In my 1986 book Vines, Grapes and Wines (Reben Trauben Weine, Hallwag 1987 in German) – the world's first consumer guide to wine grapes I believe – I divided them into three categories: Classic, Major and Other (Klassische, Wichtige and Sonstige). Many wine lovers at the time were doubtless puzzled that I included Chenin Blanc in the first category.
Certainly anyone whose knowledge of this chameleon of a white grape was based on the oceans of very ordinary Chenin Blanc from California or South Africa that was available then must have been very mystified indeed. But what earned Chenin Blanc its place with the greatest of grape varieties for me was what was then its finest incarnation, as extraordinarily long-lived, uniquely-flavoured botrytised sweet wines in the Loire Valley. Since then, however, dry Chenin Blanc has shown itself to be one of the world's great whites too - both in the Loire and, especially, in South Africa where it has long been the most planted vine variety of all.
Chenin has been grown around the town of Angers on the Loire for centuries, perhaps for more than a millennium. Rabelais mentions it both as Chenin and by its common Loire synonym Pineau. The wine it produces is notably high in acidity, which can be quite useful in a warm climate but can verge on the painful in the Loire's coolest vintages. In fact the one brake on Loire Chenin's reputation has been the sometimes dire quality of Chenin produced when the grapes just haven't ripened sufficiently to coax the unique Chenin flavours of flowers, damp straw and honey into the resulting wine, leaving little but acid and sulphur in the bottle.
Thanks to global warming, disastrous vintages have become a rarity in the Loire, and growers have been using less and less sulphur to stabilise these often off-dry to medium-sweet wines. Indeed the Loire is now a stronghold of low-intervention wine, sometimes called 'natural'. Jacky Blot of Montlouis and others have shown just how complex oak aged dry (Sec) Loire Chenin can be, and all that acidity seems to ensure these wines a long life. One of the most famous appellations for dry Chenin is tiny Savennières whose sometimes stern whites that can take a decade to be approachable but have so much mineral extract that they can make great partners for quite flavourful foods. Jasnières and Anjou are both names that can be found on bottles of serious dry Chenin Blanc too (although Anjou is another very varied appellation).
Then there are the sweet, or Moelleux, examples of Loire Chenin, the product of a hazy autumn on the schists of the Loire which encourages noble rot and results in a toasty golden wine that has all of the complexity of any botrytised wine but with the Chenin grapes' particular layers of molten honey and crisp, dancing acidity. Bonnezeaux, Coteaux de l'Aubance, Coteaux du Layon, Montlouis, Quarts de Chaume and, especially, Vouvray are all likely appellations for such wines, with Vouvray and Quarts de Chaume producing some of the most intense examples. On the other hand, Vouvray is such a large and varied appellation that the name can also be found on bottles of extremely lacklustre wines whose only attributes are a certain sweetness and a certain acidity and nothing in the middle to knit them together. These are wines made very similarly to fine German white wines – low, slow fermentations in large old oak or stainless steel, no malolactic fermentation, pure fruit flavours – and so it is perhaps no surprise that they can last every bit as long. I have certainly enjoyed 80-year-old examples of these marvels.
Some Chardonnay and sometimes Sauvignon Blanc may be blended in to Chenin in Anjou and Saumur, but Saumur is more readily associated with sparkling wines, increasingly labelled Crémant de Loire. Chenin Blanc is usually the base and makes fizz that lacks the savoury depths of a great champagne but can be very pretty and delicate. Chenin's naturally high acidity makes it a particularly suitable base for sparkling wine. Sparkling Vouvray and Montlouis is made in much smaller quantities than sparkling Saumur but with age, these wines can become something very special indeed – not remotely like champagne; more like a deliciously rich champagne cocktail.
One of my favourite styles of Loire Chenin Blanc in general and Vouvray in particular is that labelled Demi-Sec, with some natural sweetness as well as all that refreshing acidity. (In fact so high is the acidity in many a young Loire Chenin that it can mask the sweetness.) Again, bottle age transforms this wine into something much more subtle and drier, so that it can be a perfect accompaniment to creamily sauced fish.
The country with the most Chenin Blanc planted, almost one vine in five, is South Africa whose best examples present a serious challenge to Loire Chenin, indeed often trump it. The new generation of Cape winemakers has gone in search of old Chenin bushvines and transform its fruit into extremely serious (usually dry) wines with the same lightly honeyed and sometimes apple-y character as the best of the Loire. Ken Forrester was key to starting a Chenin revival , DeMorgenzon an early adopter. The Mullineux took it a stage further by bottling various Chenins grown on different soil types, David & Nadia specialise in single-vineyard bottlings while the Chenin blends of Sadie Family achieve prices that most Loire producers could only dream of.
Elsewhere Chenin Blanc is grown, if not exactly respected, throughout the Americas (Clarksburg in the Sacramento Delta has long produced fine Chenin) and in both Australia and New Zealand. The Millton Vineyard represents virtually a lone outpost of Chenin Blanc veneration in NZ; Can Rafols dels Caus its counterpart in Spain's Penedès. Long may they prosper.
In warming summers, Chenin's acidity is increasingly recognised as an attribute.