Everything You Need to Know About Chenin Blanc Wines

Why is this white grape so popular in South Africa? We explore the history and characteristics of Chenin Blanc, as well as best food pairings.

Everything You Need to Know About Chenin Blanc Wines

While Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are extremely popular white wine varietals in South Africa, Chenin Blanc is arguably the country’s white wine of choice. So what is the secret to the popularity of this signature grape?

To truly understand Chenin Blanc's popularity and why it is so revered in South Africa, let us first explore the backstory of this grape varietal.

 

The History of Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is a white wine grape hailing from the Loire Valley of France, traced back to the ninth century. The French initially cultivated it to make sparkling and dessert wines. Due to its high acidity, however, the grape is exceptionally versatile, so it is used to make a wide range of styles from sparkling to still wines, and from bone dry to decadently sweet.

How did Chenin Blanc find its way to South Africa’s shores? Many believe it was brought to SA by Jan van Riebeeck in the early 17th century.

In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is historically known as Steen. Recently, it’s become a force to be reckoned with in South Africa. It is the country’s most widely planted grape. More than 50% of the world's Chenin Blanc vineyards are in South Africa, most of which are over 20 years old, with some registered vineyards over 100 years old. These old vines produce wines with deep, concentrated flavours.

South African Chenin also makes up the most significant portion of vines classified by the independent wine organisation called Old Vine Project (OVP). One of the objectives of the OVP is to develop a culture of caring for younger vines, thus keeping them healthy and productive in old age.

Chenin Blanc grapes are predominantly grown in the Breedekloof wine region, followed by Olifants River, Paarl, Swartland, Worcester, Robertson and Stellenbosch.

Thanks to the efforts of local producers, Chenin Blanc now stands as arguably the country’s leading white grape variety for premium wines. A brilliant example is the Alvi's Drift Albertus Viljoen Chenin Blanc, which was selected as the South African wine at the 2021 Sommeliers Choice Awards in the US.

 

It’s perfectly showcased in Alvi’s Drift’s new, limited-edition Chenin Blanc Gold Vintage Boxes.

 

 

What Are the Characteristics of Chenin Blanc?

As mentioned, this versatile grape is used to make many different styles of wine. Its flavours and characteristics are largely dependent on climate, the region where the grapes are grown, i.e. the terroir, as well as the winemaking process.

Not only do the styles range from dry to sweet, but the colour can also vary from pale straw to pale amber.

In relation to other white wine varietals, Chenin Blanc wines produced in South Africa tend to showcase more tropical fruit flavours, while Sauvignon Blancs lean more towards green herbaceous flavours. Both, however, are high in acidity. As a rule of thumb, Chenin is the drier wine in comparison to the rich butteriness of Chardonnay. Oaked Chenin, however, displays similar characteristics attributed to Chardonnay.

While you will most often find this grape in SA as a single varietal, it is often used in white wine blends. For example, some winemakers combine it with Semillon, Viognier, and Marsanne to make a richer-styled wine similar to an oaked Chardonnay. Another popular “blend” is with Sauvignon Blanc, which produces a fresh, zesty dry wine.

 

 

What Aromas Can You Expect?

The aromas you may experience when enjoying Chenin Blanc will often link back to the style of wine. Modern-day South African Chenin wines display an array of primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. These aromas range from fresh and fruity to nutty and biscuity.

Typically a dry style of Chenin Blanc delivers wonderfully aromatic tropical fruit aromas such as mango, citrus fruit, peach, pineapple, and pear. In comparison, the sweeter styles will express ripe pear, ginger, stewed fruit and honey aromas.

For a more detailed overview, check out the Chenin Blanc Association’s flavour wheel (available in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa, with more South African languages to come).

 

Styles and Flavours of Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc grapes can deliver a wide range of flavours, varying from more fruity elements like apple, quince, melon, apricot, guava and pineapple to richer elements such as honeycomb, toffee and biscuity qualities. These flavour variations most often reflect the winemaking style, climate, and wine-growing region.

Dry or fresh styles of Chenin have a higher acidity, offering a zesty freshness and minerality with flavours of stone fruit, white pear, quince and citrus. A perfect example of this style of wine is the Alvi's Drift Signature Chenin Blanc, as it is wonderfully balanced with crisp acidity and fruit on the palate.

Off-dry or fruity Chenin Blanc delivers riper fruit flavours of guava, peach, passionfruit and apple, with notes of vanilla.

Sweet or “richer” styles have toast, nuts, marmalade, and honeycomb flavours.

Sparkling styles can range from dry (Brut) to sweet (Demi-Sec), with Chenin Blanc's classic characteristics of tropical fruit, honeysuckle, apple and biscuity notes.

Chenin blanc is also used to produce port, sherry and, more specifically in South Africa, some of the world's most acclaimed brandies.

 

Chenin Blanc Food Pairings

As wines go, Chenin Blanc is an excellent food wine and can be successfully paired with a wide variety of dishes. Because of Chenin Blanc’s higher acidity, you’ll find it pairs well with foods with sweet and sour elements. Asian flavours pair well with a richer and sweeter style of Chenin Blanc.

Being a versatile wine, you can pair Chenin Blanc with a variety of meats as well as fish. For example, you can happily pair it with roast chicken, pork dishes, and seafood such as grilled salmon, prawns, or salt and pepper squid.

Chenin Blanc will also partner well with a selection of cheeses. The cheese you select will depend on the style of Chenin you are drinking, but a creamy Brie or Camembert, mature Cheddar or even blue cheese pair beautifully with most examples of this wine.

A sparkling Chenin Blanc is ideal for a dessert pairing, such as a chocolate fondant or an Apple Tarte Tatin.

 

Shop Online for an Award-winning Selection of Wines from Alvi's Drift

Alvi's Drift offers a fantastic selection of Chenin Blanc wines to help you further explore this signature varietal. Visit the Alvi's Drift online shop and explore the selection of award-winning wines.

FIONA ROSSITER

Founder of www.inspiredlivingsa.co.za, Fiona loves sharing her wine knowledge with others. One of her favourite quotes, "Life is too short to drink bad wine" sums it up perfectly. Living in South Africa, she is fortunate to have access to one of the world's best wine regions.

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