Funnily enough, we have never in this group tasted Chenin Blanc as an individual, world-wide theme. We have studied Loire in general 3 or 4 times, each time with an example or two of Chenin. We have also covered Loire Whites (where there were 3 examples); and Vouvray (with – of course – all 6) – but never New World v Old World Chenin.

It’s odd then to be at two Chenin Blanc tastings in less than two months. Those of you that read my post (May 20th) know already how highly I rate the grape. With dashing acidity, indestructible life and development, and surprisingly rich flavours it is a great food wine.

Chenin Blanc is quite a small grape in the world-wide pantheon – a little over 1% of the world’s wine is produced from it – a little more than Pinot Gris / Grigio. However it punches well above its weight – making excellent wine in a wide variety of styles that no other grape (Riesling maybe…) achieves.

It is an old variety with references to “Plant d’Anjou” as far back as 1492. The wine and the name “Chenin” are in Rabelais: “O le gentil vin blanc! Et par mon ame, c’est nest que vin de taffetas”. [Gargantua – Bk. 1, 1534].

The flavours of Chenin include: honeysuckle, some oily notes, passion fruit, baked apples, soft fruit… Richness and some minerality are coupled with a searing acidity and can make it a wine that can age for a very long time. The combination of flavours works exceedingly well, supremely well, some might say, for a dessert wine. Top examples are expensive – around the £30 mark for current Loire vintages – but much less expensive than comparable Sauternes, say. They also have a lightness of touch, “finesse” is the only word for it, that can give astonishing pleasure.

A glimpse of this is available in the demi-sec style; the hint of sweetness makes the wines go well as an aperitif (again it has some similarities to Riesling here) or with salty hors d’oeuvres.

Chenin is not widespread: 53% of it is in South Africa, where it is something like their flagship white. 28% is in France –  6/7 ths of this is in Anjou or Touraine and the remaining portion near Limoux – where it is a component of Cremant and sometimes vinified as dry still wines. There is 9% in USA, overwhelmingly in California, and 8% in Argentina; no other plantings are significant.

Chenin Blanc’s home is the middle Loire areas of Anjou and Tourraine, around the towns of Angers and Tours. Here we are in Chateau country, and beautiful countryside adorned with picturesque rivers. I don’t mean the Loire itself, so much, but the tributaries that join it from the South: the Cher; the Indre; the Vienne; the Thouet; the Layon… or those from the North near Angers: the Maine; the Loir; the Mayenne and the Sarthe.

You’ll be familiar with some of the Appellations in Anjou and Tourraine: Vouvray; Montlouis; Saumur; Savennierres; Coteaux de Layon; Coteaux de l’Aubance; Bonnezeaux and Chaume have varying degrees of fame.

On the Eastern (Tourraine) side many wine makers in Vouvray and Montlouis will make every style. However in the West (Anjou) side Savennierres will be (very) dry and Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux and Quarts des Chaumes will be fully sweet.

Historically – especially in Vouvray – the top wine was thought to be a demi-sec, a bit like a German Riesling Auslese, and which similarly suffered from thin copies. Also, again in common with German Riesling, the ideas of demi-sec varied widely, and some are real dessert wines while others only just off dry. In this tasting we won’t consider the demi-sec, (perhaps sadly) as the style is quite uncommon outside the Loire.

In South Africa Chenin Blanc (sometimes called “Steen”) is the most widely planted grape variety, comprising over 18% of the national vineyard and 1/3 of the whites. A lot of the wine produced is nondescript white wine and even some specialist varietal examples can underwhelm. Good growers – especially with old rootstock – can make excellent dry examples. In my experience they focus on concentration and complexity, in a rather more Burgundian package – rather than the piquancy of Loire examples. The same could be said – perhaps even more so – of other New World examples from Argentina and USA. So we might expect – whatever their plus or minus points – that they aren’t really comparable as they express completely different interpretations of the grape.

We’ll concentrate first on comparing dry wines from two smaller Chenin sources: Limoux and California. Then we’ll try two further dry wines from the powerhouses of the grape – Loire and South Africa. Finally we’ll stay in those two areas for two dessert wines.

My notes will be posted in 3 or 4 days.

Until then…

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