Getting to know Chenin Blanc

Words: Julie Velosa

For a long time, Chenin Blanc has had a reputation for being ‘that other white wine’. It has never quite reached the widespread recognition of Sauvignon Blanc, nor had the cool factor of Chardonnay. But all of that is changing and this is largely thanks to the growth of this unique white grape right here in South Africa.

Everything you need to know about chenin blanc

You may be surprised to learn that South Africa is the largest producer of Chenin Blanc globally. This may, in part, be attributed to its popularity as a base for brandy, but the varietal has truly come into its own as a wine of sophistication and elegance.

The fact is that in a lineup of white wines, most wine drinkers favour what they know, often being the aforementioned Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay or perhaps a blend. Chenin is lesser known and often this lack of understanding leads to consumers simply sticking with what they know. But for South Africans, that really shouldn’t be the case. We’re not only the largest producer of Chenin globally, but we’re producing some of the best in the world. It’s right on our doorstep and we need to own that.

Recently, leading US wine critic Matt Kramer, named Stellenbosch-based wine estate DeMorgenzon’s The Divas Chenin Blanc, as “one of the three most exciting wines of the 21st century”. High praise indeed, and just one example of the level of Chenin being produced locally.

So, let’s learn a little bit more about this wine. It is recorded to have been grown in the Loire Valley in France as early as 845 and is thought to have arrived in South Africa as one of the cuttings brought over during the time of Jan van Riebeeck (around 1655). It’s known by many names… Pineau, Pineau de la Loire, Pineau d’Anjou, Gros Pineau, Stein and Steen to name just a few. Steen, being a local moniker, is thought to be a derivative of a Dutch word. The fact that it forms part of the word ‘baksteen’, or ‘brick’ in Afrikaans seems to coincidentally go hand-in-hand with its heritage of being a foundation grape of our local wine industry.

Chenin is an extremely versatile grape, it is easy to grow, naturally high yielding and can be coaxed into an easy drinking, crisp white wine, right through to a sweet wine with great ageing ability.

It is difficult to put any wine varietal into one box saying that this is the style and this is what it suits. The fact is that winemaking is experimental and influences such as terroir, environmental conditions and style of the winemaker all affect the end product. Introducing different processes can entirely change a wine and split a varietal into completely unique wines that appeal to totally different audiences (think oaked and unoaked Chardonnays for example).

South African Chenins are typically fresh, fruit forward and zesty wines that have tropical and stone fruits notes (think pineapple, mango, passion fruit and tangerine). Depending on terroir they also display hints of minerality and flint.

There is a movement towards producing more intense wines that are thoughtfully oaked, producing a creamier mouthfeel and a nuttier, biscuity palate.

Because of its propensity towards sweetness, it has always been a favourite for creating stellar botrytised wines. Botrytised wines are affected by the fungus Botrytis cinerea, which causes noble rot. While noble rot may sound like an oxymoron, it is in fact, a positive effect. The fungus reduces the water content of the grapes and increases the sugar content, producing grapes that are perfect for creating award-winning and ageable sweet wines.

Chenin is a great wine to pair with food; the acidity of a light Chenin can marry well with fresh fare such as sushi and salads. A heavier style Chenin works well with spicy, sweet and sour flavours of Asian cuisine.

What you need to know about Chenin Blanc

  • It is the most widely grown grape in South Africa
  • It’s an incredibly versatile grape.
  • Wines generally err on the side of fresh and fruity.
  • Used as a base for brandy.

Now that you know more about Chenin Blanc, why not increase your wine knowledge and get to know Chardonnay | Red and White Blends | Shiraz | Cabernet Sauvignon | Merlot Pinotage | Rosé | Unusual Wine Varietals

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