Chenin: An Underappreciated Gem. Yes, Really!

 


Chenin blanc is the Rodney Dangerfield of wine – it “don’t get no respect.”  Or at least the respect it deserves.  It has a reputation as a grape that produces bland, inexpensive jug-quality wine and gets little attention on restaurant wine lists compared to its trendier competitors, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay.
Truth be told, much of Chenin’s bad reputation is deserved.  It’s a high yielding grape that produces a dull, uninteresting wine worthy of its bad reputation if yields are left unchecked.  But with controlled yields, the right soil and the right climate, it can produce wine that is not just good, but very, very good. 

And nowhere does Chenin excel as it does along the Loire River, and in the valleys of its tributaries.  The Loire is France’s longest river, flowing over 600 miles from its source in the Massif Central, north to Orléans, then west until it reaches the Atlantic.  Chenin Blanc is grown in the vineyards of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine, which lie in the central part of the Loire Valley, between Orléans and the river’s mouth.  The Chenin Blanc grape has been cultivated in this area for over a thousand years and finds its best expression here.

Loire Chenin Blanc is hard to categorize because it’s made in a wide range of styles.  It produces both sparkling wine (often blended with other grapes) and still wine.  Still wines can be made at various levels of sweetness, depending upon the amount of residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation:  sec (dry), sec-tendre (slightly dry), demi-sec (off dry – or, perhaps more accurately, semi-sweet), moelleux (sweet) and doux (really sweet).  This versatility makes Chenin a great tasting adventure but can also be a source of frustration to consumers, as wine labels often fail to identify the sweetness level of the wine.

The dominant – but not the only -- flavor characteristic of a Loire Chenin Blanc, regardless of whether it is sweet or dry or something in between, is a distinctive floral “honeyed” quality which, coupled with Chenin’s natural high acidity, makes for a structured, balanced wine that can age for decades.  This “honeyed” quality is present even in dry wines -- don’t expect a dry Chenin to taste like a Sancerre -- giving them a roundness and fullness not present in Sauvignon Blanc or Muscadet, the other two principal white wine grapes of the Loire.  And to fully appreciate these wines, they should be drunk with minimum chilling so as not to mask their flavors and aromas.  (If you don’t like the wine, then chill it!)

The districts of Anjou, Saumur and Touraine each produce excellent everyday chenins in a range of styles, but each excels in its own different way. 

Anjou

Anjou is renowned for its sweet wines, the best of which are produced on the south bank of the Loire, in the Coteaux du Layon, and its two grand cru appellations, Quarts-de-Chaume and Bonnezeaux.  The microclimate in this area encourages the mists that are conducive to botrytis and the wines are lusciously sweet with a strong minerality.   The neighboring Coteaux de l’Aubance also produces some fine sweet wines that are lighter in style than the Layon wines. 

Across the river on the north side of the Loire, Anjou produces equally outstanding chenin at the dry end of the spectrum in the vineyards of Savennières and its two grand crus, Coulée de Serrant and La Roche aux Moines.  Savennières chenins are dry but weighty, with flavors of honey and quince, and deep minerality.  They have been described by Jacqueline Friedrich, in her "Wine and Food Guide to the Loire," as a wine that is cerebral and full of majesty, a wine not for the uninitiated. 

Saumur

Saumur lies between Anjou and the Touraine.  Technically part of Anjou, its soils are more similar to the limestone/tufa soils of Touraine and its Chenins from the Coteaux de Saumur are similar in style to Vouvrays.  Saumur, however, is primarily known for its sparkling wine, which can be made from a blend of grapes, and is the second largest producer of sparkling wine in France (running a distant second to Champagne).  Look for Saumur mousseux or Crémant de Loire, which is regulated by a stricter set of rules than mousseux, such as lower yields, hand harvesting and longer bottle ageing. 

Touraine

Touraine is as known for its châteaux as its wine – and perhaps more so.  Which is a pity because Touraine produces Chenins as lovely as its châteaux and the countryside that surrounds them. 

Vouvray is Touraine’s best known appellation and perhaps the name most synonymous with Loire Chenin Blanc.  Vouvray wines are rounded with a creamy texture, balanced by a flinty minerality and good acidity.  They can be sweet, but are more likely to be sec, sec-tendre, or demi-sec.  The lesser-known appellation of Montlouis, which lies on the south bank of the Loire just across from Vouvray and which used to be part of the Vouvray appellation, produces wines similar in style and quality to those of Vouvray. 

Some tasting notes:

2005 Domaine des Aubuisières, Vouvray, “Les Girardières.”  $22.99.  Simply gorgeous.  Honey flavors blend with notes of gooseberry and a racy minerality.  A beautifully balanced and structured wine.  Long creamy finish.

2006 Francois Chidaine Montlouis, “Les Tuffaux.” $14.99.  Very similar to -- but lighter on the palate than -- the Domaine des Aubuisières.

2006 Château D’Epiré (Cuvée Speciale), Savennières.  $18.99.  Bone dry, but full-bodied.  Honey flavors dominate but a there's distinct – and not entirely pleasing -- petrol-like taste.

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Comments

  • Snooth User: Kheldarstl
    242140 147

    Nice article Marilyn, Several years ago I considered myself a dyed-in-the-wool Red wine drinker, I would snobbishly turn up my nose at white wine of any varietal, or appelation. However it was a grand tasting at a local wine shop which introduced me to Chenin Blanc, in the form or Vouvray, and Savennieres which I was able o taste next to each other, this opened up for me the world of white wine, and as such chenin blanc will always hold a special place in my heart.

    Oct 25, 2009 at 10:27 PM


  • Snooth User: Lindy Hemsley
    Hand of Snooth
    167061 733

    Marilyn I'm pleased you've had the same experience as I with Chateau D'Epire. When first becoming a wine snob some 12 years ago I visited the cellar door and bought a half-case to lay down as it was the thing for those-in-the-know to drink. After ageing for several years it tasted of little but petrol. South Africa is producing some deliciously crisp dry chenin blanc. I used to find it tasted of bananas but not anymore.

    Oct 26, 2009 at 2:01 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,939

    Thanks for the Loire overview, Marilyn. Would be great to read any more tasting notes from the wine subregions and wines you mention.

    Oh, and Savennieres has a *lot* more to it than petrol flavorings... ;-)

    Oct 26, 2009 at 4:38 PM


  • Snooth User: mcwong
    135855 95

    Just starting with Chenin Blanc? Believe it or not, you should pick up a bottle of Trader Joe's J.W. Morris Chenin Blanc. It's $2.99, it's from California (it says Napa but...), and while nobody in the Loire is shaking in their boots -- it's a very nice, very tasty starter wine. Once they realize how tasty this is, they will want to go all the way. It's a gateway Chenin Blanc!

    And if they don't like it (there's no accounting for taste), well, they've only spent three bucks. (Think of it as a three-buck chuck.)

    It's especially good for people who are tired of Chardonnay, and find Sauv Blanc a bit too tangy.

    Mac McCarthy
    http://savvytaste.blogspot.com

    Oct 26, 2009 at 5:52 PM


  • Snooth User: sjacobs
    80235 2

    I agree with dmcker, although it required some time to find out. I bought some Baumard Clos du Papillons Savennieres 2002 a couple of years ago. I tried it immediately and was disappointed in that essence of petrol. To me, this was a side of chenin blanc that I had never tasted.
    However, patience has it's rewards! Now it has become more honeyed and bordering on floral. I'm definitely glad I gave it some time and can't wait to see how it evolves over the next 6 years or so, tho I only have 3 bottles left....

    Oct 26, 2009 at 8:21 PM


  • I wrote a lengthy comment here but it would not stick because snooth decided it would not recognise my password, so it was lost while I got sent a new one. Work is now busy, but here goes:
    Facing Oceans, Chenin Blanc thrives. That means look in Margaret river Australia, California and South Africa
    Chenin does great dessert wines and the Loire ones' surprise crispness on the finish makes perfect matches for Apple puddings. (Tarte Tatin with Coteaux de Layon)
    The dry sparklers Vouvray and Saumur are cheaper than the far more venerated and costly Champagnes, but great aperitifs.
    Always try obscure village appelation wines if seen, like Jasnieres, Menetou Salon Morogues, Valencay.
    Savennieres is great white for Men who pooh pooh the idea of drinking blanc, being alcoholically strong, and rich in aromatics (the petrol and flowers scents). They are also quite long lived wines usually

    Oct 27, 2009 at 6:51 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 222,082

    All great tips. There's some pretty nice Chenin in California, not much but what I've had, from Daniel Gehrs and Pine Ridge in particular, I have liked. South Africa is also poised to do great things. Actually I am sure they are well aon their way though not a tremendous number find their way to our shores.

    Nov 03, 2009 at 11:00 AM


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