Do you know what quince is? It's a lovely fruit that features in Chenin Blanc. Let's go.
Varietal Overview: Chenin Blanc
History and Cultivation
This white grape varietal dates as far back as the 9th century to the Anjou region of France (where it was most likely known by the name Chenere), and from there it travelled within France to the Loire Valley in the 15th century, where wines made from this varietal are said to have originated. It was only after this establishment in the Loire Valley that the grape received its modern name, Chenin Blanc, after Mont Chenin, a specific wine region in the Middle Loire.
Although this grape varietal originated in the wine giant that is France (where it is still being grown today), it is most well-known today for its white wines out of South Africa. Chenin Blanc is South Africa’s workhorse, and is only growing in acreage. It is believed that Chenin Blanc arrived in South Africa in a shipment of vine cuttings sent to the Dutch Navigator Jan van Riebeeck in the Cape colony by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s. Today, Chenin Blanc remains the most widely grown wine-producing grape variety in South Africa, where it is known by a colloquial name, Steen. This varietal is so famous in South Africa, in fact, that it has its very own website for the Chenin Blanc Association of South Africa (check it out at www.chenin.co.za )!
Chenin Blanc grapes bud noticeably early in the growing season, but the fruit ripens late. This can be somewhat difficult for wine growers in the Loire, which is one of the northernmost viticultural areas in all of France. The high risk of frost and freezing temperatures in between the time period from budding to ripening makes for great variation in the crop. Although this time gap could be seen as a negative, there are some positives. When hit with a particularly warm and dry Autumn in Loire, Chenin Blanc grapes are susceptible to what is known as “noble rot”. Although not a palatable name, this fungus (Botrytis cinerea)) is actually beneficial in the production of Chenin Blanc dessert wines. The fungus eats away at the outer portion of the fruit and allows the skins of the grapes to become permeable, causing significant water loss which leads to the grapes becoming shriveled and overripe with sweet juice. In a crude sense, noble rot turns wine grapes into primitive raisins. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc grapes are produced in a wide variety of locations, which allows great versatility in the overall product.
Tasting Profile and Pairings
Chenin Blanc truly is among the most versatile grape varietals out there (comparable to Riesling), as it can produce some of the sweetest of the sweets and driest of the dry. The Old World of the Loire is no exception. As we looked at before, noble rot due to variations in the autumn climate can lead to some killer sweet dessert wines, but this is by no means the end of the story for French Chenin Blanc. Grapes are typically picked by hand due to a tendency to ripen unevenly, and the earlier grapes are used to make highly acidic, dry whites with a high minerality with flavors of pear, quince, chamomile and even ginger. Grapes picked slightly later in the Loire Valley tend to produce off-dry, rich white wines with an aromatic nose and deeper flavors of ripe pear, jasmine, passion fruit and honey. When oaked, these wines tend to play like Chardonnay, with a butteriness that is not overpowering but definitely detectible. Ripe grapes picked in the Loire Valley are used to produce sweeter styles of French Chenin Blanc, which have flavors of dried persimmon, toasted almond, mango, and mandarin orange. Clearly, Chenin Blanc can be a chameleon in terms of flavor profiles when grown in France, even in such a narrow region!
Typically speaking, fresh and fruity early-harvest Chenin Blanc from France pairs great with vegetable dishes or crisp salads, as the flavorful minerality and crisp nature complements the veggies. For a main course, try a slightly-oaked or mid-harvest off-dry French Chenin blanc with a rich, meaty whitefish such as swordfish.
Due to the difference in climate between the hot and dry South African terrain to the cool and variable region of the Loire, there are some over-arching differences that distinguish the Old from New World bottles of Chenin Blanc. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc wines tend to take on a array of more exotic fruit, whereas French Chenin Blanc tends to be more minerally and often times a bit chalky on the palate.
South African Chenin Blanc is typically thought of as being notoriously fresh and fruity with a marked acidity. Some of the most characteristic South African Chenin Blanc wines have a floral aroma with complementary fruit salad flavors ranging anywhere from guava, melon, and apricot, to pineapple. As is done in many French styles, oak aging can add some noticeable depth to these wines and introduce a buttery richness that makes Chenin Blanc a great addition to a meal. Oak-aged South African Chenin blanc will include a host of rich flavors such as honey and nuts, and will perfectly complement Brie or Camembert as a starter.