Are you new to Chenin Blanc? It’s a grape with a long history, but here in the U.S., a lot of people are just now discovering it. To help you deepen your Chenin knowledge base, we’ve gathered up a few fast facts about the grape. Try ’em on your friends – preferably with a glass of Chenin Blanc!
1. Top ranked: Chenin Blanc is one of the world’s great varieties. In her definitive book Vines, Grapes and Wines, Jancis Robinson divided grapes into three categories – Classic, Major and Other. Just nine grapes made the Classic cut, and Chenin Blanc was among them.
2. History down South: Chenin Blanc has a long history in South Africa and remains the country’s most widely planted variety. Despite the rise of popular varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, more than 20 percent of the grapes crushed every harvest in South Africa are Chenin Blanc. South Africa gets Chenin.
3. Chenin in disguise: Chenin Blanc isn’t more widely known in the United States in part because South African wines only recently began to make their mark here. And many of the Chenin Blancs that are more familiar to Americans are identified by their place of origin – the French wines Vouvray and Savennières, for instance. Yep, they’re Chenin Blanc.
4. That zing thing: You might remember the importance of acidity in wine from our post, “Five Essential Wine Tasting Terms You Need to Know.” Well, know this, too: Chenin Blanc has the goods! As grown in South Africa, it’s not as aggressively acidic as Loire Chenin, like the aforemenioned Vouvray. But as Master Sommelier Tim Atkin, who is British and likes the letter “u,” put it: “You still get decent levels of acidity, but the fruit flavours are much riper than the ones you find in the Loire.”
5. About those fruit flavors: Our winemaker Mark van Buuren finds “pear, citrus and honeysuckle” in the protea Chenin Blanc. Some Chenin Blanc producers favor a good dose of oak influence in their wine; others eschew oak completely. At protea, there’s a light touch, just about 10 percent French oak in the fermentation – not enough to define the wine, but a subtle enhancer of body and complexity.
6. Getting better all the time: In the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were more acres of Chenin Blanc newly planted in South Africa than any other grape variety – and more taken out. What’s that mean? That South Africa is a dynamic wine scene, with producers working hard to make sure Chenin is planted in the most appropriate places and using the best techniques available.
7. Prized elders: While some poorly located or unhealthy Chenin Blanc vines have been replanted, there’s nothing winemakers prize more than an old bush-vine Chenin Blanc vineyard. These are vineyards without trellising systems, so the vines sprawl a bit. They look unruly and their production is often low, but the fruit from these vines can be concentrated and beautiful.
8. It all adds up to this: “Chenin is lovely,” says wine author Jamie Goode. “And it does well in South Africa. This should be the most important take-home message. Buy it! It’s usually really great value for money.”
Protea image via Shutterstock.