If white wines are going to have a heyday once again, it’s beginning now. While critics have been preoccupied with red wines lately, white wines have been staging a quiet revolution, introducing new drinkers to drier styles with the same quenching freshness of an ice cold beer… but without the carbs.
The benefits of white wines are many: they’re typically lighter in alcohol, they pair with an incredibly wide variety of foods, and, cost-for-quality, they’re more affordable than red wine. In this category, unoaked Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc abound, but there’s another white wine which deserves much more attention than it currently gets.
Say hello to Chenin Blanc.
Chenin Blanc is a grown throughout the world, most notably in the Loire Valley of France and South Africa. What’s amazing about this variety is the diversity of styles, from sparkling wines and lean, dry whites to sweet, golden nectars and brandy.
In South Africa, Chenin Blanc is the most planted wine grape and, in recent years, a great deal of effort has been put into researching how to make South African Chenin compete with the best in the world. What’s really cool is that even though South Africa is turning out incredible Chenin Blanc wines (particularly from old vineyards), the prices are still quite competitive. This is an awesome spot to look for value.
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In the cooler Loire Valley of France, ripeness of Chenin Blanc can be so uneven that grapes are usually selected by hand in successive passes through the vineyard. The high acid, less ripe grapes make a great base for sparkling wines. Then, the riper grapes are used in the richly aromatic, off-dry styles. Finally, at the end of the harvest season, the last grapes picked are beyond ripe or affected with noble rot, which concentrates the grapes’ sugars, lending rich flavors of orange marmalade, ginger, and saffron. These late harvest grapes go into the famous sweet wines of the region, including Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux.
Go drink some Chenin Blanc
Your homework assignment: pick a style of Chenin Blanc that suits your fancy, find a bottle, and then go taste it. Here is the list of styles to consider:
- Sparkling: Brut (dry) or Demi-Sec (fruity and off-dry) are the primary styles. Keep your eyes peeled for a Methode Traditionelle Vouvray from France or a Cap Classique from South Africa.
- Lean and Dry: In Vouvray, dry styles are labeled as “Sec” and in South Africa, you’ll usually find a sweetness indicator on the back label. These wines are tart, lean, minerally, and sometimes a little bit smoky.
- Aromatic and Off-Dry: The lush style of Chenin that smells like a bouquet of flowers and freshly sliced pear. This style is arguably the most popular throughout the world, from the United States all the way to Nashik, India. In Vouvray, producers often use the words “Tendre” to indicate the style.
- Golden Nectar: The sweetest dessert wine style can be found mostly in the Loire Valley of France including the regions within the Côteaux du Layon, or wines labeled “Moelleux” from Vouvray.