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Tales of the Underrated: Chenin Blanc

It was drinking an Anjou Blanc with English asparagus a couple of months ago – Château de Fesles La Chapelle 2011, since you ask – that reminded me what an underrated grape variety Chenin Blanc is. It’s not that people haven’t heard of it. South African Chenin is out there providing an unchallenging, cheap white wine option in supermarkets, pubs and bars the length and breadth of the UK, maybe partly encouraged by the fact that it's pronounceable, which is more than you can say for Cserszegi Fuszeres. But how often do you hear someone say, “Favourite grape variety? Chenin Blanc,” in the way people do about Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Viognier, and used to say about Chardonnay? Not a lot, I bet. So let’s hear if for Chenin.

Stylistically, it’s exceptionally wide-ranging, from dry to intensely sweet, still, sparkling, early drinking to exceptionally long-lived, cheap through to expensive. Not that versatility itself is a reason for a high rating, but the sheer quality Chenin is capable of deserves recognition beyond the current cognoscenti. There are rich yet dry, intense and invigoratingly fresh, old-vine South African Chenins; mineral, tangy, bone-dry yet honeyed Loire wines from Anjou (I don’t just mean Savennières); and, yes, there's the extraordinary, concentrated, honeyed sweetness and thrilling acidity in sweet Coteaux du Layon (Bonnezeaux, Quarts de Chaume, Chaume et al).

Then there’s Chenin’s food friendliness, including with ingredients/dishes that can be treacherous, such as asparagus, vitello tonnato (veal, tuna, capers, mayonnaise ­– not easy), crab, sweet caramelised onions and root vegetables, and lightly spicy dishes. Again, it isn’t proof of quality, but it does add to its worth.

A baker’s dozen of Chenin producers to seek out:

Domaine du Closel, Savennières

Domaine des Baumard, Savennières

Domaine des Forges, Anjou (including Coteaux du Layon)

Domaine Patrick Baudouin, Anjou (including Coteaux du Layon)

Château de Fesles, Anjou (including Coteaux du Layon)

Domaine François Chidaine, Vouvray

The Tea Leaf Chenin Blanc, Western Cape

Mullineux Family Wines, Swartland

Sadie Family Wines, Swartland

De Morgenzon, Stellenbosch

Ken Forrester, Stellenbosch

Kleine Zalze, Stellenbosch

The Millton Vineyard, Gisborne (New Zealand)

This post first appeared on on 21st September 2015

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