It still surprises me just how many people aren’t turned on to Chenin Blanc. When attempting to sing its praises, I often hear, “Do you mean Sauvignon Blanc?” No, I don’t mean Sauvy. I’m talking Chenin: the white wine that you should be considering for your glass and your cellar.
While Chenin Blanc’s vinous birthplace is the Loire Valley—where it produces some remarkable wines from appellations like Quarts de Chaume, Savennières and Vouvray—it’s not necessarily the hallmark variety of the entire region, since so many other grapes are grown and thrive there.
There’s another country that’s leading the Chenin charge, creating an unmistakable association between the grape and the region—despite the many other varieties also grown there—as the go-to for wines that are worthy of serious consideration and attention.
It’s time to know Chenin Blanc, especially those from South Africa.
In South Africa, Chenin Blanc previously held a reputation as a workhorse grape, a vigorous variety with high yields used for simple, large-production wines and the base for local brandy distillation. But the variety has taken on an entirely new image.
Today, it produces high-quality wines across multiple styles and appellations within the country.
Known to acclimate to a variety of conditions, Chenin deftly expresses terroir. Cool-climate selections showcase zippy acidity and notes of citrus peel, while those from warmer appellations offer a broader mouthfeel and ripe melon or apple characteristics.
Wines from sites surrounded by fynbos, the natural shrublands and heathlands of the Cape Winelands, reflect those herbal influences, in contrast to those from coastal sites that are pinned with an unmistakable saline accent. Granitic soils contribute a linear, flinty mineral character, while wines from clay-rich soils frequently exhibit rounder textures and riper fruit expressions.
Then there’s the old vines. Chenin Blanc is a historic South African cultivar, and there are registered vineyards that are more than 100 years old. These ancient beauties are among the world’s greatest vinous treasures, weathered but grounded and settled, completely in tune to their surroundings. Initiatives like the Old Vine Project seek to preserve these sites to keep the old vines and soils healthy and viable.
Wines produced from such old vines exhibit a natural balance between concentration and finesse. They’re complex wines of depth and intrigue that can cellar gracefully from five to 15 years, if not more.
Surprised? Don’t be. Well-made Chenins have impressive aging potential, and world-class South African bottlings are available at a fraction of the cost of other cellarworthy white wines. Fresh, unwooded Chenins often benefit from a year or two in bottle after release, while more concentrated and wooded selections can cellar well for 15 years or more.
During my trip to South Africa in July, I tasted a few different mid-level 2006 Chenin Blancs, all of which were still very much vibrant, alive and evolving well.
Given Chenin’s naturally high acidity and the range of styles and characteristics it can express, you can also find a perfect pairing for just about any meal or dish. There’s a reason Chenin Blanc has been a darling in the sommelier and hospitality world.
The Standard Top 10
Not sure where to begin? Start with the Top 10 from the 2017 Standard Bank/Chenin Blanc Association Challenge.
Managing Editor/Tasting Director Lauren Buzzeo’s love affair with South African Chenin Blanc began over a decade ago, when she had her first sip of Ken Forrester’s FMC.