When it comes to complexing whites, the first to mind is chenin blanc.
Chenin is one of the world’s most versatile, transformative grapes. Wines from this early-budding, late ripening grape arc from searingly bone dry to sweet nobility and from serious fizz to potent fortified pours. Firmly rooted in France’s Loire Valley since the ninth century, this accomplished, if not idiosyncratic, grape still reigns over France’s garden valley today, transmitting terroir in sought after appellations like Savennières, Vouvray and Touraine. Part of chenin’s mystery is its chameleon-like nature; is it going to be one of the green, vegetal and meadow examples? Or will this waxy pour be full of lanolin, honey and chamomile? Will it be racy and dry or heady and sweet? Unmistakably constant in cared-for wines is the spiking acidity, apparent even through softening with time in wood or via heavy-handed winemaker intervention. The acidity also contributes to the longevity of well-crafted chenins. Well made wines can continue to mature for decades, transforming the greengage and angelica notes into mushroom, salt, honey and toast. When noble rot – botrytis cinera – affects this grape, the results can be otherworldly. Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume are such cosmic examples.
In many parts of the world, chenin is relegated to a workhorse status and blending partner. Though the Loire is still considered the zenith, twice as much chenin is planted in South Africa, where it was historically known as steen. Chenin is firmly rooted in the Western Cape; Jan Van Riebeeck introduced the first vines to the Cape in 1655. Here, there are many old vines, most of which are gnarly aged bush vines that young winemakers are rediscovering and caretaking, and letting the grapes express themselves through hands-off, sustainable, responsible grapegrowing and winemaking. Since 1974, the first year of official records, chenin blanc was the most planted cultivar in South Africa. In 2020, there were 17,148ha planted in the country (vs Loire Valley's 9728ha).
We've been fortunate to taste stellar examples of chenin blanc from across the globe recently. June 18 is World Chenin Day. Here are our top 10 (and ties) that you should seek out: