Chenin Blanc may not be as widely known as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, but it is as noble and versatile as these seemingly more popular grape varieties.
Chenin Blanc dates back to the ninth century in Loire, France. It was introduced to South Africa in the 17th century, where it was known as Steen until the mid-1960s when Stellenbosch University confirmed that Steen was in fact Chenin Blanc. While Chenin Blanc’s influence is declining in France, it is thriving in its adopted home of South Africa. Today, South Africa has the most plantings of Chenin Blanc in the world at close to 20,000 hectares, compared to 9,000+ hectares in France.
I think of Chenin Blanc as the elder sister of Riesling. Both are versatile and can be from bone dry to luscious, sparkling, sweet, single varietal or used in blends, and both have crisp acidity. They also have similar flavour profiles: citrus, apple and pear in the cool-climate, lighter styles and stone fruits, exotic fruits and honey in the warm-climate, riper styles. Chenin Blanc is fuller-bodied than Riesling, and like Chardonnay, it handles new oak well for added complexity, which is something Riesling doesn’t do. A seriously made Chenin Blanc is as age-worthy as a Riesling or Chardonnay.
Chenin Blanc is a great companion to food because its acidity cuts through any oiliness. Its versatility enables it to complement a diverse range of cooking styles including delicate Japanese cuisine, aromatic Thai dishes, rich Shanghainese food and hearty Western fare. Its sweet flavour is seductive yet fresh on the palate, ideal with dessert or on its own.
Although most Chenin Blanc is 100% varietal wine, creative South African winemakers take it a step further to make multidimensional white blends. The Sadie Family ‘T Voetpad (available from BB&R), David & Nadia Aristargos (soon available from wine’n’things) and Keermont Terrasse (available from Value Vigilantes) are some of the best examples of Chenin blends.
And then there is Chenin made from old vines. They may lack the fruit-forward palate, but they are more than compensated by their textural depth. South Africa is the first country in the world to certify these old-vine wines. Wine made with vines older than 35 years carries a Certified Heritage Vineyards seal on the bottle.
It’s a pity that such a versatile grape is not more popular around the world. Apart from South Africa and France, the other countries that make Chenin, albeit in much smaller quantities, are the USA, Argentina and New Zealand.
Saturday, 15 June is this year’s annual #DrinkChenin Day. Pick a few bottles of Chenin of different styles or from different countries and share them with friends. To Be Frank wine bar in Kennedy Town is celebrating the occasion with free one-hour tasting sessions of Chenin Blanc (3–4pm and 6–7pm) from around the world followed by a New World Chenin Week promotion (16–22 June 2019). Take this opportunity to explore this multifaceted grape!
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