Is Chenin Blanc the new Sauvignon Blanc? Earlier this month, Vogue magazine’s online edition published an article suggesting that Chenin Blanc may be just the wine for those tired of oaky Chardonnays and grassy Sauvignon Blancs. Todd Plummer, who penned the piece, calls Chenin the rising star in the white wine world and “a near-foolproof crowd-pleaser”.
What Plummer is referring to is the characteristics of Chenin Blanc that places it as a wine somewhere between the more acidic Savvy and the sometimes buttery Chard: Chenins have enough body to appeal to Chardonnay drinkers and enough freshness and aromatic generosity to make Sauvignon Blanc fans happy. Furthermore, the combination of tropical and stone fruit flavours, medium body and balanced alcohol and acidity makes this the go-to wine for foodies looking for the perfect pairing for their à la “Chef’s Table” creation. Its sweet-tangy tension enables it to pair well with anything from spicy Asian dishes to sushi with salty soy and peppery wasabi to sweeter Malay curries and even pork belly and sticky ribs.
Chenin Blanc is not only one of the very first wine grape varieties ever planted in South Africa, but it still is the most planted variety. In the 1960s, the semi-sweet Lieberstein (once the world’s largest-selling bottled wine) was made from Chenin Blanc and Clairette Blanche grapes. Chenin is a grape much appreciated by winemakers for its extreme versatility. It enjoys the rare distinction of yielding a broad spectrum of compelling styles and can produce delicious examples of both dry and sweet, wooded or unwooded, sparkling and still and is even used as a base wine for distillation in the making of brandy.
So if one is new to Chenin, what can one expect? The dry to off-dry, fruity and unwooded examples can be floral or herbal on the nose with orange blossom or fynbos aromas, as well as delicate mineral hints of slate and flint. Bright, fruit-forward aromas and flavours can range from tart Granny Smith apple, green plum to more robust notes of ripe stone or tropical fruit, framed by refreshing acidity. Respected producers and brands in this vein are Bruwer Raats, Ken Forrester and Leeuwenkuil.
Oaked Chenins exhibit woody or nutty characteristics, including notes of sweet spices, vanilla and a ripe fruit core. The wood component complements the wine’s minerality, especially when that’s expressed as flint or slate. Chenin doesn’t like a lot of new wood, however, so these wines tend to be mostly fermented in neutral (used) barriques or larger barrels. Chenins, particularly those which have had oak fermentation and maturation, can age and develop fantastic complexity. With time, the components of the wine mellow and integrate, resulting in a smooth, nuanced wine that’s best consumed three or more years after release. Try Beaumont, Spier and Kleine Zalze as trusted examples.
Prices range from very affordable youthful, unoaked versions for under R40 to ultrapremium wines that have the weight and depth (and the price tag) of “serious whites” – think DeMorgenzon and Mullineux. So whether or not you are a staunch Sauvignon supporter or a Chardonnay convert, Chenin is deserving of much wider recognition and there is bound to be more than one out there that will delight your palate, so give it a go and expect to be enchanted.
CityLife wine writer Ginette de Fleuriot is a Cape Wine Master.