Chenin Blanc - you probably didn't even know that you were drinking it!
By Don Clemens
For those of us who emerged onto the burgeoning wine scene in the previous century, one of the most
ubiquitous white table wine varieties that was the likely choice of the night was Chenin Blanc. Even
today’s choice – Chardonnay – would have had to take a back seat to this California favorite. In fact,
Chenin Blanc is one of the most widely cultivated grape varieties on the planet.
Of course, you might not have known that you were sipping on Chenin Blanc. During most of the last
60+ years, many wine grapes grown on the U.S. West Coast have been blended with this popular variety
to achieve the final bottled result. If you had been drinking something called “California Chablis”, you
were definitely not drinking Chardonnay, which is the grape that makes the original French version of
“Chablis”. The odds are that whatever was in that however pleasant beverage, Chenin Blanc was at least
an included, if not dominant grape. The system of wine nomenclature in the U.S. (and many parts of the
world) does not require 100% of the named grape variety that is on the label. Usually, only 75% of that
grape needs to be in the final product. So, if Chardonnay grapes are more expensive (and desirable), it
might be more economically sensible to blend in an inexpensive “filler” for that anonymous 25%, such as
Chenin Blanc. As long as at least 75% of the juice is Chardonnay, you may go ahead and label the wine as
So, what are the features of Chenin Blanc that make it so useful? It is really an awesome grape.
Depending on the desired style of wine that it will ultimately produce, one can harvest it early when the
acidity is high and the sugar is low, as one might to make a sparkling wine. Or one can harvest it in a
mid-range of sugars and acids to produce a medium-balanced table wine. One can even wait for the
effects of “Noble Rot” (Botrytis Cinerea) to work its magic and create a late-harvest dessert wine!
The Chenin Blanc grapevine buds early in the growing season and ripens midway to late in the harvest
year. However, in warm years, the balance between the Loire's marginal climate and the warmth
needed to attain full ripeness has the potential of producing wines with some depth of complexity and
finesse. The age of the vine can have an influence on wine quality, with older vines producing naturally
lower yields. When infected by noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea or Pourriture Noble), which also lowers yields
and adds and intensifies certain flavors, the wines develop less overtly floral aroma notes, but more
depth and layers.
New clonal varieties have been developed that delay budding and increase sugar development during
the ripening phase. Six of these new clones have been officially approved by the French government. It
tends to break bud early, with conical, winged bunches containing yellow-green grapes that ripen late.
The climate of a wine region largely dictates whether Chenin Blanc is produced in a predominantly
sweet or dry manner, while the vineyard soil type generally influences the overall style of the wine.
Heavy clay-based soils, paired with the right climate, are favorable to the development of weighty,
botrytized dessert wines that need time to age and mature. Well-drained and less organic,
predominantly sandy soils tend to produce lighter styles of wine that mature more quickly. Chenin Blanc
planted in soils with a high silex (flint) content produce wines with distinctive minerally notes, while
limestone-based soils encourage wines with sharp acidity. In Vouvray, the soil is predominantly
calcareous clay, which produces rounded wines with both acidity and weight. In areas where schist (rock
that is composed of mineral grains easily seen with a low-power magnifying glass) is plentiful in the soil,
Chenin Blanc grapes generally ripen earlier than in vineyards with predominantly clay-based soils.
Among the viticultural hazards to which Chenin is susceptible (apart from botrytis in less than ideal
conditions) are damage from spring frost, powdery mildew, and fungal disease (such as “dead arm” of
grapevine) that affect the wood structures of the grape vine. Some of these hazards can be managed
with integrated pest management and rootstock selection.
But – it is important to understand that Chenin Blanc has a noble history in the world of wines, nowhere
more noble than in France’s Loire Valley.
France: The Home of Chenin Blanc
The Loire, France’s longest river, flows to the west, from Pouilly-sur-Loire in the eastern high country all
the way to the Atlantic Ocean, a distance of about 625 miles. West of the center of this lovely, curving
river’s length lie the appellations of Anjou, Saumur, and Touraine (the “Garden of France”). These three
wine-growing regions specialize in some of the most spectacular versions of Chenin Blanc that exist. Get
ready for a walk through the vineyards!
First, we begin with one of the most austere, long-lived, and exceptional versions of Chenin Blanc that
exists: Savennières. With two Grand Cru white wines in its appellation, Savennières offers some truly
delightful drinking: Château de La Roche-aux-Moines and La Coulée de Serrant. Both properties have
impeccable reputations for quality and longevity. It would be a shame to be so impatient as to open one
of these jewels before at least five years have passed. They can live – and improve – for several decades!
They need time to achieve the necessary balance between the aggressive acids and fruit flavors. It is
generally agreed that Savennières are the finest examples of Chenin Blanc made, and well worth seeking
out and cellaring.
Another standout appellation is Coteaux du Layon. The wines, also predominantly made from Chenin
Blanc, range from semi-sweet to sweet and are among the finest dessert wines made in France. Again,
high acidity balances their sweetness, and the bouquets evolve into aromas of honey and flowers,
improving over a couple of decades. Among my favorite appellations within the Coteaux du Layon
region are Bonnezaux, and Quarts de Chaume. Both are Grands Cru. They are the finest examples of the
floral-honeyed aromatics and luscious sweetness with acidity that the Chenin Blanc can produce with
the right soil, climate, and low yields. Again, one is rewarded by patience; these wines can certainly
improve with cellaring for at least a decade.
More Chenin Blanc-based appellations within the Anjou appellation are Crémant de la Loire, Saumur
Mousseux, and Anjou Mousseux. Dry sparkling wines made in the traditional “methode Champenoise” in
this appellation, usually found as VDQS Vins du Thouarsais for the Chenin Blanc whites.
We are not done with France yet. The earlier mentioned Touraine appellation also has more marvelous
Chenin Blancs to add to the mix, most notably Vouvray. I would venture to say that for most people who
are not native to France, their first experience with French Chenin Blanc would be with a Vouvray. There
are three styles of still (non-sparkling) wine available: moelleux for sweet, demi-sec for semidry, and sec
for dry. Occasionally (rarely?), the vignerons are happily surprised by the appearance of pourriture noble
(Botrytis Cinerea), which allows the production of the sweetest and most long-lived version of Vouvray
Moelleux. There are also many excellent sparkling versions of Vouvray, with the same identifiers for
levels of sweetness.
The United States of America
For many years, California’s generic white wine grape of choice has been Chenin Blanc because of its chameleon-like ability to mold itself into whichever style of white wine the vintner desired, and its dependably high-volume yield. At one point, there was more Chenin Blanc planted in California than there was in France. Chenins natural acidity and ability to adapt to wines of varying degrees of sweetness made it an ideal blending partner with Colombard and Chardonnay in mass-produced blends. Until close to the turn of the 21st century, producers in Sacramento Valley Clarksburg AVA had not started to make quality varietal Chenin Blancs a specialty; Chenin Blancs from these producers tend to show a characteristic musky melon aroma and have the potential to age well.
Other states in the US with plantings of Chenin Banc include:
Washington, New York, Missouri,Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, New Mexico, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Idaho, Colorado and
In Mexico, the grape is primarily found in Aguascalientes, Baja California, and Coahuila. As in California,
its Chenin Blanc production is primarily as a blending wine, but one can find Chenin Blanc on some labels
as the primary identifier.
Chenin Blanc is cultivated in several South American countries, but it weighs in the heaviest in Argentina’s Mendoza region. It should be noted that for many years Chenin Blanc plantings in Mexico,
Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay were confused for Pinot Blanc.
Australia and New Zealand
In Australia, the country's 1,500 acres of Chenin Blanc are mostly grown as a blending variety, often used with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon. Australian Chenin plantings can be found in Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria, and South Australia, as well as the Swan Valley and Margaret River areas of Western Australia. Wine expert James Halliday describes the style of Australia Chenin Blanc as ; with pronounced fruit salad notes. However, the wines produced in Western Australia have garnered more critical attention. In 2008, there were 1,586 acres of Chenin Blanc in cultivation in Australia.
In New Zealand, acreage of the variety fell to just under 250 acres by 2004. By 2008, that number had dropped 50%. Planted primarily on the North Island, some examples of New Zealand Chenin Blanc have drawn favorable comparisons to the sweet dessert styles of Chenin from the Loire Valley. Historically, the grape has been used as a blending partner with Müller-Thurgau in mass-produced blends. The success of some critically acclaimed New Zealand Chenin Blancs has sparked interest in planting the variety. As some wine writers, such as Oz Clarke, have noted, as long as the value of New Zealand Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc stays high, little economic reason exists to pursue premium Chenin
Blanc production. Time will tell…
There is a world of tasty options available to wine consumers today. Some of the most pleasant – even exceptional! – experiences can be found with Chenin Blanc styles from around the world and even from within the confines of one country’s (France’s!) offerings. I recommend the journey!