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Humble Chenin Blanc is one of the most versatile grapes in the wine world. It's relatively easy to grow, productive, and has high acidity making it suitable for use in many different styles of wine. It produces friendly easy-drinking dry white table wines, rounded and palatable, lively sparklers, and some of the finest sweet wine in the world. Take yourself on a tour round Planet Chenin. You'll find many marvels along the way.
Chenin is a high acid grape whose versatility depends on how ripe the grapes are when they are picked. Grapes ripen unevenly even within the same bunches and unripe grapes add leafy aromas to wines if care is not take to exclude them when grapes are picked. Barely ripe fruit is used to make the sparkling styles and dry, medium and sweet styles use increasingly ripe grapes. Flavours associated with all styles of Chenin Blanc include honey, melon and grass and even dryer wines become richer, rounder and more honeyed with age.
Young dry Chenin has flavours of green apples, vegetal leafy notes, and some citrus, sweeter styles taste of pineapple, exotic fruit and honey. The very finest Chenin Blanc ages very well, developing honey and toast flavours in maturity.
The home of Chenin in France is in the Loire Valley; the best wines being made in Vouvray, or Anjou-Saumur where it is used to make a variety of styles. These range from slightly sparkling (or Petillant wines), through to very sweet late harvest dessert wine, as well as dry and crisp Chenins. In Vouvray the soil is particularly chalky, which Chenin Blanc loves, and rich in marine creatures. The chalk allows the vines to develop a large well-drained root system. Calcium rich soil allows the grapes to retain acidity as they ripen. In Vouvray many growers have their cellars built right into the cliffs!
Some of the greatest sweet wines in the world are made from Chenin, in Anjou or Saumur, particularly in the Valley surrounding the river Layon where river mists encourage the growth of Noble Rot. The most expensive of these come from Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, but look for sweet wines labelled Coteaux du Layon, they'll be much less pricey. These sweet wines combine the high acidity of German sweet wines with the body, depth and alcohol of Sauternes.
In the Loire Valley in France, Chenin is used to make sparkling wines known as Cremant de Loire. These are lively, bubbly sparkling wines, with bread and toast notes like Champagne, but of course, without the price. If you like your wines with bubbles, try Cremant de Loire for a fantastic Champagne alternative.
In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is also known as Steen and accounts for a high proportion of grapes planted here and totalling twice the amount planted in France. This grape has taken to the climate and soil of South Africa very well, causing it to be adopted by some of the best makers in the world, whose skill and technological expertise are bringing the very best out of this great grape, particularly in Stellenbosch. They are focusing on choosing the best grapes for the best sites and concentrating on old-vine high quality production.
As well as being versatile on it's own, Chenin is also great in blends. It pairs particularly well with Colombard, Chardonnay and Muscat, but increasingly, innovative makers, especially in South Africa are trying new matches. Sauvignon, Viognier, and even Riesling can now been found blended with Chenin Blanc for super-tasty and interesting tipples.
There are some fabulous Chenin Blancs being made in the New World in areas other than South Africa. Australia and New Zealand are producing some nice dry Chenins as well as blending it with interesting varietals. There are over 10,000 acres of Chenin planted in Argentina, where it is known as Pinot Blanco, as it is in Brazil, Chile and Mexico. Try Californian Chenin for an interesting American twist on this versatile and gratifying grape.