Chenin Blanc: An Old-Grape with a New World Home

Chenin Blanc is popular among wine connoisseurs due to its versatility. It can be made in dry, off-dry, sweet, and sparkling styles. It is also gaining popularity, particularly in major cities around the world, as a grape that can appeal to almost every palate and preference. Chenin Blanc can also be paired with a broad, surprising range of foods.

A Brief History of Chenin Blanc

The grape variety was first mentioned in the early 1500s by the French writer François Rabelais, who wrote, “And with large Chenin grapes, they carefully covered the legs of Forgiez, so that he soon recovered.” Meanwhile, Dutch navigator Jan van Riebeeck brought cuttings to South Africa in the New World. Their triumphant march, however, began much later. For this, we jump right into the twenty-first century.

Chenin Blanc cultivation in California initially experienced a boom from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. The grape was clearly a hit. California’s Chenin Blanc industry grew even faster than its motherland’s in France. 

The grape was frequently blended with other grape varieties and labeled Californian Champagne or Chablis. Furthermore, Chenin Blanc was used to make a simple, sweet wine that accommodated and even encouraged the American preference for wines with residual sugar.

Fun Facts about Chenin Blanc

  1. When it is oak-aged, it can be an excellent substitute for Chardonnay.
  2. While Chenin Blanc originated in France, with significant plantings in the United States, more than half of the world’s Chenin Blanc vineyards are now located in South Africa.
  3. The grape’s ancestral home, the Loire Valley in France, which dates back to roughly 800 AD, still produces the most sought-after varieties of this wine, even if South Africa has the greatest plantings.
  4. Although this is still up for discussion, certain DNA research has led many to assume that Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are related grapes that both descended from the Savagnin grape.

Did You Know: Before the 1970s California Chardonnay boom, Chenin Blanc was the state’s most widely planted white grape.

Chenin Blanc in France and South Africa

What happened to France’s variety in the 1970s? The vines were cleared in the Loire Valley, to make room for other grape varieties including Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Sauvignon Blanc. 

However, interest in sweet wines resurfaced only a decade later, as did plantings. A combination of ideal weather conditions and the desire for an alternative to Bordeaux’s coveted Sauternes wines resulted in a resurgence in the Loire Valley, particularly in its star grape, Chenin Blanc.

Things began to change in the 1990s. A few winemakers with an interest in Chenin Blanc began to champion the grape variety. They were able to re-establish respect for the grape variety by discovering old vines and winemaking techniques to improve the quality of South African Chenin Blanc. Since then, the process has been unstoppable.

As a result, the grape is becoming increasingly popular in the Cape. The figures show that in South Africa there were 18,200 hectares of Chenin Blanc in 2012. France and California had only 10,000 and 2,923 hectares, respectively.

Recognizing the Difference: Chenin Blanc from all Over the World

The temperature at which  grapes ferment is one of the features that differentiate grapes around the world. Chenin Blanc is fermented at low temperatures in regions such as South Africa to obtain tropical fruit flavors.

The Touraine region of Vouvray and the Loire Valley region of Anjou-Saumur are known for their silent and foaming Chenin Blancs, which can range in taste from bone-dry to lusciously sweet. A full-bodied, dry Chenin is also produced in Savennières, in the Anjou-Saumur region of the Loire Valley. When looking for a sweet French wine, Coteaux du Layon in the Anjou-Saumur region is the best fit and uses traditional bottle fermentation.

Stylistic Chameleon

Chenin Blanc can produce various styles, expressing the grape’s outstanding versatility. For example, tartaric acid, citrus fruits, and honeysuckle are prominent in Savennières and Vouvray. The South African and Californian Chenin Blanc has more ripe fruit notes in the dry region.

It is sometimes compared to Chardonnay; however, the former can be identified by its aromas of boiled apple, hay, and honeysuckle, regardless of the cultivation area or type of development. The winemaker must decide exactly how they want to bring out the expressions of the wine at each stage of the process.

Straw wine is a specialty in Stellenbosch, South Africa. To make this wine the grapes are half dried before being pressed, creating a very sweet concentrated wine. This method, also known as Appassimento, is used throughout the world in various wine regions.

However, South Africa is one of the few countries where this occurs with Chenin Blanc. The flavors of these straw wines include juicy mango, dried persimmon, candied ginger, and roasted almonds.

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Key Dates in Chenin Blanc History:

800: According to French ampelographer Pierre Galet, Chenin Blanc originated in the Anjou wine region around the 9th century.

1654: Jan van Riebeeck may have been one of the first to plant the grape in South Africa. Although his first batch was unsuccessful, he had more luck when he tried again with different grape cuttings in 1655. 

1999: Chenin blanc has a parent-offspring relationship with the Jura wine grape Savagnin, according to DNA analysis from 1999.

On this day:

June 20th: National Chenin Blanc Day

Further Reading

Chenin Blanc:, Chenin Blanc: An Old-Grape with a New World HomeChenin Blanc:, Chenin Blanc: An Old-Grape with a New World Home

 

References:

Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson 2012

Wine. Years. People. Events. Massandra Wine Collection 2010

The World Atlas of Wine: 8th Edition. Johnson, H & Robinson, J. 2019

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