How chenin blanc charms the wine experts

Chenin blanc

If there was a boxing match of sorts for sommeliers, it wouldn’t be hard to get them to trade punches over which white grape is the most elegant, age-worthy, and terroir-expressive: riesling or chenin blanc, writes Rachel Signer. Both varietals are capable of producing wines that range from bone-dry to fully sweet, and each displays unique and complex attributes depending on where it's grown.

Chenin blanc, or "chenin," hails from the Loire Valley, a cool climate wine region in Northwest France known for being a stronghold of the natural wine movement. Although the flavor of chenin blanc wines varies greatly, the grape is beloved for its mouth-watering acidity, defined by an overall floral nature, with notes of honey and stonefruits.

One of the US’ most well-known advocates of the grape is Pascaline Lepeltier, the influential and charismatic Master Sommelier and wine director of New York's soon-to-reopen Rouge Tomate Chelsea. Growing up in the Loire Valley, Lepeltier recalls that her family drank fairly basic, even inferior, sweet wine made from chenin blanc—because that’s what was available, a few decades back. But oh, how things have changed.

Lepeltier’s career as a sommelier has been partly focused on championing lesser-known, small wine producers, with emphasis on those making elegant chenin blanc.


"The way we are drinking wine now is incredibly recent and new," she says, explaining that, for decades, chenin blanc suffered something of an image problem; it was known as a mediocre dessert wine, rather than a "great dry white wine". Captivated by the grape’s complexity and acidity early in her career, curiosity and intuition drove Lepeltier to learn more. Over time, she visited chenin producers and came to understand that the grape's maligned image was the result of how it was vinified, not its intrinsic character. More and more, Lepeltier tasted excellent dry chenin, and realized that the style was going completely overlooked.

The story behind chenin's bad rep is related to the difficulty with making authentic sweet wine. "Until the 1960s, everybody made [chenin] as mostly sweet wine with botrytis grapes, and dry wines were just a byproduct," Lepeltier explains. Botrytis refers to noble rot, a favorable mold that forms on grapes when they are allowed to hang on the vine late into the harvest season. Botritized grapes are the essential component for a true dessert wine, but the noble rot may not grow properly if climatic conditions are not exactly correct. To compensate for times when botrytis did not occur, winemakers in the Loire Valley began pumping their wines with sugar, a technique called chaptalization that today is much frowned-upon. The result: chenin blanc wines were sweet, but not elegant or natural, and the French turned their noses up toward them.


"Chaptalization had a bad impact. It went along with making higher yield wines, which were less concentrated, and then you just added the sugar," says Lepeltier. When people thought of chenin blanc, they associated the wine with "bad sweetness, headaches, all that crap".

Over time, winemakers realized that they had to cut out chaptalization, and give up on the idea of only making sweet chenin blanc, turning their focus to dry, mineral wines starting in the late 80s. This corresponded with a shift to biodynamic viticulture, largely inspired by the Savennières winemaker Nicolas Joly, who authored books on the subject and championed it in every way possible. Biodynamics is, at its heart, a natural method to care for plants. With grapes, the farming approach is intended to produce healthier vines that yield fewer berries of superior quality. As more winemakers began to concentrate on quality vineyard management, their wines improved, and it slowly became clear that chenin blanc was one of the world’s most unique and worthy white grapes.


ABOVE: Some of the flavours one can pick up on chenin blanc, depending on the style of the wine.

Today, wine enthusiasts know that chenin blanc produces stunning dry wines in all price ranges; the Loire Valley is the grape’s home base, but it has prospered elsewhere, too. South Africa, whose wines entered the world market following the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, has emerged as one of the world’s major chenin blanc producers, and the country yields very good examples of the wine. In the U.S., on the West Coast, one will find great expression of the grape, too. Chenin generally thrives in cooler climates, where its acidity is best preserved, although it is adaptable and consequently does well in warmer places like South Africa, and Southern France.

While dry chenin wine has achieved popularity thanks to supporters like Lepeltier, off-dry chenin is not to be forgotten. For Kirk Sutherland, beverage director at New York’s High Street on Hudson, his "aha" chenin moment happened at AOC wine bar in Los Angeles after trying an off-dry style from famed Loire Valley producer Domaine Huet: 2002 La Mont Demi-Sec.

"I didn’t really know what it was going to be," recalls Sutherland, who names chenin blanc as his "absolute favorite" white grape. "I took a whiff of it," he recounts, "not knowing it was going to be an off-dry white." The first sip knocked him out: "It was like being hit with a cattle prod from the acid, it was a jolt of electric acidity, then this really intense note of peaches, and then it finished so beautifully, floral and soft. It was mind-blowing." He emphasizes chenin’s diversity, pointing out that it can vary drastically depending on the soil in which it is planted, and the winemaker’s style.

RIGHT: And yes, chenin blanc even produces a superb and delightful "champagne"!

Discover the complexity of chenin blanc by exploring bottles from different SA producers and different styles, and even from different parts of the world.

(Source: EATER.COM)