Chenin Blanc is by far and wide my favourite grape varietal. While I can’t to claim to have tried every varietal out there, I do know that when I sip a really good Chenin Blanc, the stars align and all of a sudden I’m drinking that God-juice that baby Herc sipped in Disney’s rendition of Hercules - glowing from the pure joy of the heavenly deliciousness that is wafting from my glass.
The roots of Chenin Blanc can be traced back as far as the ninth century. The home of Chenin Blanc is the Loire Valley in France, but has been adopted by many regions throughout the world, most specifically South Africa where it is the signature grape. Here in North America, South African versions of Chenin Blanc might be more familiar, though the wines coming from France will always have my heart.
The fun thing about Chenin Blanc is that it can be produced in an immense variety of styles. Both sparkling and still Chenin Blancs are common. Sometimes searingly dry, other times unctuously sweet (and frankly anywhere in between). Chenin Blanc can be crisp, fresh, and easy; intense, cerebral, and complex; or rich, round, and decadent. Chenin Blanc is a versatile varietal that is deserving of much love and attention.
I truly believe there is an occasion for all of the aforementioned styles of Chenin Blanc. However, to my palette, the best examples come from the Loire Valley where the grape varietal has grown for millenia. In the Loire, Chenin Blanc is also known by its regional name, Pineau de la Loire - think Trident Tropical Twist chewing gum mixed with the musky smell of autumn leaves on a warm October day. Juicy, overripe nectar and dense, savoury salinity meld to create an ambrosia-esque elixir that is truly distinct and unique to Chenin Blanc from the Loire’s diverse terroir. Vouvray, Savennieres, and Quarts de Chaume are appellations to look out for and all make for exhilarating wine-drinking experiences.
South Africa is the world’s largest producer of Chenin. Vast quantities, high yields, and low levels of ripeness can sometimes mean that the resulting wines are relatively simple. However, when allowed to ripen fully and when the vine’s vigor is controlled, delicious, complex wines come from the region. Often blended with other varietals such as Semillon or Roussanne and aged in oak, Chenin from South Africa can be quite rich and reminiscent of a new world Chardonnay. Other times, South African Chenin Blancs are fruit forward and crisp, highlighting the refreshing acid and flavours of melon, pear, and tropical banana inherent to the grape.
Next time you’re at Vine Arts, I implore you to ask for a Chenin Blanc suggestion (we have several fans of the varietal) and give this classic, yet lesser thought of, white grape varietal a try. If you’re already sipping the Kool-Aid, keep it up! In the event that my zealot-like convictions have you intrigued, come join me to taste through several delightful styles of Chenin Blanc Saturday August 11th. Info and tickets are available at: http://vinearts.cornervine.com/home/events. In the meantime, here are two deliciously distinct bottles that just might get you hooked on Chenin too!
L'Echarderie Anjou No. 2 - $30 (all-in)
Château L’Echarderie is located in the historic Quarts de Chaume appellation which lies within the Anjou district of the Loire. Quarts de Chaume wines are sweet and uncommonly long lived. This wine, however, is labelled under the Anjou appellation because it is not the lusciously sweet wine of Quarts de Chaume, but rather a drier Chenin Blanc of remarkable quality for price. The wines of Chateau L’Echarderie are made with respect of the natural traits of each vintage, so can vary from one vintage to the next. To me this is a perfect example of what you should expect from well made Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley. The Anjou No. 2 is approachable in style. It is chock full of intense, decadent fruit flavours that are balanced perfectly with bright acidity. The rustic, wooly note and scent of honey, which are earmarks for Chenin Blanc, shine through, and while refreshing, this wine is certainly complex. It is a lovely wine to pair with al fresco dining and to share with friends.
Testalonga Cortez Chenin Blanc - $48
Craig Hawkins began Testalonga in 2008 in South Africa’s Swartland region. He focuses on making fresh, elegant wines, that are farmed responsibly, without irrigation, and that have low additions of sulfur. The label, which boldly states “Made With Grapes,” says a lot about the methodology behind the production of Testalonga wines; quality fruit and minimal intervention lead to authentic, flavoursome wines. Harvesting based on acidity levels means that the wines end up being bright and lively, with low levels of alcohol. Whole bunches of grapes are picked and pressed, then aged in both neutral wood and stainless steel. Notes of honeyed fruit and the perfume of jasmine blossoms make this the perfect wine for summer. Melon, straw, and fresh bread complete the vibrant package that is the Testalonga Cortez Chenin Blanc. An example of the immense potential and movement toward remarkable wines from South Africa. This wine makes for a delicious introduction to the Chenin Blanc and proof that with care comes quality.