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Chenin Blanc

by David on June 30, 2009

Common synonyms: Chenin, Pineau de la Loire, Pineau d’Anjou, Steen

Believe it or not, there was a time when Chenin Blanc was the most popular white wine in Napa Valley before it was eclipsed by Chardonnay and fell into relative obscurity. In its home in the Loire Valley of France, where it’s often called Pineau de la Loire, it’s a variety that’s cherished for its delicate aromas of honeyed fruit, flowers and hay and also for its remarkable versatility. In that part of the world it makes many styles: delicate dry white wine, slightly sweet wine, sparkling wine and even exquisite late-harvest wines.

This is not to say that it isn’t grown much outside of France anymore but, in most regions, it’s relegated to the role of a work-horse blending grape. In California, it’s grown mainly in the San Joaquin Valley and blended with other white varieties to make every-day white wine. The vine itself is vigorous and capable of producing large yields, so it lends itself to that role. But, as the yields goes up, the flavors are increasingly diluted and the varietal character is lost. It’s prone to high-acid, which is a blessing in our warm climate and can be a curse some years in the cooler Loire Valley.

You can find a few brands of Napa Valley Chenin Blanc, if you hunt for them and, even though they’re not plentiful, these few are made by winemakers who understand what Chenin Blanc can be. They’re typically very flavorful and usually dry. Some are barrel aged, or even barrel-fermented, Chardonnay style. Our winemaker at Goosecross finds that a touch of sweetness accentuates the honeyed character, so our slightly-sweet wine is an exception.

South Africa has come on strong with Chenin Blanc and is now the world’s largest Chenin Blanc grower by far, dedicating about 17% of its wine-grape acreage to the variety that was known there as Steen. There are both excellent and disappointing examples. It’s grown all over the US and in other parts of the world but, through no fault of its own, most of the wines aren’t interesting.

Because of its many faces, pairing Chenin Blanc with food depends upon the style. Its high acidity predisposes it to be food friendly. The Chardonnay-like styles pair well with seafood and other light fare. Fruity examples will be delicious with sweet proteins like duck and pork. You can seal the match by using some fruit, honey or some of the wine in your preparation. The slightly sweet examples are a great counterpoint to hot and spicy Asian and Indian cuisine and are good companions for almost any cheese. You can find delicious recipes to pair with our Chenin Blanc in Colleen’s Kitchen.

Flavor profile: floral, honey, hay, melon
Weight: Light (except late harvest)

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