So, Winespeed has taken up my campaign to give Chenin blanc a fair chance on your dinner table. I enjoy it with seafood, pasta, cheese, and fruit.
South Africa accounts for 53% of the world’s total planted acreage of chenin blanc. France grows 28%, primarily in the Loire Valley, and together the U.S. and Argentina split another 15%. For centuries chenin blanc was (and it still remains) South Africa’s most planted grape. Sometimes known there as steen, it was one of the first grapes to arrive on the Cape in the1650s. Historically, far more white grapes than red were grown in South Africa—a reflection of the past importance of cheap South African “sherry” and brandy which were based on white grapes that could be grown at astronomical yields (and consequently little flavor or complexity).
Chenin blanc is also able to retain acidity relatively well in hot climates. Lots of South African chenin blanc is pleasant and simple at best. But treasure troves of old chenin blanc vineyards can still be found, and many young winemakers are dedicated to saving these old vineyards and making amazingly delicious wines—both dry and sweet—from them.
So, what is Chenin blanc? Chenin Blanc Wine Profile (from Wine Folly)
Chenin Blanc Characteristics
FRUIT: yellow apple, quince, pear, baked apple, bruised apple, passion fruit, lime, honeydew melon, peach, persimmon, mandarin orange
OTHER: lemon verbena, ginger, honey, honeysuckle, jasmine, chamomile, saffron, apple blossom, coleslaw (oxidative styles), sake, cheese rind(oxidative styles), hay
OAK: buttered popcorn, butterscotch, lemon curd, nutmeg, baked apple, graham cracker, meringue, marzipan, brioche
ACIDITY: medium-plus to high acidity
ABV: 12-14.5%South Africa golds over 50% of the world’s Chenin blanc. Yet, when we were there, the Chenin blanc was rather disappointing. We tried several, from wine shops in both Cape Town, and out in Stellenbosch. I have found better ones here on the west coast, particularly in Napa Valley, and Washington.
Chenin Blanc Has a Variety of Flavor Profiles
As a white wine, Chenin Blanc has a wide range of flavors. Part of the reason for this has a lot to do with the winemaking style.
- Dry: When the grapes are fermented dry and kept fresh, they produce a very lean, minerally style Chenin Blanc that offers up flavors of tart pear, quince, ginger, and chamomile.
- Off-Dry: When some of the grapes’ natural sugars are left in the wine, you’ll taste richer flavors of ripe pear, ginger, jasmine, passion fruit, and honeycomb.
- Sweet: Sweeter styles of Chenin Blanc have flavors of dried persimmon, toasted almond, mango, ginger, and mandarin orange.
- Sparkling: Sparkling styles can range from dry (Brut) to sweet (Demi-Sec), with Chenin Blanc’s classic characteristics of quince, yellow apple, plum, ginger, and floral notes.
Chenin Blanc Food Pairings
Think Sweet and Sour. Because of Chenin Blanc’s awesome acidity and inherently sweet flavor, you’ll find it pairs well with foods that have a sweet and sour element. Southeast Asian cuisine or pork chops with apples paired with a richer and sweeter style Chenin Blanc will blow your mind.
Hello Turkey Dinner. There are several white wines out there with enough gusto to moisten even the driest turkey. Try a high quality South African Chenin Blanc with your Thanksgiving dinner. It will even handle cranberry sauce like it was born to do so.I have always touted a Chenin blanc or dry Riesling for our Thanksgiving dinner. I am okay with chardonnays, but have become somewhat tired of their “oakey and buttery” characteristics.
Veal, Trout, Chicken, Turkey, Pork Chop, Guinea Foul, Halibut, Smoked Salmon, Terrine, Pâte. I think liver pate’ might be a great choice!
Spices and Herbs
Cinnamon, Dill, Tarragon, Turmeric, Ginger, Fenugreek, Fennel, Clove, Marjoram, Allspice, Red Pepper Flakes, Cilantro, Cumin, Coriander, Fennel, Macadamia Nut, Peanut, Cashew, Sesame Seed. I think hot mustard might be a good pairing.
Soft to semi-firm cow’s milk cheeses, such as triple-cream brie, gruyere, cream cheese, yoghurt and cheddar work very well with Chenin Blanc. Also try herb-crusted goat cheeses. Add one of my favorites, camembert.
Vegetables & Vegetarian Fare
Squash, Jicama, Guava, Shallot, Chives, Savoy Cabbage, Yam, Carrot, Cauliflower, Oyster Mushroom, Corn, Red Bell Pepper, Apple, Quince, Pear. I would add carrots, celery, and radishes.
Chenin Blanc Wine Regions
The largest producer of Chenin Blanc is South Africa.
In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is sometimes blended with Semillon, Viognier, and Marsanne to make a richer-styled wine similar to an oaked Chardonnay but with a sweeter taste. Also in South Africa, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc are blended to create a fresh and zesty dry wine.
Loire Valley, France
In the cooler Loire Valley of France, the ripeness of Chenin Blanc can be so uneven that grapes are usually selected by hand in successive passes through the vineyard.
Highly acidic, less ripe grapes make a great base for sparkling wines.
Riper grapes are used in the richly aromatic, off-dry styles.
BTW, I love the Loire region, mostly for their cremants.
Finally, at the end of the harvest season, the last grapes picked are affected with noble rot, which concentrates the grapes’ sugars and lends to rich flavors of orange marmalade, ginger, and saffron. These late harvest grapes go into the blending of the famous sweet wines of the region, including Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux.
This is more than you ever wanted to know about Chenin blanc. But I suggest you give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.