Though it enjoys a long history, Chenin Blanc is finally receiving the global recognition it deserves. The variety arrived in France’s Loire Valley more than a thousand years ago was firmly established by the 15th century. Yet, it never enjoyed the same caché as other storied French grapes.
That’s changing, thanks in large part to its adventures beyond European soils.
Chenin Blanc’s initial popularity in the New World was a result of the variety’s vigorous, high-yielding vines. The grape gained a reputation as a workhorse; it was often used for simple, large-production wines and as a base for brandy.
Now it’s starting a new chapter in the New World: Not only can Chenin Blanc acclimate to a variety of conditions, it can also deftly express its terroir. Typically, the grape buds early and ripens late, which makes it a versatile player in the production from dry to sweet and even sparkling wines.
South Africa has a long-established linkage with Chenin Blanc. Also known as Steen, the variety may have been one of the first grown in the country, as early as the mid-1600s. It’s now planted throughout the winelands, particularly in Breedekloof, Paarl, Swartland and the Olifants River region, and represents approximately 18% of total acreage under vine, making it the most widely planted grape. Today’s Chenins are produced across all styles, from still to sparkling and dry to sweet.
Chenin Blanc was a popular blending cultivar throughout the state during the 1970s and ’80s, often combined with Chardonnay and Colombard to lend acidity to large-volume, easy-drinking white wine. And though acreage devoted to the grape once surpassed that of France, its extensive presence was short-lived. There are now more than 4,700 acres throughout California, with Clarksburg, Mendocino and Napa Valley among its most popular American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
Chenin Blanc has an over 70-year history in Washington State. That history is in peril.
In 1993, Washington was home to 600 acres of Chenin. While the state’s grapevine acreage has increased over 500% in the ensuing 25 years, Chenin has not shared in the success. A scant 67 acres remain.
Oft-prized, vine age has not saved Chenin from its fate. At the start of this decade, nearly all of the 207 existing acres had at least 20 years of age. Today, only 30 old-vine acres remain—the rest have been ripped out to plant more popular and profitable varieties.
Not all is lost. Wineries like L’Ecole No. 41, which has been making Chenin Blanc since 1987, continue to carry the banner for the grape. Tasting these wines is a reminder of both how delicious Washington Chenin can be and how much of its viticultural history the state risks losing. –Sean Sullivan
Washington State Chenin Blancs to Try:
Kiona 2017 Estate Grown Ice Wine Chenin Blanc (Red Mountain); $50, 91 points. The aromas are generous, with notes of dried pineapple, mango and apricot. The stone-fruit and tropical-fruit flavors are rich, sweet and focused, showing a lovely sense of balance that carries through the finish. Bright acidity provides the frame. –S.S.
L’Ecole No. 41 2017 Old Vines Chenin Blanc (Columbia Valley ); $15, 91 points. Old-vine Chenin Blanc is becoming increasingly rare in the state as vines are pulled out to replant more profitable varieties. What a shame. The aromas here offer notes of freshly sliced pear, cantaloupe, banana, melon rind and papaya. The bone-dry palate brings an abundant tropical-fruit flavor and a strong sense of acidity. It lingers on the finish. Best Buy. –S.S.
Block Wines 2016 Old Vine Gnarl Block Rothrock Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Yakima Valley); $20, 90 points. Old-vine Chenin Blanc is rapidly slipping away in Washington as growers rip out vines for more profitable varieties. It’s a shame as it can excel here, as this wine shows. Coming in at an almost unheard of alcohol level for the state, aromas of poached pear, apple, lees, citrus and spice are followed by bone-dry, sleek, tart flavors with a lemony finish. The acids are downright racy. It needs some food alongside it to be properly appreciated but it delivers. Editors’ Choice. –S.S.
W.T. Vintners 2017 Upland Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Snipes Mountain); $20, 90 points. This wine underwent a vineyard change this vintage; the fruit now comes from 1979 plantings at Upland. The aromas pop, recalling scooped cantaloupe, ripe pear, red apple and freshly sliced star fruit, with intriguing salinity. Simultaneously sleek and textured fruit flavors lead to an acid-driven finish. Editors’ Choice. –S.S
Cedergreen Cellars 2016 Old Vine Chenin Blanc (Columbia Valley ); $19, 90 points. The aromas draw you into the glass, with notes of honeycomb, apple and the underside of a pineapple. It drinks dry, with a textured feel to the pineapple flavors. Yum. Editors’ Choice. –S.S.