Pronounced “Shannon”, but with an Australian accent, Chenin Blanc is arguably one of the most misunderstood white grape varieties. Rarely appreciated for its rather curious aroma which can vary from damp straw to wet wool or fragrant flowers.
Perhaps it is Chenin Blanc’s chameleon-like quality to reinvent itself into a range of styles and at quality levels from the immortal and sublime to the plain and simple that causes confusion and makes it difficult to have an easily recognisable identity.
For instance, in its native Loire Valley in northern France, Chenin Blanc can change its style with ease in the subzones of Touraine and Anjou where local appellations of Savennières (diamond dry and very long-lived) and Vouvray (from dry to orange blossom and fudge-sweet whites as well as a lemon juice Jacuzzi-dry Crémant) are two of the most distinctive. Other local regions known for their super sweet honey and beeswax noble rot richness are Coteaux du Layon, Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume.
The Dutch brought the vine to South Africa in the 1680s where it was known locally as Steen for centuries until 50 years ago. Originally, its purpose was to be the base for Brandy by distilling the wine, a word derived from the old Dutch brandewijn meaning “burnt wine”. Today, Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape variety in South Africa, representing a fifth of all vines planted.
Chenin Blanc’s neutral character allows its wine to translate the weather conditions each year leading up to the autumn harvest, to reflect the character of the soil with richer styles from heavier clay, lighter styles from sandy soils, crisp acidity levels in limestone/chalky soils.
Outside Europe, the winemaker tends to ferment at cooler temperatures 10-12°C to promote tropical flavours and aromas. While in France, they tend to ferment at a higher 16-20°C which helps promote the local terroir character.
Current Chenin has two popular dry styles: steel cool and citrus fresh or a richer, spicy character from either being fermented or matured in oak barrels. Typical flavours of greengage plum, angelica and peach evolve into barley sugar and a honeyed almond nutty marzipan with age; but always with refreshing lemony acidity.
As a food wine Chenin Blanc is remarkably versatile. Its naturally high acidity refreshes parts of the palate no toothbrush can reach as it sloughs through any creamy, saucy or richly spiced food.
This summer let the Chenin Blanc flow.
Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2015, The Bernard Series, Bellingham, Coastal Region, South Africa
€19.99 at Burkes Supermarket; JJ O’Driscoll & Sons Superstore; The 1601 Off Licence; The Wine Centre; Vanilla Grape Ltd; Holland’s; Ardkeen Superstores. Dublin: Donnybrook Fair; Higgin’s; Redmond’s and Kelly’s.
Golden colour from barrel aging. Full-bodied, rich and delicious with white fleshed fruits and white peppery spice balanced with buttery richness.
Food friend: Serve with a creamy chicken and mushroom stew enriched with melting wedges of camembert.
Savennières 2014, Clos de Saint Yves, Domaine de Baumard, France
€25.99 at Vanilla Grape, Kenmare; Wine Shop at No. 1 Pery Square, Limerick and Worldwide Wines, Waterford.
Ultra dry and elegant with deep layers of lemon and white fruits with a mineral vineyard note of Savennières’ volcanic chalk. Still a baby and evolving slowly.
Food friend: Try with spicy salad of chicken cloaked in a curried mayonnaise.
Chenin Blanc 2014, Delheim, Stellenbosch, South Africa
€18.95 at O’Brien’s nationwide and online at wine.ie
Interesting scents of milky mint sweets. Intense and complex palate with minty herbs and lemon zest underpinned by a mineral terroir accent. Classic and authentic.
Food friend: Serve with salmon fillets grilled with a sweet and sour glaze.
Chenin Sec 2014, Chateau de Fesles, Anjou, France
€18.95 at Whelehan Wines, Silver Tassie, Loughlinstown
Golden colour revealing its twelve months aging in oak influence. A hint of honey on the aromas and the oak asserts itself on the palate. Still very youthful.
Food friend: Enjoy with deep-fried calamari rings and capers.
Chenin Blanc 2015, “Bergkelder Selection” Fleur du Cap, Western Cape, South Africa
€16.95 at WineOnLine.ie; Cashel Wine Cellar, Tipperary and La Touche Wines 4 U, Greystones.
Nettles, herbs and pithy grapefruit flavours with tongue-tingling acidity.
Food friend: Delicious with spicy prawns, stir-fried with ginger and mange-tout.
Chenin Blanc 2016, Simonsig, Stellenbosch, South Africa
€10-€12 in Dublin at Jus de Vine, Portmarnock and Nolan’s Supermarket, Clontarf.
Concentrated flavours in this full-bodied style. Lemon pith and zest with a hint of honey.
Food friend: Try with disks of goat’s cheese drizzled with olive oil on rocket leaves.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.