suitable for very extended bottle aging. It is now extensively grown in other areas, notably South Africa (where the grape and wine are called "Steen") but also including the U.S. It is generally considered one of the dozen and a half or so of world-class white-wine grapes (those in boldface in the varietals list to the left of the page).

Chenin Blanc is, like another world-class white grape, Chardonnay, basically neutral in taste, and thus when well-vinified excels in conveying terroir, distinctive qualities that reflect the soil and climate in which the grapes were grown.

If Chenin Blanc vines are grown in a warm climate and encouraged, they will be immensely productive—but productive of bland, low-quality grapes. If, on the other hand, they are well restrained, they yield much less but on superb quality. For that reason, in earlier times, especially in the U.S., Chenin Blanc was widely grown to make vast qualtities of cheap, rather awful jug wine, and thus acquired here an apparently unshakeable reputation as a trivial, useless grape and wine. Yet in its home, it is recognized as making some of the world's very greatest wines. Little by very little, some awareness of that is now dripping into the American wine consciousness.

Chenin Blanc can be made in numerous ways; it is often used to make excellent dessert wines, but we will restrict our attention to Chenin Blancs vinified dry for table-wine use. But, though we say "dry", there are as with, for example, Rieslings) degrees of "table-wine dry". In cool areas, the grape is sweet but high in acid and with a full-bodied, fruity palate, unless it fails to fully ripen, in which case it will be low in sugar and excessivly acid. (Nowadays, less-ripe grapes are made into sparkling wines such as Crémant de Loire.)

Descriptions of the nature of Chenin Blanc often include minerality, greengages, angelica (herb), and honey, as well as apple and quince. In the New World, where the wines are not expected to be aged much if at all, vinification tends to bring out tropical fruit notes such as banana, guava, pear, and pineapple.

In the Vouvray region, the grape is made into a like-named wine, Vouvray. Vouvrays, even the driest, tend toward accenting the honeyed aspect of the grape, even when they are not technically sweet at all. Vouvrays come in five classes:

Another French style is that of the Anjou region, where the wines are said to have more the flavors of quince and apples. And there is also Savennières Chenin, for which the tradition is aging in acacia or chestnut barrels.

Savennières wines are probably the highest fully dry expression of Chenin Blanc, but one needs to understand their idiosyncracies. To quote one recent reviewer):

I think the dichotomy among reviews is based on reviewers' expectations of Savennieres. True, it is Chenin Blanc, but it's not Vouvray or Anjou or Montlouis. Savenniere, IMHO, just isn't as friendly when young as the other Loire Chenin Blanc appellations. . . No, you are not going to get a nice pow of tropical fruit to go with your acidity. This is not a Huet Vouvray and it's not a Chidaine Montlouis. But that's what's so beautiful about Chenin Blanc: There is no hiding between terroir and glass. What nature puts into the vineyard is what you get out.

Some Savennières producers recommend aerating their wines for as much as 48 hours before serving them. That's probably extreme, especially for young bottles, but bottle age brings up another point: as another reviewer said, most Savennieres is almost undrinkable without considerable age, like 20 years. Or drink them very young before they shut down around year 5. That is so because, like not a few ageworthy wines, Chenin Blancs experience what is commonly called a "dumb period"; to quote the WineAnorak column,

A wine that is closed is, in simple terms, one that doesn't smell much. Many fine wines go through a 'closed' or 'dumb' period as part of their development, a period that may last for some years. Typically a wine destined for long life will show well for a couple of years and then close down for some 5-10 years, before developing the tertiary bouquet that is so highly prized in geek circles.

So pay attention to the vintage year of any Savennières you are contemplating buying and drinking soon after.

Factoid: dessert-style Chenin Blancs are said to be able to take a full century of bottle aging.

Some Descriptions of Chenin Blanc Wines

Some Chenin Blancs to Try

(About this list.)

Chenin Blanc is made in all sorts of styles all round the world. Among the more noted are South African "Steen" (the local name for the Chenin Blanc grape), Vouvray, and Savennières, and we have listed one or more samples of each.

The quotations below are excerpts; we strenuously urge you to click on the green diamond symbol by each quoted review to see the full article.
Botanica "Mary Delany" Chenin Blanc
(From South Africa.)

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Some quotations and facts about this wine:

100% Chenin Blanc sourced from the much revered Skurfberg mountain. The wine was harvested when the grapes were extremely ripe, and has an alcohol level sitting at 14%. Half of the wine was aged in 400 litre oak barrels with the other half in stainless steel tank, blended together before bottling. There is rich, opulent fruit on the nose with crisp citrus and refreshing white pear mingling with fleshy mango and peach. A lush, weighty mouthfeel is nicely balanced by a taut acidity.

It has an appealing, lightly honeyed bouquet with touches of nectarine and yellow flowers. The palate is well balanced with a pleasant honeyed texture, a little lower in acidity than its peers (despite being picked earlier) with a waxy-textured finish...there is fine length and sheer drinkability here. [Wine Advocate, November 2015]

The result is an off dry style wine with gorgeous subtle tropical fruit aromas with hints of fresh apricot which leads you to a rich silky palate offering intense fruit concentration and a lovely grip of fresh acidity.

♣ 2015 vintage: 96 points, Tim Atkin, 2011 & amp; 2013, 95 by Atkin; 2011, 2012, &2014 vintages, 5 stars, Platter’s South African Wine Guide. A list of other ratings and articles is available at Botanica's "press" page

[A]n extraordinary white that marries an attractive leafiness (usually a bad thing, but not here) with some gorgeous peach and citrus fruit.

Although this wine starts off a little closed and muted, with time it opens up to reveal a nuanced and refined Chenin. Hints of chalk, soft white florals and red apple unfold in the bouquet, with more dominant flavors of sweet tangerine, ripe melon and leesy richness flesh out the mouth. There's a soft oakiness throughout, though it's never overpowering or out of line. 89 points.

Rounded, silky smooth and plush, with complex layers of spicy fruit wrapped in a creamy texture. Perfectly pitched wooding. [Platter’s South African Wine Guide, 2017]

What is striking about this wine is just how subtle and understated it is: there’s stone fruit on nose and palate, pure but not exaggerated, while a slight sweetness and bright acidity play off against each other to good advantage.

Fournier-Longchamp Domaine FL Savennieres "Chamboureau"
(Don't confuse this with their upscale "Roche Aux Moins" bottling.)

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Some quotations and facts about this wine:

A single site wine from vineyards around the Château de Chamboreau, organically grown and hand-harvested with 3 passes through the vineyards, the first being for the dry wines. Fermentation is with natural yeasts, they do no malolactic and the wine is aged in oak for 16-18 months – 20% new. The 2008 offered an incredible mix of complex, pithy marmalade and mineral characters with high apricot-like acidity and a long crisp finish – it probably needs a little time [as of 2012]. I loved its purity though – 92/100 points. The 2007 was much, much more approachable, seeming quite rounded and fat with almost a creamy quality but with a wonderful cut of acidity and pure minerality together with a note of dried stone fruit that dominates the finish – complex and fascinating - 90.5/100 points.

The first two wines came from Domaine FL – two vintages of the same wine – 2008 and 2007 Chamboureau. Both 100% Chenin Blanc (as all Savennières is), the wines were full without being rich with lovely herbal, mineral notes, and even with just one extra year of age, the 07 was already more intense and integrated. [written circa 2012]

The Savennières Chamboureau, from the more restrained 2008 vintage, was spotted as a fine, elegant wine but was simply too young and tight to go on a list at the moment [2011].

A beautiful Loire Valley Chenin Blanc with elegant fruit and great vibrancy, which offers an off-dry option.

The 2012 Savennières 'Chamboureau' is a gorgeous Chenin Blanc from Domaine FL. The fruit for this wine was sourced from Domaine FL‘s 10 hectare vineyard in Savennières, where the soils are composed of a mixture of schist with some clay, quartz and dark sand. As the wine opens, it releases fresh, clean aromas of lime and tropical fruits, followed by minerals and jasmine. On the palate this displays wonderful precision, with excellent minerality and a bright core of acidity leading to the pretty finish. An absolutely gorgeous wine that is drinking outstanding right now [2015]. 91 points.

Twenty year old vines. One fifth raised in new oak, but with no malolactic. 30hl/ha. Attractive, soft and proper nose. Very clean with good freshness and focus. Restrained. Modern style and very aromatic. The acidity is very fresh and juicy. The wine is quite primary and lacks a sense of place. Well structured, although a little unknit. It should come together with time, although the wine is a little too clean and manicured for the appellation.

François Pinon Vouvray "Silex Noir"
(Pinon bottles numerous Vouvrays, so mind the "Silex Noir" designation.)

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Some quotations and facts about this wine:

[Google-translated from French:] Nose of apple, peach, honeysuckle and white flowers. The mouth is perfectly balanced, well supported by a nice and clear mineral tip. Nice fruity expression, quite delicate, even in the final on the citrus. The wine forms a beautiful whole, quite delicious. *****

Rich and succulent with lingering flavors of honeysuckle, minerals, citrus and ginger, and a touch of sweetness. *** (of 4)

The Cuvée Silex Noir, in reference to the black flint soil, is the flagship Vouvray produced by Pinon. This bottling really shows off the house style which is bright, expressive chenin of great depth and precision. You often see Vouvray labelled as Sec and Demi-Sec to indicate the residual sugar in the wine but when you don’t see any designation, it usually means it’s Sec Tendre, or “tenderly dry”. This is a bottling with a bit of residual sugar but when made well, the result is a very dry wine with high acid to balance the sweetness. The Silex Noir is a fantastic example of this style. Peculiarly, Sec Tendre is a designation that isn't allowed to appear on a bottle and Vouvray Sec isn’t necessarily dry. Go figure. In any event, this wine is almost startlingly dry to the palate with high acid, low (12%) alcohol and gorgeous fruit. 2014 is the best vintage in many years for the Loire Valley and it really shows in this wine. Floral, mineral and white fruit notes dominate the nose. Flavors of pear and lemon/lime fruit with a long, mineral inflected finish. These wines are capable of long aging but so enticing as a summer wine.

[Google-translated from Spanish:] It is a wine with residual sugar 15 g / l. It comes from siliceous soils. Straw yellow color, bright. On the nose it is very nice and sweet, with exotic fruits such as the hawthorn and the litchi, followed by citrus skin like mandarin. In the background there are mineral tones and scented honey. In the mouth it is slightly sweet and unctuous, but with an acidity that balances the whole. Mineral and complex taste as if it were a set of different citrus fruits. It is an exotic and peculiar wine.

[Google-translated from French:] [S]moky nose, slightly terpenic. Mouth full, aerial, very pure, with a sharp / crystalline acidity very "Riesling de Moselle". Final of a great intensity, without perception of the residual sugars. A magisterial balance rarely drunk in France!

This conscientious and disciplined grower and winemaker not only is certified organic and harvests the grapes by hand, but also uses only natural yeasts in the fermentation. The wine has lovely notes of granny smith apple layered with quince and white flowers. Drink now, or cellar it.

François Pinon Vouvray "Cuvee Tradition"
(Pinon bottles numerous Vouvrays, so mind the "Cuvee Tradition" designation.)

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Some quotations and facts about this wine:

Bright yellow. Sexy aromas of white peach, tangerine, honey, dusty minerals and flowers. Tangy on entry, showing spicy citrus character, then gains sweetness and breadth in the middle palate. Lush but nicely focused orchard and pit fruit flavors are underscored by subtle minerality and pick up a touch of bitter orange on the back half. This already-complex Vouvray finishes with excellent breadth and juicy persistence. 91 points. [International Wine Review, May/June 2010]

Ripe pear and fig fruit flavors lead the way, but the feel is nice and crunchy thanks to lively acidity. Hints of quinine, quince and fresh green melon all chime in on the lively finish. 90 points. [Wine Spectator, April 2010]

Grandma’s newly baked apple pie hints at a little baking yeast with undertones of dried hay or straw. An aspect of caramel and honey dazzle the palate ending in a floral note of orange blossom.

Dense and savory, with rich texture and aromas of citrus, flowers, wool and minerals. **½, "Best Value"

Great Chenin Blancs from France's Vouvray region are among the longest-lived white wines in the world. This introductory bottling from a top producer is citrusy, graceful and faintly sweet.

The Cuvée Tradition is the most reliable wine and for under $20 offers great flavors of peach, minerals, and flowers.

Ken Forrester “Old Vine Reserve” Chenin Blanc
(From South Africa.)

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Some quotations and facts about this wine:

Juicy, with kiwifruit, pear and green almond flavors that show good drive through the creamy-edged finish. 89 points. [Wine Spectator, November 2016]

My favorite of the South African whites wines that I’ve had is the Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc… Turns out Forrester has been dubbed Mr. Chenin and is the current chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association in South Africa. I can see why. This wine is a beauty — deep and rich with layers of flavors and aromas, and none of the cloying sweetness that can somethings slip into Chenin Blancs. This is one to seek out.

On the nose, top notes of honeysuckle and fynbos before peach, pineapple and a little bee’s wax. The palate is rich and full, tangy acidity lending balance while the finish is suitably savoury. Substantial despite a relatively modest alcohol of 13.5%. 90 points.

♣ 2014 vintage, 5 stars, Platter’s South African Wine Guide. A further list of awards can be found on the WestCape page for this wine.

A truly delightful, refreshing wine from the "King of Chenin," the nickname often used for Ken Forrester, the former restaurateur who founded this winery in 1994. Recently purchased by a French corporation, this winery knows how to produce unique, interesting Chenin Blancs. This one in particular tastes…slightly grassy, but not overpowering. A real gem.

This wine is a light golden color, and you can see the big legs coming down the glass after a swirl. It doesn’t look like a light wine, and it’s not considering the 14% alcohol content. The wine sees some significant barrel time, and the oak is very apparent on the nose, along with melon, vanilla and honey notes. It’s all quite nice, and then it gets reinforced when you take a sip. On the palate the wine really delivers, with the oak lending a nice wrapper to the complex profile. It’s dry, full bodied and presents a long and clean finish. We got this for about $13, which is really insane. This wine just oozes quality. If you like white burgundy you should try this. I know it’s not Chardonnay, but just try it. Outstanding value and on The Value List it goes.

Hints of tangerine, lemons and herbs as well as ripe pear fruit. Nice concentration and good length.

A. A. Badenhorst "Secateurs" Chenin Blanc
(They bottle several Chenins: this is their "Secateurs" bottling.)

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Some quotations and facts about this wine:

Tree fruits dominate this wine, including mealy apple, spiced pear, and quince jam. The ripe and cooked qualities contribute to a hint of sweetness, but the wine finishes dry due to the refreshing acidity and undertones of citrus. Hints of lanolin and petrol are markers for Chenin Blanc and show the typicity of this wine. Lees aging adds a creamy texture. The style is waxy, broad, and unctuous, but stays in balance with a mineral finish. 89 points.

[O]ffers peachy fruit salad and spice aromas enlivened by a hint of grapefruit pith. This rich, silky, fairly full chenin conveys a slightly sweet impression nicely leavened by harmonious acidity. Its dry finish features hints of ripe stone fruits and quince.

♣ Wine Advocate (date unknown), 92 points

The 2012 Secateurs Chenin Blanc has a light but pure bouquet with lemon peel, grapefruit and hints of wet wool. The palate is crisp and vibrant on the entry with touches of lanolin and litchi nuts. This is so well balanced – uncomplicated but delicious.

Full-bodied yet discreet and inviting, with herbal, floral and citrus flavors. "Best Value".

Fleshy nectarine hints nose. Pineapple and lemon rind, flavours, with a bit of honey. Sherbet. Fresh, clean. 3/5

This wine is 100% Chenin Blanc sourced from old vines, a good deal of which are 50 years old. The fruit is harvested over 12 days which is added daily to the already fermenting fruit in concrete tank and older French oak casks. It is then aged for seven months on the gross lees. Alcohol 13.5%. The color is a light yellow-straw. The light nose reminds me of yellow citrus and indigenous yeast aromas. In the mouth the citrus flavors are fresh with moderately creamy mouthfeel, yeast notes, and ripe, gravelly flavors. With air this medium to full-bodied wine reveals spices and yellow fruit all delivered with a honied mouthfeel.

[O]ffers orange blossom aromas and citrusy flavors.

[W]ould certainly have a strong case for sporting the best quality-to-price ratio of chenin that I tasted in South Africa. It's from vines planted in the 1960s, hand-harvested, fermented over 20 days and left on the lees for seven months. The resulting wine has the honeyed notes of chenin and surprising complexity for an entry-level wine.

For a Splurge

Huet is arguably the top producer of Vouvrays, and a decent splurge-level sample of their work is the Domaine Huet Vouvray Clos du Bourg Sec. (Don't confuse this with the like-named "Demi-Sec" bottling, though that is good, too.)

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