Chenin Blanc is a white wine grape variety from the Loire Valley of France. Its high acidity means it can be used to make everything from sparkling wines to well-balanced dessert wines, although it can produce very bland, neutral wines if the vine's natural vigour is not controlled. Outside the Loire it is found in most of the New World wine regions; it is the most widely planted variety in South Africa, where it was historically also known as Steen. The grape may have been one of the first to be grown in South Africa by Jan van Riebeeck in 1655, or it may have come to that country with Huguenots fleeing France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Chenin Blanc was often misidentified in Australia as well, so tracing its early history in the country is not easy. It may have been introduced in James Busby's collection of 1832, but C. Waterhouse was growing Steen at Highercombe in Houghton, South Australia, by 1862.
It provides a fairly neutral palate for the expression of terroir, vintage variation and the winemaker's treatment. In cool areas the juice is sweet but high in acid with a full-bodied fruity palate. In the unreliable summers of northern France, the acidity of under ripened grapes was often masked with chaptalisation with unsatisfactory results, whereas now the less ripe grapes are made into popular sparkling wines such as Crémant de Loire. The white wines of the Anjou AOC are a popular expression of Chenin as a dry wine, with flavours of quince and apples. In nearby Vouvray AOC they aim for an off-dry style, developing honey and floral characteristics with age. In the best vintages the grapes can be left on the vines to develop noble rot, producing an intense, viscous dessert wine which may improve considerably with age.
Wine expert Jancis Robinson has noted that Chenin Blanc is probably the world's most versatile grape, being able to produce quality wines of various sweetness, including dessert wines noted for their aging ability, as well as sparkling made according to the méthode champenoise and fortified wines. The grape can distinguish itself as a single varietal wine, or it can add acidity as a blending component. Its ability to be crafted into premium quality wines across a wide spectrum of dry and sweetness levels invites the comparison to German Rieslings, with Robinson noting that in many ways Chenin Blanc is France's answer to the German Riesling.
One of the major differences between Old world and New world styles of Chenin Blanc is the fermentation temperature. Old World style producers in the Loire tend to ferment their Chenin Blanc at higher temperatures, 60-68 °F (16-20 °C), than New World producers in South Africa and elsewhere, usually fermenting their whites at temperatures around 50-54 °F (10-12 °C). This is because Old World wine producers tend not to put a premium on the tropical fruit flavours and aromas that come out more vividly with cooler fermentation temperatures. Chenin Blanc can accommodate some skin contact and maceration which will allow extraction of phenolic compounds that could add to the complexity of the wine. Two of the aromas that skin contact can bring out is the characteristic greengage and angelica notes of Chenin. The grape's characteristic acidity can be softened by malolactic fermentation, which will give the wine a creamier or "fattier" texture as would a period spent aging on the lees. The use of wood or oak aging is up to each individual producer. Old World producers tend to shy away from the use of new oak barrels which can impart flavours of vanilla, spice, and toastiness; though these notes may be desirable for a New World producer. In Savennières there is a tradition of using acacia and chestnut barrels for aging; though acacia can impart a yellow tint to the wine, and chestnut barrels may add some buttery notes.
The aromas and flavour notes of Chenin Blanc often include the descriptors of minerally, greengage, angelica and honey. Chenin wines produced from noble rot will often have notes of peaches and honey that develop into barley sugar, marzipan, and quince as they age. Dry or semi-sweet Chenin Blanc from the Loire will often have notes apple, greengage, and chalky minerals that develop into more honey, acacia, and quince aromas. New World styles of Chenin, such as those of South Africa, are more often made to be consume young and exhibit rich tropical fruit notes such as banana, guava, pear, and pineapple. The alcohol level for dessert styles Chenin rarely goes above 12%, which keeps the wines more in balance. Drier styles of Chenin are more likely to be around 13.5%.
The aging ability of sweet Loire Chenin Blanc is among the longest lived in the world of wine with well-made examples from favourable vintages regularly having the potential to last for at least 100 years. This longevity is attributed to the grape's naturally high acidity, which acts as a preservative. As phenolic compounds in the wine break down, they add complexity and depth to the wine. Some off dry or "demi-sec" examples may need at least 10 years before they start drinking at peak levels and could continue to develop for another 20 to 30 years. Sparkling and dry examples of Chenin Blanc from premium production and favourable vintages have also shown longevity levels not commonly associated with white wine. However, as they age, Chenin Blanc wines are prone to going through "dumb phases" where the wine closes up, revealing little aroma and varietal characteristics.
Alternative Names: Chenin, Pineau, Pineau de la Loire, Pineau d’Anjou, Stee