Although grown in many parts of the world, the roots of chenin blanc lie in the Anjou region of France’s Loire Valley. James Suckling asks us to think of chenin blanc as “France’s answer to riesling,” and the aromatics and minerality of wines from Anjou and nearby Vouvray are among the finest expressions of the grape.
A new resurgence of chenin blanc has arisen in South Africa. Although grown in several countries, two-thirds of the world’s chenin blanc originates from South Africa, where it was historically named “steen” and currently occupies nearly 20 percent of their vineyards. It is mostly grown in the coastal regions of Stellenbosch, Paarl and Swartland of the Western Cape province, each with distinctive terroir.
Chenin blanc is known for its versatility. With naturally high acidity, it is easily produced as a dry, sweet or sparkling wine, each with a range of nuanced flavors. While it is most commonly enjoyed young, releases from this region can age well for up to a decade. Chenin blanc can be what you want it to be.
The coastal region showcases crisp, dry chenin blanc that is rapidly expanding its shelf space in U.S. markets. Jim Clarke, writer and U.S. market manager for Wines of South Africa, recently led a tasting, via Zoom, and shared three distinct chenin blanc releases from throughout the region.
Complex aromas define the sustainably farmed 2019 Backsberg Chenin Blanc ($14) that is sourced from mountain vineyards south of Paarl. Over several decades, the Back family has practiced a minimalist approach to winemaking and relies on the soil and regional terroir to create aromatics and flavors. Intense characteristics of melon, stone and tropical fruits lead to a delightful mouthfeel that is both rounded and crisp. Lingering mineral notes highlight the finish.
After marrying Tania, a South African woman, Loire Valley winemaker Vincent Carême brought his talents to Swartland, and the 2019 Terre Brûlée Chenin Blanc ($16) marks his seventh vintage in the region. The layered aromas and flavors were pleasurable, but the texture got my attention.
Wine Spectator magazine used descriptors like “seductive texture,” “spice and floral accents” and “long inviting finish” when awarding Terre Brûlée a 90-point rating. Combined with its moderate price, I would not be surprised to see it on the magazine’s Most Exciting Wines of 2020 list.
Since purchasing and restoring a 17th-century homestead and vineyard in 1993, Ken Forrester has become a staple of wine production in the Stellenbosch region, notably for chenin blanc. From 40-year- old vines throughout Stellenbosch, the 2018 Ken Forrester Old Vine Reserve Chenin Blanc ($18), oak barrel-fermented and aged on lees for nine months, is a full-bodied wine with spice and mineral elements enhancing the ripened fruit aromas. The range of flavors are balanced and seamlessly integrated within a lush texture.
Readily accessible and reasonably priced, South Africa is our best source of dry chenin blanc for the foreseeable future. ￼
Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger who has written a wine column for 20 years. He incorporates wine into his passion to travel and tries to bring his readers along on the journey. Visit his blog at lifebylyle.com.