Why Is Chenin Blanc The Greatest Grape In The World?

  • By Pascaline Lepeltier
  • 14 Jan 2021
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 301
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Chenin in Montlouis-sur-Loire - Credit : Pascaline Lepeltier

For over half a century, Chenin Blanc plantings have steadily decreased year after year. It is only recently that the downward spiral finally stopped, thanks to a revolution begun in the Loire Valley some 25 years ago. Today this variety is considered both a sommelier darling and a consumer favourite thanks to its remarkable diversity of styles and its ability to express terroir; despite this fact, Chenin remains an endangered species.

Origins And Etymology

Chenin originates in the Loire. The first known mention of Chenin occurs in 1534 in Rabelais’ Gargantua, but the term was not widely used until the 18th century in an effort to avoid confusion with Pineau de la Loire and Plant d’Anjou, its other more commonly used names since the 14th century. The etymology is still disputed; the abbey of Mont-Chenin near Tours, or a derivative of the word “chien”, implying a wild origin are favourite theories. The official name of the grape in France is Chenin, worldwide Chenin Blanc. Its main synonyms are Rouchelin in the French southwest, Agudelo in Spain, Pinot Bianco in Argentina, and Steen in South Africa. 

Ampelography

In 2019 the ampelographer Jean-Michel Boursiquot announced Chenin was a cross between Savagnin and Sauvignonasse. A fertile variety, it buds one day before Chasselas, but its veraison occurs two to three weeks after. It is frost sensitive, and the secondary buds don’t bear fruit, which recently caused terrible consequences in the Loire. Depending upon the clone, clusters are medium to big, compacted, sometimes with wings. 220 is the most common clone, but the best producers use a Massale selection. There is a Chenin conservatory with 300 plants near Angers. In France, Riparia Gloire, SO4, and Fercal are the main rootstocks. Chenin is very sensitive to powdery mildew, botrytis, and acetic souring, less to downy mildew, black rot, and Pierce’s disease. It thrives in temperate climates, but can endure a tropical environment. The quality of its fruit depends highly on the fertility of its terroir and the type of farming.

Regions Of Production

There are around 33,000 ha of Chenin planted in the world (for scale, Champagne is 34,300 ha). South Africa, where the variety has been planted since 1659, leads the pack; most of its 17,500 ha are in Paarl, Swartland, and Olifants River. France is second with 10,090 ha (1% of France’s total planting), then Argentina, 2,045 ha, and the US, 1,926 ha. The 5th country plantings-wise, India, is far behind with 450 ha. Chenin used to be more important in the US and France when the off-dry style was in favour, but an evolution in tastes led to thousands of hectares uprooted. Today France counts 37 AOP using it, 13 in the southwest and Languedoc, the rest in the Loire. It’s the sole white variety for 18 of these AOP. 90% is planted in Anjou-Touraine, making all styles of wine. Drier, tannic, full-bodied or lusciously sweet on the schistous western part, with higher acid, bubblier and off-dry on the eastern sedimentary tuffeau.

Organoleptic Qualities And Styles

Chenin is a high acid variety, with a medium-thick green to deep-gold skin and good alcohol potential. It is a semi-aromatic grape heavily influenced by its terroir, style of farming, yield and vinification, hence Chenin is polymorphous. Because of its aptitude to noble rot, it was historically revered as a sweet wine. Industrial farming and chaptalization led to its fall after 1945, and the production switched to bulk (US, SA) or sparkling which still represents today 63% of the Loire output. Bone-dry Chenin as a style began in Savennières in the 1960s. By the early 1990’s, a group of vignerons, often farming organically or biodynamically, embraced this style and Chenin began its path to recognition. This explains why there is not one historical style; malolactic fermentation or no malolactic fermentation, stainless or oak, etc. are individual decisions more than regional footprints. Colour hue can vary a great deal. Its dominant aromas are grapefruit, kumquat, crabapple, quince, rhubarb, hay, linden, chamomile, cucumber, honeydew, wax, saffron, honey, and flint. Notes of linalool or wool are due more to the farming than the grape itself. 

All in all, we need to drink more #chenincheninchenin!

Chenin in Montlouis-sur-Loire - Credit : Pascaline Lepeltier