Chenin Blanc is a historical variety that originated in the Loire Valley of France. Capable of producing a range of wine styles due to its unusual balance of lively acidity against rich flavors, this yellow-green grape shows great breadth in its ancestral homeland.
However, Chenin Blanc’s versatility and adaptability to different growing conditions appeal to winemakers around the world. Today, consumers can try Chenin Blanc from South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand, as well as California and Washington. Styles range from bone-dry to sumptuously sweet, fresh and fruity to nutty and oxidized, and still to sparkling.
Chenin’s classic flavor profile features floral and honey aromas layered with quince, apple, pear and the occasional lanolin or wool-like accent. The variety often yields a textural wine, capable of a generous mouthfeel restrained by pronounced acidity, with a dollop of rich fruit in the midpalate.
A side-by-side analysis of the endlessly fascinating Chenin Blanc is the best way to understand its scope depending on origin, climate, aging process and style.
For a six-bottle overview, organize your tasting by three key categories: Loire Valley versus South Africa, unoaked versus oaked, and dry versus off-dry.
As you taste, search for aromas and flavors, but also consider texture and mouthfeel. Does the acidity feel zesty, causing your mouth to water, or does the palate feel round and creamy?
Of course, you’ll need to pick up a few bottles, so we’ve included tips on what to seek. If you can’t find exact matches, ask your retailer to recommend alternatives.
Loire Valley vs. South Africa
Chenin Blanc cultivation in France dates back at least 1,300 years. Common wisdom cites the Glanfeuil Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in the village of Saint-Maur-sur-Loire, as the first to document the grape growing along the Loire River.
Chenin Blanc thrives around the central Loire cities of Angers and Touraine in the appellations of Savennières and Vouvray, respectively.
Savennières has a reputation for complex, long-lived wines that sommelier Christopher Bates, MS, calls “moody,” compared to the “sunny” disposition of neighboring Vouvray. Expect dry, intense wines that offer focused, mineral flavors laced with beeswax, straw and smokiness, especially with age.
Vouvray produces dry and off-dry styles with aromas of quince, baked apple, ginger and chamomile. The sweeter the Vouvray, the more honeyed and tropical the impression.
Early to bud but late to ripen, Chenin Blanc has a long growing season, which can cause trouble with spring frost given the Loire’s high latitude and cooler climate. But it’s precisely this combination of location and climate that gives the grape its trademark racy acidity.
After France, South Africa reigns as the world’s most important region for Chenin Blanc. Though considered a New World region, South Africa has a long history of viticulture. It’s believed the first Chenin Blanc vine cuttings arrived from Europe on a boat in 1655. Recorded as “Steen,” the name was often used on bottle labels until recent decades.
As the country’s most widely planted grape, Chenin Blanc thrives in several winegrowing areas of South Africa, including the Breedekloof, Paarl and Swartland districts. Initially appreciating the grape for its vigorous growth and high yields, modern winemakers aspire to express the variety’s potential for delicious complexity and terroir expression.
Swartland is home to many top producers working with old vines. It’s a parched, sunbaked region of schist and granite soils—a complete contrast to the verdant Loire. Generally, wines from South Africa have higher alcohol, more body, softer acidity and riper fruit character. These qualities complement mineral, herbal and floral notes.
Loire Valley vs. South Africa
Wine 1: Find a wine from the Savennières or Vouvray appellations of the Loire.
Wine 2: Seek out a Chenin Blanc from Swartland.
Unoaked vs. Oaked
Though Chardonnay gets acclaim for being a “winemaker’s wine,” Chenin Blanc is just as malleable. A prime example is unoaked versus oaked expressions.
Unoaked refers to a wine fermented and aged in anything other than oak. For Chenin Blanc, that’s usually stainless steel. Cement and concrete eggs might be used for micro-oxygenation and texture, allowing for an aging process akin to oak’s without imparting wood’s aromas or flavors.
In all these nonwood options, no outside flavor is imparted. However, stainless steel blocks oxygen completely, leading to pure, fresh, fruity wines that are generally meant to be consumed young.
Much like Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc transforms when fermented and/or aged in oak. If newer barrels are used, the wine picks up notes of vanilla and spice. But for many producers working with oak, the objective isn’t flavor. Rather, they use older or used barrels, often referred to as “neutral” barrels, to build texture and complexity. Bâtonnage, a term for stirring the lees, or the dead yeast in the wine, contributes a creamier, fuller mouthfeel.
Another reason to use barrels: Without the temperature controls of stainless steel, wines aged in oak undergo malolactic fermentation, a process that softens Chenin’s acidity.
Some winemakers, notably in Savennières, use oak for oxidative winemaking. They swap Chenin’s naturally pale-yellow hue and fruit freshness for a deeply hued, sometimes amber wine with a nutty, bruised apple and wet wool profile. These wines may be more of an acquired taste, but it’s an appreciation worth pursuing.
Unoaked vs. Oaked
Wine 1: For an unoaked version, seek out a Chenin Blanc from South Africa or the Loire priced between $10–20. These are not likely to see time in oak.
Wine 2: Find a bottle priced more than $25 from South Africa or the Loire. These are likely to have seen some time in oak.
Dry vs. Off Dry
While dry wines have overtaken sweet as the stated preference of most wine drinkers, the truth is that sweet wines done right offer a transcendent tasting experience. Chenin Blanc is the perfect grape with which to embark on that journey.
When yeast converts all sugars in grape must into alcohol, the resulting wine is dry. That doesn’t always mean zero residual sugar, however. Dry typically means less than four grams of residual sugar per liter, though those lines blur among winemakers based on how much sugar they think their wine needs for balance. For example, high acidity due to a colder vintage may demand a few grams of sugar to plump up the wine without crossing the line into off-dry territory.
The off-dry category moves drinkers gently into a sweeter style of Chenin. Written as demi-sec in French, or sometimes noted on Loire bottlings as sec tendre or tendre (meaning tender dry or tender), these wines usually have between 4–16 grams per liter of residual sugar.
Because of Chenin’s naturally high acidity, sugar levels at the lower end of the range tend to mimic ripe fruits, whether orchard or tropical like pineapple, rather than taste resoundingly sweet. A “tender” kiss of sugar lifts and intensifies Chenin’s aromas while adding a bit of weight and fullness to the palate.
The amount of residual sugar left in the wine can also depend on the winemaker’s preference. Halting fermentation before it’s complete will leave some sugar unfermented. Methods for arresting fermentation can include dropping the temperature of the wine to force the yeast into suspension. Sulfur dioxide can also be added before racking, filtering and/or fining the wine to remove the yeast, which prevents the wine from refermenting in the bottle.
Vouvray is the classic go-to for demi-sec wines, though the style can also be found just about anywhere Chenin Blanc grows. Next to an off-dry wine, a dry version will seem leaner and more savory while allowing Chenin’s minerality to shine.
Dry vs. Off Dry
Wine 1: Find a Vouvray that lists demi-sec or medium-dry on the label.
Wine 2: Options from California or Washington are typically dry.