The Story of Chenin Blanc: South Africa’s Favourite White Grape

Chenin Blanc is the flagship white grape variety that hails from the Loire Valley wine region that traverses the northern regions of France.  In this article, RAKQ will share the fascinating history of this versatile grape, so you can appreciate why the wine is so good.

 

The Chenin Blanc Origin Story

Did you know that researchers believe the Chenin Blanc grape has been cultivated in the Loire Valley wine region for more than a thousand years.  Therefore, we know that this thick-skinned grape thrives in both cool and warmer climates.  Furthermore, non-aromatic and featuring high acidity, this popular and versatile grape is produced in still, sparkling, sweet, and dry styles.

 

Its origins in South Africa are thought to date back to 1655, when the first cuttings arrived from Europe whereafter it was known as Steen.  With more than 50% of the world’s Chenin Blanc vineyards found in South Africa today, this grape’s birthplace might be France, but its spiritual home is the Rainbow Nation.  Moreover, it accounts for the greatest number of grape plantings of any colour across the country.

 

What’s more, many plantings of Chenin Blanc in South Africa date back for decades or even more resulting in sturdy old vines that produce fine, concentrated expressions of wine from this classic grape.  The success of this grape variety across the Cape is such that it’s become South Africa’s signature white.

 

Today, it’s produced in a range of styles running the gamut of fresh, fruity, and easy drinking, vibrant and sparkling, plus complex and sweet.  There’s a style of Chenin Blanc for every taste so polish your glasses and start exploring!

Dornier, Cocoa Hill Chenin Blanc 2021

 

Chenin Blancs in Brief

ColourPale straw to deep gold
Main Aromas and FlavoursPear, apple, lime, passion fruit, peach, hay, chamomile, and honeydew melon.
Oak and Maturation AddGinger, honey, butterscotch, toast, nut, brioche, nutmeg, marzipan, and meringue as well as texture.
AcidityHigh
BodyLight to medium
Alcohol11.5 – 14.5%
Ageing PotentialOaked and sweet Chenin Blancs have good ageing potential.
StylesDry to sweet, still and sparkling
Food PairingChenin Blanc is a versatile partner with food. Its lively, fruity character makes it ideal for fish dishes, poultry recipes, light risottos, pâté, and soft cheeses.

Sweeter styles pair well with gently spicy cuisine and go like a dream with fruit pastries and pies.

 

Cederberg, Chenin Blanc 2021

 

Typical South African Style Chenin Blancs

  • Good-value, refreshing, easy-drinking.
  • Rich, ripe, and unoaked with layers of fruit.
  • Rich, ripe, and oaked with rich fruit and nutty toast.
  • Rich, ripe, and gently sweet with spicy dried fruit.
  • Super sweet with generous fruit balanced by good acidity.
  • Sparkling, a style which is gaining ground in South Africa.

 

Stellenbosch Vineyards, Credo Chenin Blanc 2021

 

How Chenin Blanc Wine Is Made

The way South African Chenin Blanc is made depends on the style the winemaker is aiming for.   Much of this white wine is made in an easy-drinking style which sees grapes undergoing what’s known as ‘protective’ winemaking.  This means they’re vinified in inert vessels like stainless steel and do not have any oak treatment.  The objective is to promote the fruit purity of the wine.

 

More complex styles come from old vines famous for yielding concentrated, top-tier fruit.  These styles are usually vinified in a combination of inert vessels and oak, and are often suitable for ageing.

 

Sweet styles are produced using grapes that are specially dried (Straw Wine), late harvest or subject to Noble Rot (a fungus that helps to concentrate flavours, sugars and acids).  All three result in wines that are rich, layered, complex and sumptuous.

 

The most prestigious style of sparkling Chenin Blanc is produced using the ‘Traditional Method’.  When we us this process in South Africa, we call the resultant wine Cap Classique. This premium winemaking process is the same one that Champagne undergoes.  The wine undergoes two fermentations, the second occurring in the bottle.  The bottle fermentation helps produce the wine’s bubbles, or mousse.  Moreover, the “Traditional Method’ is responsible for the appealing bready, brioche notes found in sparkling Chenin Blanc.

 

DeMorgenzon, Chenin Blanc Method Cap Classique NV

 

Fun Fact

Chenin Blanc has the unusual characteristic of uneven ripening meaning that very ripe grapes are found in the same bunch as undeveloped berries.  Vintners can deal with this by passing through a vineyard several times throughout harvest time to pick fruit at the optimal moment for the style of wine they’re making.

 

If you found this article fascinating, please join our South African Wine Club to build your wine knowledge.

 

This blog was edited and posted by Digital Squeak