While the Loire Valley may be the viticultural birthplace of Chenin Blanc, the variety has found a second home in South Africa. Representing 18% of the country\u2019s total acreage under vine, Chenin Blanc is currently that country\u2019s most widely planted grape.\r\n\r\nChenin\u2019s popularity in the New World originally stemmed from its vigorous, high-yielding vines. In South Africa, Chenin Blanc was used in the semisweet Lieberstein (once the world\u2019s largest-selling bottled wine), to add acidity to bulk blends or as the base for brandy distillation.\r\n\r\nThe result was a reputation as a workhorse variety that offered a neutral experience, rather than one driven by terroir or complexity.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe have a long history with Chenin, and it really is the cornerstone of our industry,\u201d says Chris Mullineux of Mullineux Family Wines. \u201cIt\u2019s no coincidence that in Afrikaans, a brick is translated as Steen [an alias of the grape],\u201d he says. \u201cIt\u2019s the most widely planted grape variety in the country, and what makes it unique is how versatile it is here.\u201d\r\n\r\nToday, South African Chenin Blanc is having a moment of reinvention and reintroduction to the world, proving itself a noble variety capable of producing world-class wines. Chenin Blanc thrives in many of the country\u2019s designated WO (Wine of Origin) regions, producing particularly stunning wines in Stellenbosch, Swartland and the Coastal Region.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe have the most plantings of Chenin Blanc of any wine region in the world, and it\u2019s distributed across many different sites,\u201d says Ken Forrester, current chairman of the Chenin Blanc Association (CBA) and winemaker at his eponymous winery in Stellenbosch.\r\n\r\n\u201cAs well as having the most, we also have a large percentage of older vineyards,\u201d he adds, speaking to the renewed interest in old-vine Chenin Blanc. Old bush vines whose yields have been controlled are said to produce the most intensely flavored selections and best express their individual terroirs.\r\n\r\nFormed in 2000, the CBA was established to promote Chenin\u2019s noble heritage and establish a new, high-quality image for the variety. While there are no official rules on labeling styles yet, the CBA currently recognizes six different styles of Chenin Blanc. Labeling regulations are in the works to help consumers understand what they can expect from any given bottle.\r\n\r\n\u201cChenin\u2019s big challenge is to convey a strong stylistic image that consumers can identify with,\u201d says Mullineux.\r\n\r\nTo simplify things and help you identify the Chenin style you like best, here are snapshots of four main categories: fresh and fruity, oaked, sweet and blended.\r\nFresh and Fruity\r\nMeant to be consumed young, the fresh-and-fruity category is a refreshing and approachable style of Chenin Blanc. \u201cMaturation in tank allows the true fruit expression of Chenin to come through,\u201d says Sebastian Beaumont, winemaker at Beaumont Wines.\r\n\r\nBright, fruit-forward aromas and flavors can range from tart Granny Smith apple, green plum and lime to more robust notes of ripe stone or tropical fruit, melon and clementine, framed by lifting acidity. There can also be lively herbal or floral characters, like wild scrub bush or orange blossom. Attractive nuances of fynbos\u2014the Afrikaans term for the natural shrubs and vegetation that stretch across the Western Cape\u2014often add a distinctly South African character to the bouquet, as do delicate mineral hints of slate, chalk and flint.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe Chenin Blanc style I prefer must show white and yellow fruit on the nose, combined with soft citrus flavors and mineral hints,\u201d says Bruwer Raats, owner and winemaker of Raats Family Wines. \u201cThe palate must show a bright entrance, richness on the midpalate, with a very fresh and clean finish that shows a well-balanced minerality and acidity. If you can produce a Chenin Blanc like this, it doesn\u2019t matter whether oak was used or not.\u201d\r\n\r\nFresh and fruity Chenin is an attractive alternative to unoaked Chardonnay. \u201cThe magic of Chardonnay is its amazing ability to interact with barrels and transform itself from something quite simple to something rich and complex,\u201d says David Trafford, owner and winemaker of De Trafford Wines and Sijnn. \u201cRich and ripe unwooded Chenin from South Africa is a far better option.\u201d\r\nThree to try:\r\n88 Raats Family 2011 Original Unwooded Chenin Blanc (Coastal Region). Cape Classics.\r\nabv: 13%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 Price: $15\r\n\r\n87 MAN Vintners 2011 Cuv\u00e9e V Chenin Blanc (Coastal Region). Vineyard Brands. Best Buy.\r\nabv: 12.5%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 \u00a0 Price: $11\r\n\r\n86 Spier 2011 Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch). Indigo Wine Group. Best Buy.\r\nabv: 13%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 Price: $10\r\nOaked\r\nTraditionally, most South African Chenin Blanc was made in a fresh and fruit-forward style. Recently, though, there has been more attention placed upon rich, oaked selections that display depth of flavor, power and potential to age.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe have worked hard over the years to get the oaking in balance,\u201d says Beaumont. \u201cChenin doesn\u2019t like a lot of new wood, so finding the balance is critical, and then allowing the wine to fill out with oxidation and lees contact is fantastic. These wines can age and develop fantastic complexity.\u201d\r\n\r\nOaked Chenins exhibit woody or nutty characteristics, including notes of sweet spices, toast, vanilla and cream, and a ripe fruit core. The oak-derived accents can also complement a wine\u2019s minerality, especially when that\u2019s expressed as flint or slate.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe aim for balance and complexity,\u201d says Mullineux. \u201cWe do not aim for overly reductive or oxidative styles; we want some richness and texture, but there must always be freshness. Our Chenins tend to be mostly fermented in neutral (used) barriques, and are dry, with good texture and not excessive alcohols.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe naturally high acidity of the variety, rich fruit and lushly textured palate give the promise of longevity to judiciously oaked Chenins. With time, the components of the wine will mellow and integrate, resulting in a smooth, nuanced wine that\u2019s best consumed three or more years after release.\r\n\r\n\u201cI love Chenin to show its pure white fruit, pears and apples as well as some honey character, but importantly, one should always taste [and] feel the minerality,\u201d says Forrester. \u201cI do prefer the fuller, riper style, and balance is everything.\u201d\r\nThree to try:\r\n92 Beaumont 2010 Hope Marguerite Chenin Blanc (Bot River). wine@34south\r\nabv: 13%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0Price: $28\r\n\r\n92 Jean Daneel 2010 Signature Chenin Blanc (Western Cape). Z Wines USA.\r\nabv: 14%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 Price: $28\r\n\r\n91 Simonsig 2010 Avec Ch\u00eane Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch). Quintessential Wines.\r\nabv: 14%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 Price: $35\r\nBlended\r\nGiven its amiable character and high acidity, Chenin Blanc makes a great blending grape. Although its fruit character varies depending on where it\u2019s sourced from, the grape often lends great zip and freshness to a blend.\r\n\r\nThe variety is well suited to a wide range of terroirs, and can contribute different characteristics to a final wine depending on the source site. \u201cThe decomposed Table Mountain sandstone-based soils give you white and yellow fruit with a lot of structure and richness,\u201d notes Raats, \u201cwhereas the decomposed Dolomite granite soils give you citrus, lime and minerality on the nose, and linearity on the palate with great acidity and freshness.\u201d\r\n\r\nThanks to it\u2019s overall versatility, Chenin Blanc acts as an adaptable canvas of aromas and flavors as a base for a blend, playing well with others while adding its own identity and terroir.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe feel Chenin works really well in blends, and in the Swartland, we believe it works best in blends,\u201d says Mullineux. \u201cBecause we are slightly warmer, our growing season is a bit shorter than other regions. Chenin doesn\u2019t have as much time to build aromatic complexity, so blending is a way to make up for this.\u201d\r\n\r\nChenin\u2019s most common blending partners include Sauvignon Blanc for aggressive fruit, Viognier for floral aromas, Chardonnay or Clairette for a rounder mouthfeel and body and Grenache Blanc for weight and freshness.\r\n\r\n\u201cI think that Chenin as a blending grape works very well,\u201d says Beaumont. \u201cI think the trick is again elegance and lightness, rather than powering a wine with one after the other heavy layer of fruit.\u201d\r\nThree to try:\r\n90 Mullineux 2010 White (Swartland). Kysela P\u00e8re et Fils.\r\nabv: 13.5%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 Price: $28\r\n\r\n90 Sijnn 2010 White (Malgas). Boutique Wine Collection.\r\nabv: 14.5%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0Price: $35\r\n\r\n88 Thokozani 2010 Chenin Blanc-Chardonnay-Viognier (Wellington). Cahoots.\r\nabv: 13.5%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 Price: $17\r\nSweet\r\nChenin Blanc produces some of the world\u2019s most stunningly balanced dessert wines. Their concentrated flavors result in intense, layered wines in which decadent fruit flavors of dried apricots and honeyed peaches are matched with cleansing acidity.\r\n\r\nSweet wines usually take a long time to ferment due to their high sugar content, and they typically spend a good amount of time in oak. Although the type of barrel used and length of aging will vary, many sweet Chenins exhibit developed, woody notes of nuts, toast and sweet spices, like cinnamon, clove and ginger. Because of their intense concentration and high natural acidity, sweet wines are ideal for long-term cellaring, often drinking beautifully 5, 10 or 20 years after release.\r\n\r\nThe most common methods of production include selective late harvesting and partial drying. Late harvest wines are produced from grapes that are typically infected with Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, which causes the grapes to lose their water content. Straw wines are produced from grapes that are dried after harvesting to concentrate their juice.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe Straw Wine is really a labor of love,\u201d says Trafford. Not only do the grapes need to be laid out on drying racks and turned every two weeks while any bad berries are removed, but additional perils and long-term responsibilities abound.\r\n\r\n\u201cIf we get substantial rain, the crop or the batch that\u2019s drying can be ruined,\u201d says Trafford. \u201cPressing takes ages and keeping the volatile acidity down is difficult. The wine usually takes at least a year to ferment, so [it] has to be constantly monitored.\u201d\r\nThree to try:\r\n93 De Trafford 2008 Straw Wine (Stellenbosch). Boutique Wine Collection.\r\nabv: 13.5%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 Price: $50/375 ml\r\n\r\n92 Ken Forrester 2009 T Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch). Cape Classics.\r\nabv: 12.5%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0 Price: $55/375 ml\r\n\r\n90 Rudera 2008 Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc (Stellenbosch). DRG Imports.\r\nabv: 12.5%\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0\u00a0Price: $27/375 ml\r\nAging Chenin Blanc\r\nOne of the most remarkable qualities of Chenin Blanc is its ability to age gracefully. Although some styles are best consumed young, many have the potential to fill your cellar at a fraction of the cost of other collectible white and dessert wines. Five South African winemakers share their thoughts on cellaring special Chenins.\r\n\r\nBruwer Raats, Raats Family Wines \u201cIt is well-known that Chenin Blanc has the ability to age well because of its low pH and higher acidity. With aging, Chenin Blanc becomes richer and more complex and starts to show that honey, hay and spiciness that makes older Chenin Blanc so desirable. Chenin Blanc also has the ability to show great power with elegance and freshness, perfect for food\u2026great acidity, lots of fruit and minerality, but not overpowering, and become very complex with aging.\u201d\r\n\r\nChris Mullineux, Mullineux Family Wines \u201cWe think they age really well, especially wines made from older vineyards where we get fantastic pHs. Some styles are made to drink now, but great examples from South Africa can easily age 10 years and more\u2014our Straw Wine for much longer (20 years easily).\u201d\r\n\r\nDavid Trafford, De Trafford Wines and Sijnn \u201cChenin Blanc ages extremely well, especially the sweeter wines. Most consumers don\u2019t seem to be too fond of mature, dry white wines, but they\u2019re missing a lot. Most of the top 10 or 20 dry Chenins in South Africa are appealing in their first few years, but are probably best between three and six years. It does vary a lot, though, and we don\u2019t yet have the critical mass of great wines to be able to confidently generalize.\u201d\r\n\r\nKen Forrester, Ken Forrester Vineyards \u201cChenin Blanc\u2014good, well-balanced Chenin\u2014 ages beautifully. Fresh and fruity wines are probably for early drinking. As you head towards fuller wines, they need to be balanced with minerality and acidity, and these wines can be perfectly poised to last a very long time, certainly 10 years and perhaps as long as 20 years. Sweet, dessert-styled Chenin from botrytis grapes is also generally able to age and improve for a great deal of time, perhaps 20 years as well.\u201d\r\n\r\nSebastian Beaumont, Beaumont Wines \u201cLike with all varieties, it depends mostly on the pH-acid relationship and the weight of the wine. Look at the Loire styles as extreme proof of this.\u201d\r\nTo get three ultimate Chenin Blanc-and-food pairings, click here.