Botrytized dessert wines, traditionally made sparklers, and crisp, complex whites: Name a style of wine, and you can bet somewhere, someone is making it with Chenin Blanc. The native French variety is arguably the world’s most versatile, rivaled only by Riesling (though the Germanic grape definitely doesn’t have the same pedigree when it comes to bubbles).
With early budding and late ripening, Chenin Blanc is susceptible to Botrytis cinerea, or noble rot, which enables it to produce world-class sweet wines. Its racy acidity is key for maintaining balance, and makes it especially suited to sparkling production.
Chenin Blanc’s flavor profiles are similarly diverse. Fruit notes range from quince, apples, and greengage (imagine an underripe, sour green plum), to tropical pineapple, banana, and passionfruit. Hay and honey are other common descriptors, as are flinty, smoky minerals.
The variety currently falls under the umbrella of somm favorite rather than supermarket staple. But social media initiatives like the international #DrinkChenin Day (June 15), a close association with organic and biodynamic winemaking movements (especially in its Loire Valley homeland), and the small but energetic new wave of California producers championing the variety, suggest that Chenin Blanc may be on the cusp of change.
To understand everything there is to know about the French variety, here’s a guide to the different styles and regions of Chenin Blanc production worldwide.
Nowhere in the world is more synonymous with Chenin production than the grape’s birthplace, the Loire Valley. According to the local wine bureau, Loire Valley Wines, Chenin Blanc’s history in France’s third largest wine region dates back over 1,000 years.
Production is focused in the valley’s central subregions Vouvray, Anjou, Saumur, Savennières, and Coteaux du Layon. Climate and soil play an important role in shaping the style here and the wine appears in every possible guise, from bone dry to sweet, and still to sparkling.
Winemakers on the eastern edge of the city of Tours, in Vouvray, produce both still and sparkling wines. Depending on the vintage, still wines can be dry or sweet, and are typically light-bodied, fruity, and floral.
In Anjou and Saumur located to the west of Vouvray and the area surrounding the city of Saumur, the region’s clay soils and cool climate provide a similar, green-fruit-driven style with a steely character. New oak maturation defines Anjou’s still, dry wines, while Saumur is renowned for sparkling Crémant de Loire, with bubbles added using the same traditional method as Champagne.
Located further west are subregions Savennières and Coteaux du Layon. Average temperatures here are higher than in Vouvray, and so Savennières Chenin Blancs are more full-bodied, dry, and complex, with subtle hints of tropical fruit that add further richness.
In Coteaux du Layon, the valley’s autumn mists provide the ideal conditions for producing the region’s best-renowned botrytized sweet wines. The honeyed, toasty, citrus peel notes of the wines of sub-appellations Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux place them among the world’s finest dessert offerings.
Red grape Pinotage may be South Africa’s emblematic variety, but Chenin Blanc comprises more than 18 percent of its vineyard plantings. In fact, South Africa is currently home to more Chenin Blanc plantings than the rest of the world’s combined production.
All of this is despite the fact that Chenin Blanc production has declined in recent history. Thirty years ago, the grape accounted for more than 30 percent of plantings, but quality is swiftly overtaking quantity, and it’s turning the heads of international buyers.
According to a 2017 press release, over the past five years, Chenin Blanc was the fastest-growing South African varietal wine in the U.S., with exports up 35 percent.
Known locally as Steen, the grape arrived in South Africa along with the Huguenots in the 17th century. Grape growers initially favored Chenin Blanc for its ability to produce high yields and maintain bracing acidity despite the hot conditions. The bumper yields were particularly important for producing grapes that could be used as the base spirit for local brandy.
The surge in quality over the past 20 years has put good use of the country’s old bush vines. Chenins from Stellenbosch, Swartland, and Paarl are richer and more concentrated than those of the Loire Valley, and replace green, mineral notes with fruits like pineapple, melon, guava, and banana.
Often referred to as the “workhorse” of California grape growing, Chenin Blanc’s history on America’s West Coast is one of functionality rather than flair. As in South Africa, the variety’s high acidity made it a staple for those producing cheap white blends, including it for citrus zing rather than fruit notes or complexity.
In its ‘70s and ‘80s heydays, the grape was especially prevalent in the Central Valley, where plantings topped out at over 40,000 acres. With the emerging dominance of Chardonnay, however, plantings started to decline at the end of the ‘80s. By 2017, Chenin accounted for under 5,000 acres of California’s vineyards.
But the versatile white variety isn’t going down without a fight. Over the past decade, independent producers have championed a new wave of California Chenin Blanc in regions like the Sierra Foothills, Mendocino, and Santa Barbara, as well as its former stronghold, the Central Valley. Low-production winemakers are chasing a style that’s closer to the fresh, mineral-driven wines of the Loire Valley, rather than South Africa’s rich and concentrated version.
Chenin Blanc traditionally appeared alongside Müller-Thurgau in New Zealand’s mass-produced, low-quality blends that were meant for domestic consumption. The variety has mostly fallen out of favor since the emergence of the country’s ubiquitously popular style of Sauvignon Blanc.
The few hundred acres of plantings that remain are located primarily on the North Island, the country’s historical winemaking hub. A handful of impressive examples of organic New Zealand Chenin Blanc have emerged in recent years; but as long as the thirst for Sauvignon Blanc (and Chardonnay to a lesser extent) remains high, there’s little financial motivation for winemakers to pursue Chenin.
Chenin Blanc is present in almost all of Australia’s wine regions, but plantings are concentrated in Western Australia, particularly the Margaret River region. It’s commonly blended with Chardonnay, Semillon, and Sauvignon Blanc to produce mass-produced bottles. Chenin Blanc also appears in single-varietal bottlings, mostly in the fruit-forward, South African style. Current plantings stand at just 1,000 acres.