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How Chenin Blanc Charmed Wine Experts

Sommeliers love its minerality and acidity

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If there was a boxing match of sorts for sommeliers, it wouldn’t be hard to get them to trade punches over which white grape is the most elegant, age-worthy, and terroir-expressive: riesling, or chenin blanc. Both varietals are capable of producing wines that range from bone-dry to fully sweet, and each displays unique and complex attributes depending on where it's grown.

Chenin blanc, or "chenin," hails from the Loire Valley, a cool climate wine region in Northwest France known for being a stronghold of the natural wine movement. Although the flavor of chenin blanc wines varies greatly, the grape is beloved for its mouth-watering acidity, defined by an overall floral nature, with notes of honey and stonefruits.

Chenin blanc is beloved for its mouth-watering acidity, defined by an overall floral nature.

One of the U.S.’ most well-known advocates of the grape is Pascaline Lepeltier, the influential and charismatic Master Sommelier and wine director of New York's soon-to-reopen Rouge Tomate Chelsea. Growing up in the Loire Valley, Lepeltier recalls that her family drank fairly basic, even inferior, sweet wine made from chenin blanc—because that’s what was available, a few decades back. But oh, how things have changed.

Lepeltier’s career as a sommelier has been partly focused on championing lesser-known, small wine producers, with emphasis on those making elegant chenin blanc. "The way we are drinking wine now is incredibly recent and new," she says, explaining that, for decades, chenin blanc suffered something of an image problem; it was known as a mediocre dessert wine, rather than a "great dry white wine." Captivated by the grape’s complexity and acidity early in her career, curiosity and intuition drove Lepeltier to learn more. Over time, she visited chenin producers and came to understand that the grape's maligned image was the result of how it was vinified, not its intrinsic character. More and more, Lepeltier tasted excellent dry chenin, and realized that the style was going completely overlooked.

The story behind chenin's bad rep is related to the difficulty with making authentic sweet wine. "Until the 1960s, everybody made [chenin] as mostly sweet wine with botrytis grapes, and dry wines were just a byproduct," Lepeltier explains. Botrytis refers to noble rot, a favorable mold that forms on grapes when they are allowed to hang on the vine late into the harvest season. Botritized grapes are the essential component for a true dessert wine, but the noble rot may not grow properly if climatic conditions are not exactly correct. To compensate for times when botrytis did not occur, winemakers in the Loire Valley began pumping their wines with sugar, a technique called chaptalization that today is much frowned-upon. The result: chenin blanc wines were sweet, but not elegant or natural, and the French turned their noses up toward them. "Chaptalization had a bad impact. It went along with making higher yield wines, which were less concentrated, and then you just added the sugar," says Lepeltier. When people thought of chenin blanc, they associated the wine with "bad sweetness, headaches, all that crap."

Over time, winemakers realized that they had to cut out chaptalization, and give up on the idea of only making sweet chenin blanc, turning their focus to dry, mineral wines starting in the late 80s. This corresponded with a shift to biodynamic viticulture, largely inspired by the Savennières winemaker Nicolas Joly, who authored books on the subject and championed it in every way possible. Biodynamics is, at its heart, a natural method to care for plants. With grapes, the farming approach is intended to produce healthier vines that yield fewer berries of superior quality. As more winemakers began to concentrate on quality vineyard management, their wines improved, and it slowly became clear that chenin blanc was one of the world’s most unique and worthy white grapes.

"It was like being hit with a cattle prod from the acid, it was a jolt of electric acidity ..."

Today, wine enthusiasts know that chenin blanc produces stunning dry wines in all price ranges; the Loire Valley is the grape’s home base, but it has prospered elsewhere, too. South Africa, whose wines entered the world market following the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, has emerged as one of the world’s major chenin blanc producers, and the country yields very good examples of the wine. In the U.S., on the West Coast, one will find great expression of the grape, too. Chenin generally thrives in cooler climates, where its acidity is best preserved, although it is adaptable and consequently does well in warmer places like South Africa, and Southern France.

While dry chenin wine has achieved popularity thanks to supporters like Lepeltier, off-dry chenin is not to be forgotten. For Kirk Sutherland, beverage director at New York’s High Street on Hudson, his "aha" chenin moment happened at AOC wine bar in Los Angeles after trying an off-dry style from famed Loire Valley producer Domaine Huet: 2002 La Mont Demi-Sec.

"I didn’t really know what it was going to be," recalls Sutherland, who names chenin blanc as his "absolute favorite" white grape. "I took a whiff of it," he recounts, "not knowing it was going to be an off-dry white." The first sip knocked him out: "It was like being hit with a cattle prod from the acid, it was a jolt of electric acidity, then this really intense note of peaches, and then it finished so beautifully, floral and soft. It was mind-blowing." He emphasizes chenin’s diversity, pointing out that it can vary drastically depending on the soil in which it is planted, and the winemaker’s style.

Discover the complexity of chenin blanc by exploring bottles from different parts of the world, below.

Chenin Blanc Bottles to Try

Producer: Nicolas Joly 
Wine: Coulée de Serrant, 2012
From: Savennières, France
Retail: $97

Considered by many critics to be one of the world’s top white wines, Coulée de Serrant's uniqueness is partly due to the fact that it is made from a single property, which is also its own appellation. This is a recognition of the historic nature of the land, which was first planted in the 12th century by Cistercian monks. But also, the wine’s renown stems from the efforts that producer Nicolas Joly made to promote biodynamic farming throughout the world. Joly has authored books sharing the philosophy and practice of biodynamics, and influenced winemakers near and far. A taste of this smoky, chalky, nuanced wine, a touch higher in alcohol (14 percent ABV) than other parts of the Loire Valley thanks to the warmer climate in Savennières, will help you understand why so many sommeliers have fallen head over heels for chenin blanc. Ideally, this wine should be aged for five to 10 years before drinking (and properly stored, it can age up to 20 years). Joly’s daughter, Virginie, now runs the estate alongside him.

Producer: Pithon-Paillé
Wine: Coteau des Treilles, 2012
From: Anjou, France
Retail: $58

Jo Pithon was part of the wave of winemakers who transitioned their winemaking and vineyards to low-intervention and organic, starting in the 1990s. Now, his stepson Joseph Paillé and wife Wendy together run the certified organic estate. They make several bottlings of chenin blanc. This one comes from a single vineyard—considered one of France's finest—on a steep slope, with volcanic soil. The juice is fermented and aged in neutral oak. With a rich nose full of beeswax notes, the wine is floral and soft on the palate, and vibrant minerality. This is an incredible wine to drink now, or age.

Producer: Jacky Blot, Domaine De La Taille aux Loups
Wine: Triple Zéro
From: Montlouis, France
Retail: $24

Champagne-method chenin blanc is one of the greatest values out there. Jacky Blot’s estate Domaine De La Taille aux Loups produces fantastic wines made with little or zero sulfur in the limestone soils of Montlouis, located near the better-known appellation Vouvray. Blot’s wines do not go through malolactic fermentation, therefore preserving their very lively acidity. This snappy, bright, and creamy sparkling wine is aged on the lees for up to five months during the first fermentation, then for a full 24 months in the bottle. Enjoy as an aperitif, alongside fried chicken or with fatty, rich cheeses, like a triple-crème Brillat-Savarin.

Producer: Le Sot de l’Ange
Wine: Sec Symbole, 2014
From: Azay-le-Rideau, France
Retail: $22

From a small town between Montlouis and Chinon in Touraine, this wine is an example of the direction in which upstart, natural winemakers are taking chenin blanc. Talented 30-year-old winemaker Quentin Bourse set out to make wine after an internship at Domaine Huet, considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest chenin producers. While Huet’s wines receive several doses of the preservative sulfur, Bourse opted not to take that approach, and only adds sulfur when bottling. Where he does match up with his training at Huet is that he bottles his chenin at the end of March or early April, sooner than other producers. Bottling early, Bourse believes, is a way to bring out the "primary fruit" characteristics of chenin blanc—peaches, ripe pear, a touch of apricot. This wine is a quiet stunner. It’s aromatic and lightly fruity, and then electrically mineral on the finish, which lingers on your tongue for several minutes.

Producer: Division
Wine: Savant, 2014
From: Washington State, USA
Retail: $25

At their Portland, Oregon urban winery on Division Street, business partners Tom Monroe and Kate Norris make small batches of French-inspired wine with grapes from select vineyards around the Willamette Valley and elsewhere around Washington State. To produce this unique chenin, they conducted two harvests in the state's Yakima Valley. One of those harvests brought in botrityzed grapes, which lend a smoky, intense flavor, fascinating complexity, beautiful ripeness and creamy texture to this wine. Savant drinks like a bottle way above its price point, and serves as an example of chenin blanc's versatility. Kirk Sutherland, who oversees an all-domestic wine list at New York’s High Street on Hudson, serves the Savant and is a big fan of the Division wines. He describes this one as a "Savennières-style wine," in that it incorporates botrytis "in order to create texture, and it’s bottled in a way that has a slight amount of spritz to it, which is really refreshing," he says. "It has a beautiful texture in tandem with that electric acidity, and this really wonderful honeysuckle floral note."

Producer: De Bos
Wine: Sur Lie Chenin Blanc, 2014
From: Wellington, South Africa
Retail: $17

There are a lot of chenin blanc producers in South Africa—many well-known. But several things are notable about this wine, part of a second label from the Bosman Family Vineyard holdings in Bovlei Valley of Wellington: firstly, the low price, but also its simple deliciousness. With a soft, floral nose and acidity that sings, it’s hard to believe how affordable the bottle is. The wine is kept on the lees for about three months, a relatively short time but enough to lend body and texture to the juice. Bosman Family Vineyards is a Fair Trade winery that offers partial ownership and decision making powers to its workers, reflecting a society that is struggling with deeply ingrained social inequality, and will be for some time.

Producer: Vincent Carême
Wine: Terre Brûlée, 2014
From: Swartland, South Africa
Retail: $16

Vincent Carême is a highly respected organic winemaker based in Vouvray, in France’s Loire Valley, who decided to see what it’s like to make chenin in the Southern Hemisphere. It was partly due to his South African wife, but also because Carême saw potential in chenin blanc’s ability to thrive in that countrywhich inspired him to begin making wine four years ago in the Swartland region, north of Cape Town. He applies the same methods to his South African chenin that he does to his French ones, which can be summed up as minimal intervention in every way possible. The wine shows the ripeness afforded to grapes in the hot climate of South Africa, yet it retains complex fruit notes, and a beautiful acidity. There’s a nice combination of full body and uplifting minerality here.

Editor: Kat Odell

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