Certain wines confuse people just by nature of their multiplicity. It’s easier when a wine has an overarching flavor to define it—like grapefruit in Sauvignon Blanc or black pepper in Syrah —but why scoff depth when there’s shallow pleasure to be had? Chenin blanc, a grape whose ninth century birthplace along France’s Loire Valley remains its most hallowed ground, is called “the world’s most versatile grape variety” in The Oxford Companion to Wine and inspires rhapsody among winos. We call it underappreciated and misunderstood, but most of all, we call it mind-blowingly delicious.
First, an explanation for chenin blanc’s coat of many colors. The grape itself (a mutation of Pineau d’Aunis) is neutral enough that the climate in which it’s grown dictates its style. And although chenin blanc’s grown elsewhere in France (and everywhere from Canada to Cape Town), the Loire Valley—namely Anjou, Bonnezeaux, Chinon, Côteaux du Layon, Jasnières, Montlouis, Quarts de Chaume, Saumur, Savennières, and Vouvray—showcases its entire range from citrusy coquette to sexy sophisticate. A la French mode, the bottles don’t hint at the grape within, rather just the name of its village.
In the cooler, northernmost reaches of the Loire, like Jasnières, wines made from chenin blanc are dry and lean with vigorous acidity. In especially cool vintages, the grape’s acidity can be so austere that its most amicable home is in the region’s sparkler, Crémant de Loire. The continental climate of appellations in the Middle Loire, like Vouvray, Anjou, and Saumur, balance ripe sugars with preservering acid, and a more coastal environ like the Côteaux du Layon promotes the development of botrytis (or noble rot), which creates a honeyed, unctuous wine. In the tiny AOC of Savennières, where winds keep the fog and botrytis at bay, the wines are most often dry. The traditional use of aging in acacia and chestnut barrels gives a yellow tinge and creamy flavor to Savennières, making it, perhaps, the most cerebral of an already brainy bunch.
To add confusion to perplexity, it’s rarely obvious how dry or sweet they are since dryness designations are not required. Sec will be dryer than demi-sec and doux will be sweeter than moelleux, but there’s often more variation and overlap than such a scale implies. What matters most is that the residual sugar in chenin blanc is what makes it so alluring. Without it, the grape’s acidity would feel like whiplash to the tongue. Instead, it fills your mouth with a round, almost oily lushness that’s kept in check by chiseled edges.
Chenin blanc’s aromas and flavors are a cross between bizarre and seductive. In the fruit family, there’s quince, apple, pear, citrus, and melon. In the flower family, there’s honeysuckle and orange blossom. In the none of the above family, there’s lanolin, beeswax, and wet wool. With its slippery, creamy texture and sweet-tart flavor, I often find that lemon meringue pie compares the closest.
Sometimes referred to as France’s answer to riesling (that other darling amongst sommeliers), chenin blanc’s an ideal dinner date. Dry chenin blanc works with anything other whites do. Semi-dry versions can handle everything from creamy sauces to chicken liver paté and sweet versions are a knockout with foie gras. And given our mild winter and summery spring, a perennial crossover’s good to have.
Chenin blanc’s unique for its ageability. In sweet versions, it can live for at least 100 years due to the grape’s naturally high acidity. Demi-sec examples can last into their 30s and even some sparkling and dry bottlings from top producers and favorable vintages can age for 10 years or so.
I’d be remiss not to mention South Africa and California, which combined grow more chenin blanc than France. In South Africa, where it goes by the name Steen, the wines are usually dry or off-dry with characteristic aromatics and viscosity. Nice examples come from Indaba, Man Vintners, and Stellenbosch. Most of California’s chenin blanc plantings are in the hot Central Valley where the result is one of mediocrity, but in the past 15 years or so, the Clarksburg AVA in the Sacramento Valley has made a name for itself with plush and pretty examples like Dry Creek Vineyards.
The best way to fall for chenin blanc is to go somewhere where you can try it in all its glorious variations, poured by someone who’s cuckoo for it. Here, that’s as easy as pulling up a stool at Tastings of Charlottesville and asking Bill or Jason to enlighten you. It’s spring and love is in the air.