France’s Under-the-Radar White Wine: Chenin Blanc

Like pre-Labor Day fashions, summer wine drinking is all about the whites. In case you haven’t guessed, many of my recent posts have been aimed at spreading the gospel of under-the-radar white wines, and today, we’re going to take a look at one of the wine world’s most underappreciated white varieties: Chenin Blanc.

Chenin Blanc is kind of like the Jane Fonda of white wines. Though it’s a venerable old white variety, it’s looking fresh and fabulous these days thanks to a bit of “rest” and rehabilitation.

Chenin Blanc is used to make some of the most famous wines in France's Loire Valley.

Chenin Blanc is used to make some of the most famous wines in France’s Loire Valley.

Chenin Blanc originally hails from France’s Loire Valley, where it is used to make wines from Vouvray, Savennières and Anjou among other areas. It has a high natural acidity, so it creates lovely wines that can run the gamut from dry, crisp sparklers to mouthwatering dessert wines. That’s part of its problem. It’s almost too versatile. So for many wine drinkers, it’s hard to know what you’re going to get when you open a particular bottle.

While there are many palatable examples from its homeland, the variety got a bit of a bad rap in the 1970s and 1980s since some of the styles in which it was made both in France and the U.S. tended to be bulk-wine off-dry quality. Not très chic.

However, the grape has also made a huge impact elsewhere, including Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and, most notably, South Africa, where it is a major player, and where winemakers are turning it into crisp, refreshing and versatile wines that go with any number of food styles.

I find they tend to have lovely notes of citrus and stone fruits, jasmine and other white flowers, and that sort of “chalky” bite to them that gets your mouth watering. That makes them particularly good at pairing with Asian food as well as any number of seafood and fish dishes, not to mention pork and flavorful vegetable dishes.

So if you’re over Chardonnay and looking to branch out from Sauvignon Blanc, try some Chenin Blanc this week. Here are a couple to look out for.

The Chenin Blanc vineyards of Sylvain in Vouvray.

The Chenin Blanc vineyards of Sylvain Gaudron in Vouvray.

Sylvain Gaudron “La Butte du Trésor” Vouvray Sec 2013: You might have heard of, or tried, Vouvray without knowing you were drinking a Chenin Blanc, but there’s no mistaking it when you taste this wine. It has those hallmark aromas of honey and wildflowers as well as mandarin orange and pear, but with an acidity that keeps it from becoming cloying.

Sirkel Chenin Blanc Voor-Paardeberg Parl: This South African version is a phenomenal value, and a great taste of just how fresh, tropical and muscular white wines made from Chenin Blanc can be.

Nicolas Joly Clos de al Coulée de Serrant (Savennières) 2013: This is the priciest bottle on the list, but one that should give you a great idea of just how fantastic Chenin Blanc can be. It comes from one of the best known French producers in the Loire, is made from old vines and should be both powerful and heady. Just be sure to decant it for a few hours before drinking.

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