Your Wine IQ

Chenin Blanc

International Varieties: Chardonnay   Gewürztraminer   Muscat   Pinot Gris   Riesling   Sauvignon Blanc

Major Varieties:   Airén    Chenin Blanc    Grüner Veltliner    Müller-Thurgau    Pinot Blanc    Sémillon    Silvaner    Trebbiano    Viognier

Regional Varieties:   Albariño    Aligoté    Amigne    Arneis    Chasselas    Colombard    Cortese    Fiano    Grechetto    Grenache Blanc    Malvasia Istriana    Marsanne    Muscadelle    Muscat of Alexandria    Ortega    Palomino    Parellada    Petite Arvine    Prosecco    Rieslaner    Roussanne    Savagnin    Scheurebe    Seyval Blanc    Tocai Friulano    Torrontés    Vermentino    Welschriesling

Chenin Blanc grapes

Chenin Blanc grapes.
Photo by Chrisada on Flickr.
License: Creative Commons Attribution 2 Generic.

Versatile and intriguing, Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, South Africa, and California enjoys popularity despite decreasing interest in white wine in recent years. One of the older wine grapes of the world, Chenin originated in the Loire sometime in the 800s and quickly spread due to its wines' appealing flavors and high acidity. It may be the parent of Sauvignon Blanc; while this is suspected, it is not yet proven.

A finicky grape despite its popularity, Chenin Blanc possesses a natural acidity that is often hard to control, even for the best winemakers. High yields make the wine bland, and early harvesting can often have bad results. Known for a quite robust but ripe structure, Chenin Blanc wines can have notes of honey and pear, and from the New World often have tropical flavors of pineapple and banana. Botrytized styles emphasize the richness, but the aging of all these wines bring out different flavors entirely. Chenin Blanc's high acidity can often make it pair well with light food.

Wine experts generally agree that the best Chenin Blanc comes from the Loire Valley of France. Although much less of the grape is found in France than in some other areas, the low yields guarantee a high quality that is unlikely to be replicated outside of the country anytime soon. A few Loire whites are made from Sauvignon Blanc, but most are Chenin, the most reputable of which are Quarts de Chaume, Savennières, and especially Vouvray. Vouvray is considered one of the top white wines in the world, and are almost always varietal Chenin Blanc.

Two Chenin Blancs

Two Chenin Blancs. On the left is one from South
Africa, and on the right a Sauternes-style dessert wine from Savennières.
Photo by Tomas Eriksson
License: Creative Commons Attribution SA 3.0 Unported

Vouvray can make both dry and sweet wines, but the appellations of the Coteaux du Layon are good for sweet wines only. These can be of a phenomenal rich character, and are again considered quite exclusive. Chenin Blanc is grown nearly everywhere in the Loire, and can almost always be counted on to be good.

The outstandingly classy Chenin Blancs of Anjou and Vouvray in the Loire are hard to compare to higher-yielding offerings from South Africa and the United States. About 20% of South African plantings are Chenin Blanc. Chenin Blanc from South Africa is also high in acidity, while emphasizing tropical fruit and a lighter character. Paarl WO has the majority of plantings, which are declining.

Plantings in California are also declining. Clarksburg AVA has numerous varietal Chenin Blancs that, in good vintages, can rival Loire dry Chenins in terms of ripe flavor and ageability.

Outside of these three regions, however, Chenin Blanc's finicky nature has largely kept it from becoming one of the international varieties. Washington, Texas, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, Spain, and Israel are all areas that are attempting to tame the grape's finicky nature.