How did a grape from the Loire Valley in France Chenin Blanc: An Old-Grape with a New World Home. Let’s take a closer look at the success story of white Chenin Blanc in the new world.

Chenin Blanc is popular among wine connoisseurs due to its versatility. Besides Riesling, do you know of another grape variety that can be vinified dry, sweet, or sparkling? It is also gaining popularity, particularly in major cities around the world, as a grape that can appeal to almost every palate and preference, and Chenin Blanc can be paired with a broad, surprising range of wine styles.

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. Even before it became California’s most popular white grape variety, the grape was a hit. California’s industry grew faster than its motherland, France. The tartaric acid we now associate with the grape variety was the primary reason California winemakers chose it.

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. Although South Africa has the most plantings, the Loire Valley in France still produces the most coveted versions of this wine, as the grape’s ancestral home, dating back to around 800 AD.
  4. Although this is still being debated, some DNA testing has led many to believe that Chenin Blanc is a sibling grape of Sauvignon Blanc, both deriving from the Savagnin grape.

Fact:

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, where the grape, also known as Pineau de la Loire, favored Cabernet Franc, Gamay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Or they were simply ignored entirely.

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 because there were some Chenin Blanc aficionados among the winemakers. They were able to re-establish their respect for the grape variety by discovering old vines and winemaking techniques to improve the quality of South African vines. Since then, the process has been unstoppable.

As a result, the grape is becoming increasingly popular in the Cape. The figures also show that in South Africa, 18,200 hectares planted in 2012. However, 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 the 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, as this is where the juice from half-dried grapes is extracted. This method, also known as Appassimento, is used worldwide.

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.

1655: Jan van Riebeeck, in 1655, may have been one of the first to plant the grape in South Africa.

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

Wine Grapes: A complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavors (ALLEN LANE) eBook: Robinson, Jancis, Harding, Julia, Vouillamoz, José: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

Wine: A Beginner’s Guide: Amazon.co.uk: Fredrickson, Kenneth: 9781646110544: Books

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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About the Author: Staff Writer

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