There probably isn’t anyone who hasn’t heard of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc – two noble white varieties that have been grown, with great success, the world over. But what about Chenin Blanc, the great hero of the Loire Valley? You would hear a pin drop in the room for the embarrassed silence.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that Chenin Blanc remains a relatively unknown grape variety, at least compared to the aforementioned Chardonnay. For despite the wonderful intrinsic characteristics of this versatile grape, prices have stayed relatively modest, rarely approaching the eye-watering excesses of top white Burgundy, for example.
However, while Chenin vines will thrive and produce pleasant wine in many different climates, it demands exceptional conditions to produce great wine, even in its home the Loire Valley. Yet we defy any winelover not to be seduced by a great sweet Vouvray or Coteaux du Layon; for acidity braced against richness and generosity of flavor, it is France’s answer to the magnificent wines of the Mosel in Germany.
Indeed, Chenin Blanc’s defining characteristic is its ability to maintain freshness and good acidity in warmer climates, making it the favorite of winemakers in South Africa, and increasingly California, where a growing number of estates are producing structured, age-worthy examples. But on the flip-side, this noble grape requires very careful management – left unchecked, Chenin Blanc will ripen to massive yields in warmer zones, producing drinkable but utterly nondescript wine. However, serious producers like Ken Forrester and DeMorgenzon in Stellenbosch are today doing very special things with old bush vine Chenin that has been dry-farmed. Their wines are among the best examples of Chenin the world – complex, profound and still amazing value.
Of course, despite its proliferation in South Africa and California, Chenin Blanc remains a signature grape of the Loire Valley. It has been grown around the town of Angers on the Loire for centuries, perhaps for more than a millennium. Yet today it still varies enormously in both style and quality, with winemakers managing to coax out brilliant still wines, sparkling wines and exceptionally long-lived sweet wines out of Chenin Blanc. In cooler climates, Chenin is usually associated with flavors of apple and quince, rising to more topical fruit characteristics and the delightful notes of flowers, damp straw and honey found in the best dessert wines of the Loire.
For dry styles, one should head to the appellations of Anjou, Jasnières and the tiny appellation of Savennières, renowned for its steely, mineral interpretation of Chenin. Leading producers in Anjou and Jasnières also make great examples, although as with all regions, quality and standards do vary. Meanwhile the regions of Bonnezeaux, Coteaux de l’Aubance, Coteaux du Layon, Montlouis, Quarts de Chaume and lastly Vouvray are the places to go searching for sweet styles. Curiously, no other region where Chenin is planted is as marginal, and on such a high latitude, as the Loire.
Nevertheless, the most striking quality of these wines is their longevity; dessert wine Chenic Blanc, produced from noble rot (botrytis) can easily rival the best of Sauternes in depth of flavor and elegance, merging layers of molten honey and crisp, dancing acidity. Top examples from Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume can be exceptional between fifty and 100-plus years bottle age. After decades of being ignored by collectors, these wines are now in demand, their price better reflecting the sheer class, not to mention the expense of making them.
Speaking of which, despite the advances in oenology and winery technology, many chateau of the Loire still make Chenin in the traditional way: simply crush, press, clarify the juice, ferment in stainless steel, wooden vats or fiber glass and bottle after some lees-stirring. No oak, no cutting-edge equipment, no sophistication.
The result is something that emerges like a butterfly from its chrysalis. Often shy, taut and steely when young, Chenin gradually gains in richness over time, developing exquisite flavors and aromas of honeysuckle, quince and white flowers.
But at the other end of the spectrum, one can also find delicious sparkling wine in the shape of Crémant de Loire. Using Chenin Blanc as the base for an excellent value, traditional method sparkler, top Crémant from Saumur is delicious and a nice alternative to Champagne. Don’t expect bucket loads of complexity, instead relish the freshness and vibrancy of this underrated fizz. The perfect start to any celebration.
Top 5 examples of superstar Chenin Blanc
1. De Morgenzon – Reserve Chenin Blanc
There can be no finer introduction to the potential of Cape Chenin than the powerful, structured and age-worthy Reserve wines from the acclaimed estate of DeMorgenzon. Winemaker Carl van der Merwe crafts a Chenin like no other in the region – barrel aged, it shows gorgeous tropical fruit notes, a rich palate and velvety texture, balanced out by generous acidity.
2. Ken Forrester Wines – FMC Chenin Blanc
One of the region’s most fervent supporters of the stellar potential of cape Chenin Blanc, restaurateur Ken Forrester’s winery homestead has a long history, dating back to the 17th century. His flagship FMC Chenin, the result of collaboration with star wine-maker Martin Meinert, is simply exceptional and still quite affordable.
3. Mullineux – Straw Wine
Rivaling the best sweet wines of the Loire Valley, Mullineux’s Straw Wine is made in Swartland, one of South Africa’s up and coming terroirs. Grapes from low-yielding bush vines are dried outside in the shade until they are half raisined, concentrating flavors, acidity and sugar into a super intense, but balanced treat. Post-fermentation, the result is a heavenly concoction of honey, marmalade and white flowers, described by critic Neil Martin as “of equal quality to Chateau d’Yquem.” High praise indeed.
4. Nicolas Joly – Savennieres Coulee de Serrant
A living legend, Nicolas Joly undoubtedly produces one of the finest Loire Chenin Blanc wines, from bio-dynamically farmed vineyards on steep slopes in Savennieres. The exceptional quality of his terroir is unquestionable, the wine unmistakably deep, complex, rich, mineral, elegant, profound and very very moreish. A true icon of the Loire Valley, Joly was one of the first to debunk the myth that Chenin could never rise above the ordinary.
5. Domaine Vincent Ogereau – Coteaux du Layon ‘Saint Lambert’
Is this the Loire’s best value Chenin? For under $30 dollars, you’re getting a lot of wine for your money; dried fruits, spices and honey all vie for your attention. Vincent Ogereau plays music to his wines whilst they are maturing in cask – the results speak for themselves, and are a complete steal at this price.