Considered to be among the most versatile grapes in the world, chenin blanc (pronounced sheh·nuhn blaangk) is a veritable chameleon that, rather unfortunately, is largely overlooked by many modern wine drinkers. But there are plenty of wine makers who are trying to change this, especially those within new world regions.
Produced all over the world in many different styles, this is a wine that boasts a wide range of flavours, designed to suit just about any occasion. Whichever your taste buds are gravitating towards, a bottle of chenin blanc may just be what you’ve been looking for and simply didn’t know it.
With natural high acidity, chenin blanc is not a wine that can easily be characterized as ripe and fruity (passionfruit, pear and honeydew are common flavours). Many fit within the style of complex and oak-aged, with subtle notes of lemon, ginger spice and zingy minerality – perfect alongside savoury dishes. But there’s also sweet and succulent chenin, with wonderous notes of orange blossom and a pronounced syrupiness – made for the dessert wine fanatic. And fancy diversifying your sparkling wine options and pair a sparkling chenin blanc with smoked salmon or appetizers during your next patio gathering.
Known to many oenophiles as an ancient white wine grape variety native to France, where it has been cultivated for approximately 1,300 years, chenin blanc is commonly associated with the Loire Valley. However, the majority of the world’s chenin blanc crop grows in South Africa – a place where the grape thrives and is grown in such high yields. It’s by far the largest planted white wine grape in the country.
But South Africa isn’t the only new world wine region that’s making its mark with this grape. Pockets within California’s Sonoma County and Napa Valley are also producing fine examples, and additional areas supplying delicious expressions include Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Canada – yes, even Ontario has some chenin blanc which has become somewhat of a cult find for those in the know.
The chenin blanc grown at Road 13 Vineyards within British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is in fact very special. Planted in 1968, the vines are some of the oldest chenin blanc vines that producers are aware of in North America. The Golden Mile Bench (with its limestone soils) are seemingly a perfect place for promoting deep root growth and ripening these old vines, while maintaining acidity and giving a mid-palate richness and weight, and ultimately the wine’s concentration of flavour.
With so many different styles/regions to try from, chenin blanc is a grape that never gets boring, no matter how many times you’ve had it. If you’re entirely new to it, try opening one bottle each from France, South Africa and Canada at the same time so as to experience the key differences between the three. The more you taste, the more you’ll get to know this versatile, flavourful grape that’s a true wonder of the wine world.
Domaine Gendron 2018 ‘Cuvee Clos Cartaud’ Vouvray
The Gendron family has lived and worked in Vouvray since the time of Louis XVI and are arguably an old world chenin authority. This Loire Valley single vineyard masterpiece comes from a picturesque plot called ‘Le Clos Cartaud’, which contains some very old vines – some of which were planted as far back as 1912! This expression is quite floral on the nose, with a hint of almond and melon fruit. On the palate, it’s elegantly structured, dry with bracing acidity and mineral undertones. A perfect pairing for grilled fish, cheeses and fruit salad. ($18.95)
Mullineux 2021 ‘Kloof Street’ Chenin Blanc
From three 40+ year old sustainably farmed vineyard parcels in different parts of the Swartland comes this super premium take on South Africa’s signature variety. Mullineux is a highly focused family winery that uses the ‘Kloof Street’ name to signify a range of wines designed to introduce drinkers to Mullineux. This chenin is all about freshness, balance and drinkability. The nose is of squeezed lemon, pear and crushed gravel. Off dry with vibrant acidity, the wine sits very soft on the palate, with a kiss of lemon and a mineral freshness. A gorgeous wine. ($19.95)
Radford Dale 2020 ‘Vinum’ Chenin Blanc
From the Stellenbosch appellation within the Cape of South Africa, the combined elements, including the altitude of the vineyards, the steep south-east facing slope and the proximity to water mean that these vines are well exposed and cooled by winds that come off the ocean during the long, hot summers. A lively expression with beautiful aromatics and a steely palate, this is exactly the quality one should expect from older vines coming out of this area. Flavours of pineapple and stone fruits are underlined with a clean mineral component that finishes fresh. ($19.95)
Road 13 2020 ‘Chip off the Old Block’ Chenin Blanc
From arguably the oldest chenin blanc vines in all of North America (planted in 1968), this is a real treat of a wine that comes from an unlikely place – British Columbia’s Golden Mile Bench and Okanagan Valley . Ripe nectarine, peach, and orange blossom immediately come to mind when giving this a sniff. There’s also a hint of mango and jasmine. On the palate, this wine is a ripe fruit basket filled with nectarines, peaches, mango, and passionfruit. Off dry, with balanced acidity and an extended finish, this wine makes for an ultimate refresher. ($23)
Pearce Predhomme 2020 ‘Wild Ferment’ Chenin Blanc
A collaboration between Nicholas Pearce and Will Predhomme, their partnership is founded on the intent to create wines from their favourite regions. This naturally fermented chenin blanc is made from old bush vines grown in decomposed granite/quartz on the Helderberg, in the southwestern-most corner of Stellenbosch. A textbook expression, this is minerally-driven with notes of tangerine, lemon, honeyed peaches and apple. It’s bright and refreshing, and an understood top seller. ($19.95)
Ken Forrester 2020 ‘Old Vine Reserve’ Chenin Blanc
Another from Helderberg, in Stellenbosch, this is perhaps the region’s gold standard from a man arguably referred to as the king of chenin. From vines planted nearly half a century ago and farmed with particularity and respect for the surrounding environment, this is one of those rare occasions (now a days) where a wine’s quality clocks in far above its price point. A lovely golden hue in the glass, take your time to enjoy its melon and spicy baked apple aromas. The palate is layered, with mineral notes enhanced by honeycomb and caramel flavours from lees contact. This is such a great example of the harmonious balance which can be achieved between fruit and delicate oak/vanilla flavours, as they combine to form complex, soft flavours with sufficient body to enhance even spicy and full flavoured meals. A steal of a price! ($17.95)
Big Head 2019 Chenin Blanc
From one of Ontario’s premium producers, the Big Head Chenin Blanc is one of those cult favourites – especially of local sommeliers – perhaps because chenin is just so rare in Ontario. But we can’t discount that this is a real find for its quality too! Ripe apple, pear, and honey aromas are textbook. The palate is dry, but the sweet taste of ripening fruit makes you second guess how dry. There is a varietally correct fresh acidity that stays with you through the citrusy mid palate. Textured notes of bee’s wax on the finish will leave you smacking your lips. ($25)
Dry Creek Vineyard 2018 Chenin Blanc
This is from an appellation within California’s Sonoma County region, known as Clarksburg – one of the last remaining places in California that’s known for producing fine chenin wines. Melon, sweet lemon, and a hint of ginger come through on the nose. Nectarine and mandarin orange pop on the palate, ginger joins on the mid-palate, and sweet lemon lingers. It’s a rounder wine, and mouthfeel is a touch heavy – alc/vol is 13% – but a worthy expression, nonetheless. ($21.95)