In praise of Chenin Blanc

The greatest advantage that Chenin Blanc has may also be its downfall. This was one of the thoughts that came out of a discussion following a tasting masterclass of Chenin Blanc from around the world organised by Armit Wines. “Around the world” was actually the Loire, South Africa (so far, so expected), New Zealand and Australia. The latter two have tiny amounts planted, in NZ it’s just 24 ha in total, but were a pleasing confirmation of Chenin’s adaptability and ability to express terroir.

While Chenin can be semi-aromatic in the right soils and with the appropriate coaxing, it can also be neutral. It can appear in sparkling, dry, off-dry, sweet, dessert and distilled styles. And it is this multi-faceted personality that may have lessened its impact on the public imagination. In the UK at least, varietally labelled Chenin was first introduced in the large crop, simple, blended with Chardonnay to give familiar reassurance on the label, entry level wine from South Africa. Where incidentally 80% of vines are Chenin Blanc, more is planted there than in the rest of the world combined. It was a derisory introduction to this noble variety.

There has been a long standing trade relationship between the UK and the wines of the Loire however, much like Chablis and Chardonnay, there isn’t necessarily an understanding that Vouvray and Savennieres, Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume and Cremant de Loire are all from Chenin Blanc. And with these vastly distinct styles how can the grape be communicated to the public? It’s a lot to expect. Yet as with the trade’s love affair with Riesling (that sadly still makes little progress), it is surely worth finding a way to explain these beautiful wines which so reward a little exploration.

From McClaren Vale, Australia we heard from Dowie Doole owner and winemaker, Chris Thomas, that Chenin was used for making ‘white Burgundy’ in the 1970s and subsequently grubbed up, only recently being given any consideration as a serious variety. The style here is aimed at a classic Loire style and with barrel maturation and a hint of MLF (one barrel goes through malo and is then blended into the whole) the chameleon grape manages to give a hint of Burgundian polish as well as the crisp apple freshness of a Vouvray sec but crucially has a tropical lime character that is unmistakably Australian.

Chris ThomasChris Thomas

At Astrolabe in Marlborough, New Zealand Jane Forrest-Waghorn and Simon Waghorn have always been interested in making single vineyard wines and the 4 ha of Chenin Blanc on heavy loam / clay is no exception. Here the wine is fermented using wild yeasts in a mixture of 500lt barrels and stainless steel tanks then left for 5 months. Interestingly they favour a lot of heavy solids left in the wine but stir infrequently because they like the struck match note of reduction that they get.

The result of this is a richly textured, full bodied wine however the Marlborough effect is in full flight as the aromatics and palate are shot through with the soaring precision of fruit that is so unique to this region. The cleansing winds mean there is rarely botrytis – which allows for a long hang time to develop the fruit esters – but we did taste a 2013 late harvest with 40% botrytis which was wonderfully marmalade rich and unctuous but not in the slightest bit cloying. A delicious wine.

Astrolabe owners - Jane Forrest-Waghorn and Simon WaghornJane Forrest-Waghorn and Simon Waghorn

While South Africa is proud of the European heritage of its most widely planted variety, Adam Mason, winemaker at Mulderbosch in Stellenbosch, explained that it is unstable and prone to mutation. UV light (which SA has high levels of) exacerbates this and alters chromosomal patterns. So SA now, after 300 years, has its own variation that it can claim as indigenous.

Mulderbosch (main picture) have been making premium Chenin since before it was fashionable and are now trying to increase awareness of regionality and single vineyard sites. The increase in grape prices that this can justify also encourages higher quality and attention to detail. This is important in a country where more of the variety has been grubbed up than planted in recent years.

We tasted 3 wines from different blocks on different soils and indeed could see distinctions. Block A on sand soils was a delicate green apple wine with a restrained palate and perhaps not quite enough oomph to cope with the 14% abv making it a little hot on the finish. However the shale soil of Block S2 gave a more intense wine with lots of sweet spice which fully balanced the alcohol. Block W on granite soil was my favourite expression of the grape with full mineral power, a fatness from 10 months on lees, pungency of fruit and an austere muscularity.

As expected the South African wines showed a fantastic balance of New World fruit ripeness combined with an Old World restraint.

Adam Mason - Tim AtkinAdam Mason photographed by Tim Atkin

And then we came to what is probably the benchmark estate for Chenin Blanc – Domaine Huet in Vouvray. It may be because my palate has been educated in Europe but from the first sip it felt like coming home. The restrained savoury character across the 3 wines, the phenolic texture, the tension from the acidity, the chalkiness. It was wonderful to taste. The demi-sec has 18g/l of residual sugar but the finish was so clean and almost gave the impression of being dry. The moelleux has 50g/l RS which felt negligible due to the complexity of the honey, hay and nuts on the palate. An appropriately stunning wine to finish what was a fascinating look at the possibilities of Chenin Blanc.

The vines at this bio-dynamic estate are re-planted using massal selection which gives an iconic style because of the genetic identity specific to that site. They have been making wine here since the 1920s and achieved AOC status in 1936. There are wines dating back to those times that, I’m told, are still drinking beautifully. Perhaps though, their ability to make so many styles is a confusion too great for some consumers and is a reason why the wines are only approached by knowledgeable drinkers. The estate is now owned by the Hwang family.

Domaine Huet SmallSarah Hwang

Chenin Blanc sits neatly between two other wildly popular varieties with Sauvignon Blanc pungency on the left and Pinot Grigio neutrality on the right. My personal taste finds one exhausting and the other boring – although of course there are exceptionally well made examples of both. CB has the ability to excite, thrill even, without intruding on a conversation or a dish. I hope we find a way of communicating this to the wide audience that it certainly deserves.


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