Chenin Blanc is probably the world's most versatile grape variety, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine. The Companion notes that while Chenin Blanc is frequently 'harnessed to the yoke of basic New World table wine production', especially in South Africa, where it is known as Steen; this magical grape variety has the capacity to render wines that are among the most long-lived and riveting in the world, both sweet and dry, together with brisk sparkling styles.
South Africa is home to twice as much Chenin Blanc as is planted in France, constituting 17 per cent of the country's vineyards, at 10,000 hectares. Recent dedication among certain small vintners, has resulted in detailed wines from prized old vine plots. These have transcended the ubiquitous sea of tech-driven swill, while rightfully attracting premium pricing and worldwide recognition.
Elsewhere in the New World, Chenin Blanc is used to stretch out 'fruit-salad' blends from warm industrialized wine regions such as those in South-East Australia, California's Central Valley, and the heavily irrigated vineyards of Argentina's high desert. Yields are high, while Chenin's marked acidity brings balance to innocuous, yet crisp, straightforward wines, of little varietal expression.
After all, as a superstar in France's Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc boasts tell-tale aromas of citrus, honey and damp straw, reminiscent of marmalade laced with truffle, with age. Its bristling acidity can be a hindrance in cool vintages, yet serves it well in vintages that imbue it with suitable fruit sweetness and extract, and/or with botrytis-cinerea, euphemistically called noble rot.
Botrytis is a benign fungal disease when it comes to certain white grape varieties, including Chenin Blanc. Spurred by the mist and humidity trapped between the gentle folds of the Loire and its vineyards, botrytis concentrates sugars and acidity in the grapes. Long and slow fermentations transform these propitious conditions into mellifluous nectars; wines as sweet as they are fresh. Even Sauternes can seldom match the parry and thrust of complexity, lushness and balancing acidity of Chenin's greatest sweet, or moelleux, wines. These include sweet styles of Vouvray, and the grand crus Bonnezeaux and Quarts de Chaume, located in the Cotêaux du Layon zone of Anjou-Saumur.
Drier expression may be labeled sec, or demi-sec, depending on the degree of residual sugar, while sparkling expression are made throughout the Loire. Organic and biodynamic proponents such as Francois Chidaine, make compelling wines that are ripe and leesy, fermented with ambient yeasts in large format oak, from Montlouis to Saumur, while Chenin's beauty is often smothered by highly commercial blends of Sauvignon Blanc and even Chardonnay, in Touraine.