Chenin Blanc is among world’s most planted, most versatile, most delicious wine grapes, and one you probably only experienced at its worst.
The grape’s character largely depends on terroir and vineyard management. Growers must prune the floridly promiscuous vines to intensify flavor and bring out the taste of the land. Winemakers then use simplest techniques: no oak, no malolactic fermentation, no artifice. Bottle age is the key to superior Chenin Blancs. Young, they are awkward, hard, acidic. With bottle age, however, fruits, honey, and delicious complexities develop.
While winery work is simple and straightforward, winemakers can make Chenin Blanc into almost anything: crisp, dry table wines, sweeter whites, sparkling whites, novice-drinker-pleasing rosés, nectar-like dessert wines that can age a century, a blending wine, even brandy.
World’s best Chenin Blanc comes from middle Loire Valley in France. Look for Savenniers, Vouvray, Coteaux du Layon, and Quarts de Chaume appellations. South Africa (where grape is called Steen) is other place Chenin Blanc shines.
It is the third-most planted grape in California, but most West Coast makers eschew necessary vineyard toils to allow the naturally vigorous vines to recklessly overproduce, resulting in bland, feckless wine notable only for some acidity and used as a major ingredient is cheap jug and box wines.
If California plonk is your Chenin Blanc, swirl a French Loire Valley or a South African creation to see what this grape can achieve when well managed and allowed to mature. You’ll never go back to those California hussies.
• Indaba Chenin Blanc. Plum, citrus, almond finish. South Africa. $10.
• Pierre Chaninier Vouvray Domaine Roc de Châteauvieux. Nice light-weight, crunchy lime and green melon, good acid. $14.
• Dry Creek Chenin Blanc. Peach, apricot, citrus, good intensity. Done right in California. $15.