Chenin Blanc is a versatile white wine grape grown throughout the Loire Valley in France and elsewhere in the world. It may produce wines in a range of styles, ranging from quite dry white wines to some of the best sweet wines around.
Within the Loire Valley, the wines made from Chenin Blanc are labeled with the style Vouvray. This wine is often referred to as a chameleon because of the many different types of body it may possess. Vouvray tends towards the sweet, with most working best as an aperitif or as a racy pairing with a sweet dish. This doesn’t mean that is all one will find from Chenin Blanc, even in the Loire Valley, however: there are numerous examples of drier whites made from this grape, as well as some fabulous sparkling wines.
Chenin Blanc is one of those white grape varieties that seems to create wines built to last forever. While many Chenin Blanc wines are rather uninspired, at their best they contend with the best of any varietal. Most of the best Chenin Blanc wines start young, with a level of acidity that belies the sweetness waiting to mature; as these wines age, they develop a full, honeyed body that is unmatched in nearly any other wine. A good Chenin Blanc can continue improving for over a decade, and can seemingly last forever.
Rarely does one see as drastic a difference in character between growing regions as in Chenin Blanc. Comparing the wines of the Loire Valley to those using the Chenin Blanc grape elsewhere in the world is often like comparing two entirely different grapes. Chenin Blanc is the most grown grape in all of South Africa, a nation known for its wine production, and produces some admirable wines in that country. Unlike the Loire Valley Chenin Blancs, those from South Africa do not tend to be built to have the same complexities of character or to last as long. In general, they are somewhat more acidic and lighter, but still immensely drinkable wines.
In California, the wines made from Chenin Blanc tend to be mass-produced wines for general consumption, and as such are considerably more neutral in tone and character than the Loire Valley Vouvrays. Much of this has to do with the amount of yield the vines are pushed to, with California Chenin Blanc producing many times the grapes as those in the Loire Valley. It is rare for Chenin Blanc to be blended with any other grape, especially in its sweeter incarnations. When it is matched with another grape, however, it tends to be combined with either Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, both of which complement Chenin Blanc’s acidity.