I like to think if Chenin Blanc as the chameleon of grapes. Similar to Chardonnay, it grows in a variety of climates and can be used to produce a variety of styles.
Chenin Blanc is grown throughout the world, but the Loire Valley (in France) and South Africa are probably best known as principal Chenin Blanc producing regions.
Chenin in South Africa
Historically, Chenin Blanc was known as Steen in South Africa and was mainly planted to produce Brandy. Fortunately for all Chenin Blanc lovers, there has been a revival of sorts in South Africa and we are seeing more and more top quality Chenin Blancs appearing in the market.
What makes Chenin Blanc such a well-suited wine to South Africa is that the grapes have the ability to retain a high level of acidity whilst reaching full ripeness. This means that the resulting wines can be fresh (with a high level of acidity) whilst showing ripe fruit flavours. This high level of acidity also contributes to the wines' ability to age gracefully for a number of years.
Wine from Stellenbosch and Swartland are often fresh and fruity with a bright acidity that balances the ripe fruit flavours of the wine very well. More recently, winemakers have also been producing more and more examples that have been oak aged, resulting in rich, opulent wines with ripe fruit, high acidity, a fuller mouthfeel and a velvety richness.
The quality of the grapes, quantity of plantings (more than 50% of global Chenin Blanc plantings lie within South Africa), suitable climate and magic in the cellar have propelled South Africa to be the leading producer worldwide.
The styles of Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc can be produced as a fresh and fruity, full-bodied and oak matured, still, sparkling, dry or sweet wine. The style that the winemaker chooses for their wine is directly linked to the level of ripeness of the harvested grapes.
Grapes that have been harvested with lower levels of sugar (just ripe or slightly underripe) are used to produce sparkling wines, fully ripe berries are used for the production of dry or sweet wines, whilst grapes affected by botrytis (noble rot) are used to produce sweet wines.
Typical flavours and aromas of Chenin Blanc
In general, the dominant fruit flavours in Chenin range from apple and citrus, stone fruit, and tropical fruit.
Dry styles of Chenin will typically have a mineral undertone and will show flavours of quince, pear and sometimes also ginger. Off-dry styles can have flavours of ripe pear, peach, honey, passion fruit, sweet spices and floral characters. Sweet Chenin Blanc is mostly produced from botrytised grapes and can have flavours of mango and orange.
From workhorse to show pony, Chenin Blanc has endured, grown and outlasted many changes in the industry. It is possibly my favourite white grape variety and with the variety of excellent Chenin Blancs on offer from South Africa, I'm quite sure it will be a while since I can truly select just one example that will epitomise South African Chenin.
Thank you for reading! If you would like a list of suggestions for Chenin Blanc wines or need to find out where to buy these in the UK or South Africa, please leave a comment below or send me an email.
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