Chenin Blanc | From Dry to Sweet and all in between

Man holding grapes with cutters, chenin blanc grapes

Fast facts

  • Over 50% of Chenin Blanc vines are planted in South Africa
  • Before the 1970s introduced chardonnay to America, Chenin was the most planted white wine grape
  • Creates wines ranging from sweet to completely dry
  • Alternative names: Pineau, Pineau d’Anjou, Chenin

History

Said to have been cultivated in France for almost 1300 years there is uncertainty as to where it originated, but parentage seems to lean towards the Savagnin grape, from the region of Savoie. Starting its life and fame in the Loire Valley region of France it soon became one of the most popular and versatile grapes of the region, used within still, sparkling, and sweet wines, as well as supporting a variety of blends. It has had its lows, especially when going out of fashion in the early 1900s. Fortunately this amazing grapes was rediscovered towards the later decades of the century and is now positioned as a classic and noble grape variety.

Location

The return in popularity can be almost directly lined up with the introduction of the varietal to South Africa in the 1970s. The grape took the country by storm, with the warm climate not deterring Chenin Blanc from ripening or slowing down the yields. Now as the primary white wine of South Africa, it has overtaken France in plantings and production.

In France, it is still highly popular and synonymous with the Loire Valley region, Angers and Touraine in particular. The best sparkling chenin (Cremant de Loire) produced within the Anjou, Saumur and Touraine villages, and the famed sweet, botrytized wines from Quarts de Chaume and Bonnexeaux.

Bottle of Belargus wine next to rows of vines in vineyard

Growing the grape

As mentioned it is a highly versatile grape. With its high acidity levels allowing it to be vinified in a range of different ways, this is perfect for winemakers wanting to leave their imprint on the bottle. This vast range of production styles is similar to that of the Chardonnay grape, their versatility allowing them to often be found in blends with each other.

Those that tend to the Chenin Blanc vines must be highly attentive throughout the whole growing season, as it buds early and ripens late. This results in it being highly susceptible to frost and with its natural production of high yields it all must be kept in check to ensure concentration is at its peak.

Some of the best Chenin producers, such as Belargus, uses indigeneous yeasts for the vinification process while ageing it for 13 months on total lees. This is often done in tanks, demi-muids or barrels. Then prior to bottling slight filtration is done on a kieselgur diatomite.

Drinking Chenin Blanc

Maximising each sip of this varietal is not too difficult, by being a white wine grape it is best to chill to 10C before drinking to express the full potential. The dry and acidic wines from Chenin is best drunk alongside meals involving fish or poultry such as stews and pies, as well as an array of cheeses and lightly pink meats such as veal. These dryer bottles can age for at least 5 years, or can be drunk now with a quick 15 minute decanter. 

The blends that are born from Sauvignon, Melon de Bourgogne, and Chenin are quite charming and great for drinking in its youth to taste the full fruity flavour.

Turning to the famous sweet wines to rival Sauternes, producers such as Belargus creates a range of wines that display an amber-apricot colour and opens with a highly intense and concentrated yet refined, elegant and slightly flinty stone fruit (apricot) and stewed strawberry aroma on the nose. For these wines they can be drunk as an aperitif or alongside some tart and fruity desserts such as lemon meringue and apricot pie, or contrasted with blue cheese. The temperate can also sit around 8-10C for these sweet wines.

Tasting Notes for one of the best Sweet Chenins

Quarts-de-Chaume “Ultra” 375ml - Sweet wine - 100pts - Stephan Reinhardt

Belargus's dark, amber-orange colored 2018 Quarts-de-Chaume Grand Cru Liquoreux Ultra is a tribute to the famous Ambroisie by Jo Pithon, an over-concentrated Quarts-de-Chaume with more than 30 degrees potential at harvest, referred to as “Ultra.” The wine opens with an intense and ultra concentrated but still vinous and not overly fruity bouquet with pencil point notes on the first nose that slowly reveals concentrated, syrupy apricot and roasted bacon-rind notes. Enormously viscous on the palate but at the same time so finessed, vital and balanced that the wine never weighs heavily and is not even sticky, this is an exceptional QDC, of which just one barrel was produced. This 2018 is made for eternity and belongs to the finest noble sweet wines I have ever had. Even though I am so much in love with the Les Quarts twin, I have to admit that here comes not only an even sweeter Quarts-de-Chaume but also an even more concentrated and finessed one. The aging capacity is ideal, and due to its balance, I don't see any doubts the wine can age 100 and more years. What a start for Domaine Belargus! 9% alcohol. Tasted in June 2021.

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