Chenin Blanc has been growing in the Loire Valley for over a thousand years. It's thought to have been discovered on the left bank of the Loire and then planted in Touraine (Mont- Chenin) where it got its name. In 1652 it travelled aboard Jan van Riebeeck's ship as part of the Dutch East India Company's travels to the Cape.
Unfortunately the poor Loire Valley grapes have been overlooked for quite some time. New Zealand has taken centre stage when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc has been for the most part, ignored (especially in Australia). That is, until very recent times.
It's thanks to the small region of Anjou-Touraine that this grape is considered a classic. It's here that the variety is regarded as a workhorse grape. The region is very cool and the grape very late ripening and high in acid, so if you get it wrong, the acid will be unbearable. Conversely, if you let it hang on the vine too long, especially in South Africa, you get a broad, flabby, boring wine. It is one of the few varieties that can be sweet, medium, dry or sparkling but this all depends on climate. Montlouis and Vouvray have pretty similar climates and produce fantastic sparkling wines as well as bone dry, medium and sweet wines. However, Coteaux du Layon, which is influenced by the Atlantic Ocean has more of a humid climate and this is more conducive to botrytis (the natural biological reaction that shrivels the grapes and concentrates the sugars) than the other key regions in the Loire. It therefore produces mostly medium and sweet expressions. When it comes to soil, Chenin Blanc is a lot like Riesling as it reflects the dirt it's grown in very clearly. The sandier soils produce wines that are light and zingy but mature fairly early on. Soils high in silex content will produce mineral driven wines, limestone based soils will produce wines with sharp acidity, calcareous clay will produce well rounded wines with weight, richness and acidity. Grapes grown on schist will generally ripen earlier than vineyards that are clay based.
Chenin Blanc is a pretty vigorous variety so it is easy to over-produce if left unchecked, however the age of the vine has an influence on this as older vines generally produce lower yields. Too high a yield and the grapes will lose Chenin Blanc’s distinctive notes. An effective way to manage this is bunch-dropping or green harvesting where bunches of unripe grapes are simply cut off the vine. South Africa has had this problem for quite some time with too many producers over-cropping by up to three times the acceptable amount. I recall on a couple of visits back to South Africa in the early 2000’s where I sifted through a fair amount of neutral, uninspiring Chenin Blanc in order to find a gem that stood out. Things in South Africa are very different these days as there has been a massive shift in how grapes are grown and vinified and South African Chenin Blanc is starting to turn heads. This wonderful grape is susceptible to a number of viticultural hazards which include springtime frosts, powdery mildew and a number of fungal diseases. More and more growers are choosing to manage these organically.
Successive selected pickings or tries as they are known in the Loire are one of the keys to making great Chenin. This is where, over a month/six weeks, pickers are sent through the vineyards to pick whole clusters and individual grapes at the correct degree of ripeness (baumé). Interestingly, the decision on whether to pick that day for a dry wine or wait for more ripeness to produce a semi-sweet or a sweet wine is made on a day to day basis and may very well change as the vintage rolls on. Vouvray is an interesting region for this. Between four and six pickings are par here. The grower has to decide on how much dry wine to make given the degree of the grapes’ ripeness and the lateness of the season between them. A cooler vintage generally calls for more fizz to be produced.
When the grapes reach the winery, the major difference between the Loire producers and the new countries on the block is the temperature at which the juice/fruit is fermented at. Standard ferment temperatures in the Loire are between 16 and 20 degrees whereas in a new world country like South Africa it’s generally between 10 and 12 degrees. The Loire producers prefer to avoid the more tropical flavours that come with the cooler ferments. This fantastically versatile grape can be fermented in a number of vessels which include stainless steel, fibreglass, cement, old oak or new oak, although new oak isn’t used much in the Loire. Chestnut and acacia are used in Savenniéres so as to avoid the vanilla flavours of oak. In the new world, the flavours of oak are more welcome but it needs to be used judiciously. Chenin Blanc can handle some skin contact – the lightly crushed grapes are left to macerate in their own juices before fermentation. This generally brings out the wine’s phenolics (taste, colour and mouthfeel) which will give the end result some texture and more complexity. If the pH is too low (ie, the acid too high) for a producer’s liking, they will allow the wine to go through malolactic fermentation which reduces the level of acidity and ‘fattens’ up the texture of the wine. Bâtonnage or the stirring of the lees is fairly common practice, giving the resulting wine a creamier, more viscous mouthfeel.
CHENIN BLANC AROUND THE GLOBE
France – The Loire Valley
The goal of the top growers here is to achieve the greatest possible richness from their fruit. As discussed, climate, soil, vintage variations and aspect determine whether the fruit will be turned into fizz, dry, semi-sweet or sweet expressions. In Saumur and Anjou the conditions are more favourable for botrytis. In the small sub regions of Coteaux du Layon, Quarts de Charme and Bonnezeaux, botrytis will feature most vintages. East of here in Touraine, Vouvray and Montlouis, botrytis only occurs in four or five vintages in a ten year period. In the ‘non-botrytis’ vintages, the sweeter wines are produced from very ripe, shrivelled up grapes. This process is called passerillé. Saumur Blanc and Anjou Blanc Sec are the early maturing and simple wines of the Loire. In Saumur, up to 20% of the wine can be Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. It’s Savenniéres and Vouvray Sec that have the most complexity and are the most age worthy. There is also a small amount of Chenin Blanc planted in Limoux on the edge of the Languedoc, at the foot of the Pyrenees. It is mostly blended with Chardonnay and Mauzac to produce fizz they call Blanquette de Limoux or Crémant de Limoux and in some cases a table wine blend.
Also known locally as Steen. The most widely grown variety here, taking up around 18% of the entire area under vine. Unfortunately, pre late 1990’s, it wasn’t taken seriously enough which was such a travesty as it had all the elements of a fantastic wine but was over-cropped and mass produced instead. In the year 2000 the CBA (Chenin Blanc Association) was formed to promote Chenin Blanc’s heritage and establish a brand spanking new top-quality image for this noble grape. The majority of the Chenin Blanc in the Cape is grown in Olifants River, Breedekloof, Paarl and Swartland. Unlike their counterparts in the Loire, the South Africans are producing styles that are more for early consumption and are seeking the more tropical flavours of guava, pineapple and pear.
Once found in cheap semi-sweet blends in the U.S.A. However these days, more and more fantastic quality Californian Chenin Blancs are popping up, mostly being produced by the ‘new California’ wave in regions such as Mendocino, Santa Barbara, Central Valley and Sierra Foothills.
The Swan Valley and Margaret River in Western Australia were the first in Australia to produce good, taught Chenin Blanc. The Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills are also now producing some decent examples and Victoria is putting its hand up too.
A very marginal variety here AND it’s up against Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand can however produce some fantastic dry expressions and some sweeter wines with balance and beauty.
Our Must Try Wines
- 2018 Thibaud Boudignon Anjou – Anjou, Loire Valley, France (100% Chenin Blanc) (coming soon - currently cellaring)
- 2017 Sadie Family Citrusdal Mountain Skurfberg – Citrusdal Mountain WO, South Africa (100% Chenin Blanc) (coming soon - currently cellaring)
- 2017 Alheit Vineyards ‘Radio Lazarus’ – Bottelary, Stellenbosch, South Africa (100% Chenin Blanc) (coming soon - currently cellaring)