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Chenin Blanc

photo of Chenin Blanc by Tim Ramey.At the beginning of the 1970s, Americans began to discover that California's better-quality wines labeled their bottles with the name of the predominate grape variety, rather than standard practice of the day which was to label with generic names. Made in a style popular at that time, fragrant and lightly sweet, and also easy to pronounce, Chenin Blanc quickly became the best-selling wine of the era.

The "boom" in wine, especially white varietals, caught most producers by surprise. As wine popularity rocketed, Chenin Blanc helped to introduce another, completely unpopular, wine phenomenon that ironically rang this varietal's death knell for sales: allocation.1 Charles Krug was the top-selling brand and, from 1972 to 1977, the winery completely manipulated the supply chain, using the demand for Chenin Blanc as a reward available only to buyers of their other less-popular white and red wines.2

Chenin blanc is arguably the most versatile of all wine grape varieties. Crisp, dry table wines, light sparkling wines, long-lived, unctuous, nectar-like dessert wines, and even brandy are all produced in various areas of the wine world, all using dominantly or entirely chenin blanc grapes. The versatility of Chenin Blanc may be both a blessing and a curse, since very few labels reveal any residual sugar which would indicate the style or sweetness of the wine to consumers.

It might even be said that chenin blanc is France's most successful export variety, if only considering the vine rather than the wine. Although the native region for chenin is the Loire Valley (where the grape is often called Pineau de la Loire), there is less planted in all of France than in most wine-producing countries of the New World. It is planted as Pinot Blanco in Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Argentina, where there are over 10,000 acres of chenin blanc. It is the major white variety in South Africa, where nearly a fifth of all vines are chenin blanc (aka Steen). In California, it is the third most widely planted white wine grape. Australia has close to 1,500 acres and New Zealand 500.

Resistance to many diseases, vine vigor, and the tendency to early bud break and late ripening, while retaining naturally high acidity, suits chenin blanc to grow in climates otherwise too warm for many vinifera types. The vine grows well in many soil types and can be very vigorous in either sandy loam or clay loam. Production is fairly consistent at from five to eight tons per acre. At three or four years old, the vines tend to overproduce and may set crops too large to fully ripen in the coolest areas. Chenin blanc grapes are susceptible to both bunch rot and sun burn.

In spite of its wide plantings and potential flavor palates, most chenin blanc is made into serviceable, but generally bland wine and frequently blended with other varieties to contribute acidity without significantly altering flavor profile. A general tendency to over-irrigate and overcrop further reduce most Chenin Blanc to the forgettable. Careful viticultural practices to reduce crop size and prevent sunburn can overcome chenin blanc's weaknesses and reward the effort with distinctive and excellent wines.

Nearly all the truly memorable Chenin Blancs are French, from Saumur and Savennières (very dry), Anjou and Vouvray (off-dry), Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume (dessert), and Crémant de Loire (sparkling). No matter the style, a certain floral, honeyed character, along with zesty acidity are the sensory trademarks of well-made Chenin Blanc. When conditions are right, Botrytis cinerea adds additional complexity and intensity.

The most frequently encountered (but not exclusive) smell and/or flavor elements found in Chenin Blanc-based wines include:

*Typical Chenin Blanc Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Floral: honey, honeysuckle

Mineral: flint, smoke

Fruity: quince, melon, esp. Honeydew, cantaloupe

Light Oak: (atypical) vanilla, sweet wood, oak

Aggressive: iodine, "gym socks"

Heavy Oak: (atypical)

Herbal: grass, hay

Bottle Age: (drink young!)

(see our latest Tasting Notes [PDF] )

The nominees for Best Supporting Appellation in California Chenin Blanc are: Clarksburg (Yolo County) and Monterey County.

by Jim LaMar

1. California vineyard acreage planted to Chenin Blanc was 28,494 in 1982; by 1999, total Chenin Blanc acreage sunk to 20,962. Over that same period, Chardonnay acreage more than quadrupled. BACK

2. From 1970 until the late 1980s, sales and consumption of wine in the United States held a ratio of about 75% white to 25% red. By the turn of the Millennium, the ratio was closer to 50-50 and by 2010, white-to-red consumption percentages nearly reversed, with red wines becoming far more popular. BACK

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

3. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

4. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

5. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

6. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

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Page created October 10, 2001; Last updated July 25, 2011
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