Exploring Chenin Blanc: There's a Style for Every White Wine Drinker
Think of it as the chameleon of white wines. Chenin blanc can be sweet or dry, still or sparkling, ageable or ready to drink right away, and pale to amber in color. This white grape can do it all! If you're a fan of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, or Champagne you will love chenin blanc.
Chances are that you have enjoyed chenin blanc many times without even knowing it. Though the grape is formally known as chenin blanc, the variety appears in bottles with different regional names on the label. Chenin blanc can be found all over the world but it is most famously grown in South Africa and France. Each region boasts its own unique style and flavor profile. It's up to you to decide which one is your favorite.
Chenin Blanc from France
This is where it all began! Chenin blanc's ancestry leads us back to the Anjou region of France's Loire Valley. It's in the Loire Valley that you will find the most varied styles of chenin blanc wines of anywhere in the world. How can they make such a wide range of styles? The weather in the Loire Valley is so cool that the grapes are harvested in multiple "passes" and each time the farmer picks grapes, they are determining what style of wine will create. Grapes for sparkling wine are typically picked first as they need to be fresh and acidic in taste. Grapes that are left of the vine after the first pass can be used for still wines. The longer you leave grapes on the vine for, the more sugar and robust flavors will accumulate until so much sugar has concentrated that the winemaker can make sweet dessert wines.
The three styles of chenin blanc from the Loire are sparkling wines, full-bodied still wines, and dessert wines. Which is best for you? If you love Champagne but hate the price tag, sparkling wines from the Loire are just as delicious but much friendlier on your pocket book. Full-bodied still wines are typically made from riper grapes leading to a more aromatic style and can be bone dry or off-dry. And then there are the dessert wines, which are also called late harvest wines. You will know these wines because they are typically bottled in 375ml bottles (half the size of a normal wine bottle), and they will be labeled by their regional name like Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux.
Although France doesn't have the most acres planted to chenin blanc any longer (read on to find out which country does), its rich history and familiarity with this grape means it still produces some of the best examples of chenin blanc around. Try a sparkling favorite with 2018 Tour des Gendres Petillant Naturel Vin de France ($22, backroomwines.com). Looking for a full-bodied still style instead? Try 2014 Bourillon Dorleans "La Coulee d'Argent" Vouvray Sec ($22, backroomwines.com). When you see "vouvray sec" on the bottle, know that this is a drier style of chenin blanc. If you're kicking up the heat in your food with a spicy dish like Thai curry, try an off dry style of chenin blanc from the Loire like 2018 Francois Chidaine Montlouis "Les Grillonieres" ($40, wine.com). This wine has a touch of residual sugar but it's not sweet. The residual sugar adds to the body and allows this wine to stand up to heavier dishes unlike lighter wines such as pinot grigio. If you are looking for a sweet wine, paired best with a dessert course, try 2016 Domaine Huët Vouvray Moelleux Clos du Bourg ($49.99, wine.com). Domaine Huët is a legendary producer that has ranked among the favorites of critics and royalty year after year.
Remember that a bottle of French chenin blanc will not say chenin blanc on the label. Instead, it will list the region in which it is from. Look for bottles that say Loire, Saumur, Savennières, or Vouvray.
Chenin Blanc from South Africa
If you are a fan of chardonnay, chenin blanc from South Africa may be your new favorite wine. Over 60 percent of the world's chenin blanc is planted to South Africa's coastal regions of Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Swartland in the Western Cape Province. Each region produces its own style and unique flavor based on terroir and winemaking traditions. Most South African chenin blanc is meant to be refreshing and enjoyable right away, but some very high-end producers make bottles that can age for over 30 years.
South Africa boasts two distinct styles: rich and buttery or refreshing with a zing. The rich and buttery style is typically achieved when chenin blanc is blended with semillon, viognier, and marsanne. The refreshing style is achieved when chenin blanc is blended with sauvignon blanc.
Over the years, chenin blanc found its second home in the Rainbow Nation where they've nicknamed this beloved grape "Steen." Want to try a few of our favorite bottles of South African chenin blanc? If you are looking for a minimal intervention wine (that's a fancy way of saying that the winemaker uses a hands-off approach to allow the wine to taste as "natural" as possible), try the sustainably-farmed 2019 Backsberg Chenin Blanc ($14.99, millesima.com) from the mountains of Paarl. Looking for a richer style? Try 2018 Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve chenin blanc ($17.99, wine.com) made with 40-year-old vines from Stellenbosh. This wine is aged in oak and has the buttery flavors and creamy textures that we love in chardonnay. We recommend that you pair this with your favorite cow's milk cheese and sliced apples.
Chenin Blanc from California, Argentina, and Beyond
France and South Africa are the two most popular sources for chenin blanc, but if you hunt around you'll find delicious bottles from California, Argentina, and beyond. Maître de Chai Sparkling Chenin Blanc ($31.99, wine.com) is a domestic darling from California that pairs with oysters, seafood, and vegetarian fare. It's also unfined, unfiltered, and low-sulfite. When pairing with heftier dishes like smoked salmon or herb crusted veal chops, 2019 Chappellet Signature Chenin Blanc ($41.99, wine.com) from Napa Valley is a delicious match.
How to Enjoy Chenin Blanc
After reading all of this, you deserve a glass of chenin blanc. First, chill the bottle to 55°F. Next, get your favorite glass. Finally, pop that cork (or twist off the cap!) and enjoy!