Historically, Chenin Blanc has been most famously grown in the Loire Valley. There is a legitimate argument to be made, however, that its many expressions from South Africa rival their French counterparts. It also thrives in California, where it’s been grown for generations. That’s the beauty of Chenin Blanc: Its versatility is remarkable, and the range of styles in which it can be produced means that it appeals to a broad swath of preferences.
What is Chenin Blanc Wine?
Chenin Blanc is a white or sparkling, dry or sweet wine produced from the grape variety of the same name. It’s typically redolent of fruit, vivid with mouthwatering acidity, or — in the best cases — both. The popularity of Chenin Blanc has been growing for years, especially among so-called New World producers who are finding exciting locations from South Africa to California to grow it and creative, often forward-thinking ways to make it, whether through inventive work with the lees, experimenting with aging vessels, and more. No matter what style you’re considering, Chenin Blanc wines offer the potential to appeal to a range of taste and texture preferences.
Where Does Chenin Blanc Wine Come From?
Chenin Blanc is most famous, grown, and produced in France and South Africa. In France’s Loire Valley, the appellations of Vouvray and Sanennieres are arguably the most well-known, though Anjou and Saumur are also highly regarded. (Those place names will appear on the label instead of the grape’s name in most cases.) The Chenin Blanc-focused appellations of Quarts de Chaume and Jasnieres are also worth looking for, as are sparkling Cremants de Loire, in which Chenin Blanc often plays an important role. For quite some time, South African Chenin Blanc was known by its Afrikaans name Steen, though more producers are using Chenin Blanc on their labels these days.
Chenin Blanc does particularly well in South Africa in Stellenbosch, Franschhoek, and Swartland. In California, Chenin Blanc has a long (if not widely well-known) history-look for Chalone or Lang & Reed for excellent examples. Notable ones can also be found in Washington State, Argentina (Catena Zapata produces a delicious one), and, to a lesser extent, Australia.
Why Should You Drink Chenin Blanc Wine?
Chenin Blanc is one of those grape varieties that offers something for everyone yet has remained stubbornly below the proverbial radar among a broad sweep of consumers. Sparkling Chenin Blanc — as well as bubbly that incorporates Chenin Blanc into the blend — often offers serious value for the money: Cremant de Loire is food-friendly, perfect as an aperitif, and can be found for well under $30…and often far less.
At the table, Chenin Blanc’s naturally bright acidity makes it an excellent foil for more decadent foods: That “zippiness” cuts through butter and cream and perks up everything from flaky fish to poultry. Chenin Blanc is a delicious option for the notoriously difficult-to-pair Thanksgiving dinner: It will work with roasted turkey, liven up stuffing, and, in its slightly sweeter versions, even work alongside sweet potatoes. (Not so much with cranberry sauce, however, as the dish’s tart acidity and added sugar call for something more akin to a slightly chilled Beaujolais Nouveau or, even better, an IPA.)
What Does Chenin Blanc Taste Like?
Drier versions of Chenin Blanc tend to remain vibrant with orchard, citrus, and stone fruit notes that are cut through with mouthwatering acidity and often a spine of minerality. When they’re made in a sweeter style, and especially the botrytized ones of Quarts de Chaume (this means that the grapes were affected by Botrytis cinerea, the same fungus responsible for Sauternes and Trockenbeerenauslese), they take on a distinctly honeyed character that makes them perfect for cheese courses and dessert, as well as pairing partners for foie gras.
Most producers want to showcase Chenin Blanc’s bright, crisp acidity, which is why these wines are rarely aged in oak(and when they are, it’s generally older oak, which imparts fewer additional flavors). Sparkling and dry non-sparkling Chenin Blanc is best served chilled, though the wine will become more complex as some of the chill diminishes in the glass. Sweeter versions are best enjoyed cool but not too cold, allowing their honeyed and sometimes earthy and floral nuances to express themselves more fully. Chenin Blanc is best enjoyed from a Sauvignon Blanc-style or universal wine glass.
Five Great Chenin Blanc Wines
There are countless great Chenin Blanc wines on the market today. These five producers, listed alphabetically, are a perfect way to start exploring all that Chenin Blanc offers.
Aperture and Chappellet
In recent years, Winemaker Jesse Katz has become one of the more buzzed-about producers in Napa Valley. His reds and whites are generous, structured, and often very age-worthy. The 2020 Barrel Fermented Chenin Blanc, from the Aperture Soil Series of wines, is crafted from the 1940s dry-farmed Chenin Blanc. It shows notable creaminess and weight, bright lemon-lime acidity, and hints of lime blossoms, lime leaves, and graham crackers through the finish. Chappellet, which produces one of the most esteemed Cabernet Sauvignons in Napa Valley — their iconic Pritchard Hill bottling — also produces the Molly Chappellet Signature Chenin Blanc. 2021 is vibrant and intensely mineral, with flavors of lemon pith and fresh ginger dancing alongside apricot pits and hard pears. It’s a phenomenal wine to enjoy on its own or with food.
This classic producer has been in Vouvray for nearly a century and represents an excellent range of what Chenin Blanc is capable of in the most expert hands. And the land in which much of their Chenin grows is extraordinary. Their demi-sec bottling of Le Haut-Lieu is crafted from Chenin Blanc grown on a parcel that the Huet family acquired in the late 1920s, resulting in impressive historical knowledge of how to make the most of it.
L’Ecole No. 41
Though better known for its reds, Ecole No. 41 also crafts an old vine Chenin Blanc from the Yakima Valley. Their materials refer to it as “Vouvray-style,” though it translates that classic through the distinct lens of Washington State.
Among a rewarding, varied range of wines, the 2018 Jurassic Vineyard Chenin Blanc from Santa Ynez Valley shines: The nose here is gorgeous, transparent, and mineral, with lemon oil and hot rocks. On the palate, minerality, lemon pith, almonds, and yellow plums come through in this highly textural wine.
Raats Family Wines
This top Stellenbosch producer makes two Chenin Blancs — an Original and an Old Vine. Both showcase what makes the Western Cape of South Africa such an important location for this grape variety.