Despite its sensitivity to environmental influences, the Chenin blanc variety is grown all over the world. And for good reason – it is a highly versatile grape. Whether for table grapes or sparkling wines, dry or sweet styles, fortified, varietal or blended wines, nothing beats Chenin blanc for all-round versatility.
Chenin blanc – a versatile grape variety
This grape variety has two characteristics that mark it out and make it so versatile: wines produced from Chenin blanc develop a lot of acidity while also having a high level of sugar. Sweetness is imparted by two methods: either the grapes are allowed to develop noble rot or they are dried on sunny autumn days using the passerillage method. In the former case, winemakers take advantage of the variety’s susceptibility to the fungus botrytis.
These characteristics make this grape variety a real all-rounder among white wines. The grape can be used to produce everything from extremely light and dry white wines to noble sweet dessert wines, right through to top-class wines with concentrated residual sweetness and excellent ageability.
As it has a high sugar content, the grape must is ideal for vinifying outstanding sweet and liqueur wines. The good acidity structure ensures that the intense sweet wines are never cloying and unpleasantly heavy, but are always well balanced. This places them among the ranks of the very best dessert wines. The crisp acidity of Chenin blanc wine also makes it perfect for producing refreshingly effervescent sparkling wines.
The grape thus produces wines for all tastes. The particular vinification technique chosen will also depend on the vintage and ripeness of the grapes. If the weather is favourable, the grapes will reach sugar levels suitable for medium dry and sweet wines. In years blessed with many hours of sunshine, winegrowers will achieve an even higher level of sugar which is ideal for producing high-quality dessert wines.
Wines made from Chenin blanc, especially sweet wines, are very ageable. They develop an intense fruitiness over the first two years. After around five years, they acquire a beautiful bouquet reminiscent of honey and apricots. If properly cellared, they have the potential to mature over several decades, all the while gaining in complexity.
Loire Valley: cradle and source of the best Chenin blanc wines
Chenin blanc is the oldest and most well-known grape variety in France’s Loire Valley. It forms the basis for such diverse wines as Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume: big, sweet, ageworthy wines with high acidity. The regions of Saumur and Anjou are considered to be the best areas for cultivating Chenin blanc. Anjou has been home to this grape variety since the 9th century.
Anjou blanc is a comparatively inexpensive, often very simple Chenin blanc wine with a firm acidity which is often blended with Chardonnay or Sauvignon. Vouvray, on the other hand, is an off-dry to light semi-sweet quaffing wine with a great deal of charm. Chenin blanc grapes are also good for Saumur and Crémant de Loire as they produce a fresh dry wine that forms the ideal base for sparkling wines. The highest extract concentrations of this grape can be found in the Loire Valley, where it is also known as Pineau de la Loire.
Sweet wines from the Loire Valley are famed for their exceptional ageability. No less than four appellations have been granted for this sweet wine. The cellars of Moulin Touchais in Anjou hold one very special treasure – century-old Chenin blanc wines that are still developing.
Cultivation of Chenin blanc grapes outside France
In 2010 scholars revealed the secret of the origins of this grape variety. It proved to have a very noble pedigree indeed: it was established that Chenin blanc is a crossing of the noble variety Sauvignon blanc with Gewürztraminer.
The vine is vigorous, buds early in the growing season and ripens relatively late. It produces high yields, but these are usually kept in check in order to improve quality. The thick skins develop mould very quickly in damp conditions, which makes the grapes ideally suited to noble rot if this happens at a later stage of growth. Where dry styles are vinified from Chenin blanc, terroir plays a major role .
The Chenin blanc variety can be found not only in the major French vineyards, but on all continents. It is used primarily for ordinary table wines in South Africa and California.