, or Pineau de la Loire
, is a variety of white wine grape
from the Loire valley
of France. Its high acidity means it can be used to make everything from sparkling wines
to well-balanced dessert wines
, although it can produce very bland, neutral wines if the vine's natural vigour is not controlled. Outside the Loire it is found in most of the New World wine
regions; it is the most widely planted variety in South Africa
, where it is also known as Steen
Chenin blanc (or simply Chenin
) is a particularly versatile grape that is used to make dry white wines, sparkling wines, dessert wines and brandy. It provides a fairly neutral palate for the expression of terroir
, vintage variation and the winemaker's treatment.
In cool areas the juice is sweet but high in acid with a full-bodied fruity varietal palate. In the unreliable summers of northern France, the acidity of underripe grapes was often masked with chaptalization with unsatisfactory results, whereas now the less ripe grapes are made into popular sparkling wines such as Crémant de Loire. The white wines of Anjou are perhaps the best expression of Chenin as a dry wine, with flavours of quince and apples. In nearby Vouvray they aim for an off-dry style, developing honey and floral characteristics with age. In the best vintages the grapes can be left on the vines to develop noble rot, producing an intense, viscous dessert wine which will improve considerably with age.
In the Loire, yields are tightly controlled - even basic Anjou Blanc is restricted to 45hl/ha. However yields of three times that can be achieved in the New World and the results are generally everyday wines that "are dull compared to the Loire wines". As ever there are exceptions to this rule, particularly in South Africa.
Chenin Blanc probably originated as a mutant of the Pineau d'Aunis
(Chenin Noir) in Anjou, where there are records of it in the ninth century. It then migrated to the Loire valley and later the Rhône. Rabelais
(1494–1553) was clearly keen on the white wines of Anjou, and mentions the medicinal qualities of the grapes at the end of chapter XXV of Gargantua
This done, the shepherds and shepherdesses made merry with these cakes and fine grapes, and sported themselves together at the sound of the pretty small pipe, scoffing and laughing at those vainglorious cake-bakers, who had that day met with a mischief for want of crossing themselves with a good hand in the morning. Nor did they forget to apply to Forgier's leg some fat chenin grapes, and so handsomely dressed it and bound it up that he was quickly cured.
The grape may have been one of the first to be grown in South Africa by Jan Van Riebeeck in 1655, or it may have come to that country with Huguenots fleeing France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. It became known as Steen, and it was only in 1965 that Steen was recognised as being the same as Chenin Blanc.
Chenin Blanc was often misidentified in Australia as well, so tracing its early history in the country is not easy. It may have been introduced in the Busby collection of 1832, but C. Waterhouse was growing Steen at Highercombe in South Australia by 1862.
The grape is known as Pinot Blanco in Brazil
, although it is not related to Pinot Blanc
. There are over 4000ha (10,000 acres (40 km²)) of Chenin blanc in Argentina, and 200ha (500 acres (2 km²)) in New Zealand.
Most Australian Chenin Blancs are crisp dry wines, often blended with other varieties and often given a little oak. Most of the 6000 hectares (1,500 acres (6 km²)) are in South Australia, but some is planted in Western Australia.
The versatility of Chenin Blanc is most obvious in Anjou
. Just within Vouvray, it makes dry-ish wines, demi-secs, sweet and sparkling. Perhaps the most famous wines made from Chenin Blanc are the botrytized
dessert wines of the Coteaux de la Loire such as Savennières
(most notably La-Roche-aux-Moines and Coulée de Serrant), and to the south Bonnezeaux
and Quarts de Chaume
. These can be some of the most long-lived of all white wines, and include some of the most expensive wines in France.
The dry wines of Anjou show a different side to the grape, with an intense palate of appley acidity, and this dry acidity is even more obvious in Crémant de Loire and the sparkling wines of Saumur. It is usually presented as a single varietal, although up to 20 percent Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc can be added.
Chenin blanc is a minor component of the Languedoc region's ancient sparkling wine, Blanquette de Limoux. A greater percentage is allowed in the less 'authentic' Crémant de Limoux.
Despite "Steen" being the most widely-grown grape in South Africa
, the area has dropped by a third in recent years. The 19,100 hectares in 2005 represented 18.8% cent of the country's vines, down from 28.7% in 1998. It is partly a victim of fashion swinging towards red wine, but its reputation has suffered from the industrial wines produced during the apartheid
years. In the 1960s SFW's semi-sweet Chenin Blanc was the biggest-selling bottled wine in the world. However some producers focus on quality rather than quantity, following in the footsteps of pioneers such as Johann Graue of Nederburg.
Chenin is the third most planted grape in California
, but is mostly used to contribute acidity in jug wine
blends. Such wines became massively popular in the 1970s, so companies such as Charles Krug
were able to use rationing of the white wines as a tool for selling the less popular reds. However since the 1980s plantings of Chenin Blanc have declined in favour of the more fashionable Chardonnay. As in South Africa, the reputation of the bulk wines has hindered the development of quality Loire-style wines from controlled yields in cooler climates.
Despite coming from Anjou, Chenin does well in warm climates that are usually too warm for many vinifera types. In fact the main problem in the New World is controlling the vines' natural vigour. It is not fussy about soil type, and it is resistant to the common vine diseases. However the tight clusters are prone to bunch rot in damp conditions, and the thin-skinned grapes are vulnerable to sunburn.
The vine is semi-upright in habit with 3-5 lobed leaves. It tends to break bud early, and the conical, winged bunches contain yellow-green grapes that ripen late. The berries are typically 16.0 mm long x 14.2 mm wide, with an average weight of 1.79g.
Anjou, Blanc d'Aunis, Capbreton Blanc (Landes, France), Confort, Coue Fort, Cruchinet (SW France), Cugnette, Feher Chenin, Franc Blanc, Franche, Gout Fort, Luarskoe, Pineau d'Anjou, Pineau de Briollay, Pineau de la Loire, Pineau de Savennières, Pineau Gros, Pineau Gros de Vouvray, Pineau Nantais, Plant de Brézé (archaic, now more often applied to Romorantin), Plant de Salces, Plant de Salles, Plant du Clair de Lune, Quefort, Rajoulin, Rouchalin, Rougelin, Steen (South Africa), Stein, Tête de Crabe, Vaalblaar Stein, Verdurant, Blanc d’Anjou, Gros Chenin, Gros Pinot Blanc de la Loire, Plant d’Anjou and Gamet blanc (Aveyron, France).
Notes and references
- Robinson, Jancis Vines, Grapes & Wines Mitchell Beazley 1986 ISBN 1857329996
- Winepros.org Characteristics of the Chenin Blanc vine, grape and wine.