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Drinking Out Loud

Is Chenin Blanc the Great Forgotten Grape?

Overlooked, often untasted, certainly uncelebrated, Chenin Blanc gets no respect
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says it's time to pay attention to the often-terrific Chenin Blancs of New Zealand, South Africa, California and, of course, France.

Matt Kramer
Posted: April 5, 2016

It's probably grounds for a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, but I'm beginning to feel that I'm being stalked by Chenin Blanc. No voices, yet, but that’s potentially on the way.

You see, first I was in New Zealand, in February. The locals wanted me to pay attention to their Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (which I did), but then, in the North Island, I visited Millton Vineyards and Winery in Gisborne.

James and Annie Millton started their winery in 1984 and were early adopters of—and are utterly true believers in—the philosophy and practices of biodynamics. I've met a lot of such biodynamic types, but rarely any that are quite so fervent. Never mind what you or I think, “what matters is the result” has long been my view on the matter.

Anyway, I'm tasting a variety of very tasty wines (they make wine from at least eight different varieties) and out comes their single-vineyard Clos de Ste. Anne Chenin Blanc. It was stunning in its density, purity, graceful and effortless power and sheer characterfulness. I don't think that it actually said, "Pay attention to me," but I wouldn't care to swear that I didn't hear that either.

So I was duly impressed, but didn't think too much more about Chenin Blanc. Then came a trip to South Africa, from which I've only just returned. That's when I began feeling stalked, Your Honor.

In South Africa you expect to be stalked by wild animals, but not by Chenin Blanc. Yet that's what happened. Yes, I saw plenty of wild animals in Kruger National Park, including a cheetah and wild dogs, both of which are very rare. But Chenin Blanc is not rare in South Africa. Quite the opposite. Chenin Blanc accounts for 18 percent of the wine grapes grown in South Africa. If South Africa has a specialty, it's surely Chenin Blanc.

Precisely because there's so much of it, a lot of South Africa's Chenin Blanc—too much, really—has been mediocre. Chenin Blanc willingly offers high yields. The local wine drinkers didn't have much money. And they were isolated by their politics until the mid-1990s.

But that history had a wine benefit: There's a lot of old-vine Chenin Blanc. Since prices were derisory it didn't pay to uproot all those old Chenin Blanc vines. Today, with a much improved economy and a fierce fine-wine ambition, what's emerging is Chenin Blanc of a quality and character that's nothing short of astonishing.

In winery after winery, I came across dry Chenin Blancs that reminded me again and again of just how great this grape variety can be. Producers such as Jordan (sold in the U.S. under the name Jardin), DeMorgenzon, Ken Forrester, Eben Sadie and Mullineux, among many others, are issuing Chenin Blancs of dazzling quality. Some producers, such as Sadie, combine other white grapes with their Chenin Blanc to create proprietary blends. Others are devoted to a pure varietal expression.

The bottom line is this: Chenin Blanc is the 21st-century's great forgotten grape. Riesling—which is forever being cited as due for a comeback in fame and glory—has hardly been forgotten, whatever its diminishment in popular esteem might be today compared with, say, 50 years ago.

Sauvignon Blanc certainly isn't suffering. And the likes of Viognier and Grüner Veltliner have enjoyed amazing success given their former obscurity (and in the case of Viognier, near-extinction).

So why has Chenin Blanc been so … overlooked? You may have a better theory, but I would submit that its very versatility has been its undoing. As wine lovers well know, the motherhouse of Chenin Blanc is France's Loire Valley, where Chenin Blanc rules absolutely in such districts as Savennières (mostly dry); Coteaux du Layon (mostly sweet); Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux (fabulous sweet wines); Vouvray (both dry and sweet); and Jasnières (typically dry). It also appears as a sparkling wine, usually labeled as Crémant de Loire.

Chenin Blanc quality in the Loire ranges from world benchmark to banal. The region’s best Chenin Blancs, both dry and sweet, can age for decades; I've had 50-year-old Loire Chenin Blancs the freshness of which is nothing short of astounding.

Really, given France's long pedigree with this grape, you'd think that Chenin Blanc would have hit the charts and stayed there forever. But too many Vouvrays, for example, were (and still are) of such poor, overcropped, industrial quality as to very nearly capsize Vouvray's once lustrous reputation as one of the world's greatest white wines.

Elsewhere, in California for example, Chenin Blanc was seen as nothing more than a bland blending grape, despite the valiant efforts of high-quality Chenin Blancs from Chappellet, Chalone and Casa Nuestra.

You get the picture. Chenin Blanc can be great and yet is largely forgotten by the world's fine-wine lovers. Who cellars it? Do you? Is its time finally arriving? Good question. It may take South Africa, which no one previously could have imagined upstaging the likes of France, to remind us all of what we've been missing.

Jason Gregg
Medford, Oregon —  April 5, 2016 11:12am ET
Thank you Matt. I have felt this way about Chenin Blanc for a long time. Some truly great wines out there.
Pascal Gilliard
Paris —  April 5, 2016 11:56am ET
Thanks Matt. A great post, as usual.
Chenin from Loire delivers good value. Top producers (Huet, Foreau, Joly, Germain, Leroy) deliver outstanding and recurrent quality, authenticity and possible longevity.
Ryland Barlow
Virginia —  April 6, 2016 2:51pm ET
Liked that you mentioned Viognier also. One of our favorite go-to whites is Pine Ridge's Chenin Blanc-Viognier blend. It goes with a wide variety of foods and both the Chardonnay and ABC crowd both seem to like it.
Eric Campos
Canada —  April 7, 2016 2:06am ET
While a big fan of the grape (favourites include Huet, Chateau de la Roulerie, and Forrester's FMC), I admit a certain frustration with it as of late, and reduced purchases. My reasons include the variability of styles/alcohol/oak from producers outside many of my Loire mainstays, and limited availability of good options at appropriate prices in my current location.

I shudder when I see bottlings for under $17 from the Loire: given the difficult growing seasons this decade, I do not want to fathom the decisions made to allow such pricing.

I have also gravitated to South African options lately, yet remain weary about the proportion in the premium category that remain in the over-honeyed style, often accompanied by perceptible alcohol. This renders them boringly homogenous, inappropriate for typical Chenin-friendly food and difficult to drink beyond a glass or two. Alas, even reputable producers in the Loire (I'm thinking in Savennieres) can be guilty of producing wines whose ABV clock in at Aussie shiraz levels, but at least these seem to retain varietal typicity and some verve.

Lastly, I find that fine (Loire) Chenin Blanc shares an unfortunate similarity with fine Spatlese and Kabinett (German Riesling): their nuance and complexity are such that I do not want to drink them for dinner, despite the right profile to match a meal, since I want the wine to have my undivided attention.

All that said, I can't wait for a string of good harvests in the Loire, and continued refinement of South Africa's old-vine bottlings!

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