Chenin Blanc was born in the Loire Valley of France, with reports tracing the white wine grape back as far as the ninth century. However, during its time in France, it was mostly cultivated for use as a sweet white grape used to make sparkling and dessert wines, which is why many Americans never heard of the wine until recently. But Chenin Blanc’s voyage to the American table all began to change in 1655 when the grape left France and traveled to South Africa.
It was in 1655 that many believe Jan Van Riebeeck, who is widely considered by Afrikaners to be the father of the South African nation, took the grape vines from France and first planted the grape at his home vineyard in South Africa.
The grape’s high acidity and ease of growth caused it to spread across the country, becoming the largest planted white wine in the region. Initially the grape was used primarily as the main ingredient in the country’s large brandy production, but that all changed in the late twentieth century.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, South Africa was coming into its own as a well respected affordable wine region, and much like Argentina and Chile, they were looking for a grape to call their own. Due to Chenin Blanc’s widespread availability, winemakers began experimenting with the grape and were able to create a dry, zesty, crisp wine that is very similar to Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. It was a hit and South African quickly became the largest producer of Chenin Blanc in the world.
It’s Chenin Blanc from South Africa that the majority of Americans are now the most familiar with. This is partly due to the wine’s flavors and also due to the fact that a really great South African Chenin Blanc almost always can be found costing in the teens and low twenties.
South African Chenin Blanc has tropical fruit flavors of melon, pineapple and banana that go along with a very distinguishing flavor of green apple. It’s a wine that goes well with all sorts of dishes, but it’s particularly great with poultry and fish.
If you’re looking to pick a South African Chenin Blanc, look for ones that come from the Stellenbosch region. This region is regarded as producing the best Chenin Blancs in South Africa.