Chenin Blanc, the all purpose white variety

By Jamie Goode | 7th June 2024

I don’t know why, among white grape varieties, Chenin Blanc isn’t more famous than it is. It’s surely the most versatile of all white grapes, capable of performing in a wide range of climates, and making white wines in a range of styles from light and bone dry to rich and wondrously sweet. Sure, Chardonnay puts up a good fight in versatility fronts. It can make sparkling and still wines, it can grow in climates from positively cool (think England) to those that are hot (the Hunter Valley in Australia) and produce good results. But Chardonnay doesn’t have that sweet side to its armoury. And Sauvignon? A great grape, but somewhat a one-trick pony (although barrel fermented Bordeaux-style Sauvignons can be fantastic, I’ll admit).

Chenin Blanc, the all purpose white variety

Chenin hails from the Loire valley in France and by the 16th Century it had become a major grape there. But it was first planted in South Africa a long time ago, back in 1655, and became successful there, to the point that it now has a lot more Chenin Blanc than France. Worldwide there are 35 000 hectares of Chenin, with 9700 hectares in the Loire (of which two-thirds is used to make sparkling wine), while South Africa has 18 600 hectares, representing 23% of the harvest.

But there are two things that might surprise you about South African Chenin. The first is that South Africa didn’t realise that it had Chenin Blanc until the 1960s. The grape was known as Steen, and there were some who thought it might be Chenin. But this link wasn’t confirmed until 1963 when Professor CJ Orffer, Head of Viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, was finally able to show that South Africa’s Steen was actually Chenin Blanc. The second is that this grape wasn’t really planted for wine production, but instead, along with Colombar, it was planted to make brandy. The requirements for good brandy grapes is that they should be white, have good acidity, and be able to be produced in quantity. Some South African vineyards can get heroic quantities with these brandy varieties – as much as 90 tonnes per hectare (a good normal yield for white wine grapes might be 10 tonnes/hectare, rising to perhaps 15). This is fine if you are making brandy, but doesn’t result in very interesting wine. Many of the clones planted in South Africa were chosen for their yield potential, but as the vines have aged the clone matters less and the vineyard site matters more. As the vines age the yield will naturally drop a little, and with corresponding work in the vineyard to aim for less crop, the potential for quality from even this high-yielding clone is high.

When it comes to good quality Chenin Blanc from South Africa we are now spoilt for choice. The recent surge in interest in the Swartland on the part of young winegrowers has meant that old vineyards, previously supplying the cooperatives, have been rented and are now making some really interesting wines. These aren’t cheap, but they aren’t expensive, either, typically retailing at 200-250 Rand in South Africa (around £10), and hitting the shelves in the UK at around £15-20. These aren’t everyday wines for most people, but in terms of quality, to get this level of wine from classic wine regions would cost a lot more. And there’s also been an important contribution to the category made by the Old Vine Project, which is a register of all South Africa’s vineyards aged 35 and over. Anyone making wine from these certified heritage vineyards can indicate this on the bottle. Of the 4870 hectares of old vine vineyards in South Africa, Chenin is the largest variety represented by far, with 2475 hectares. One of the advantages of this collective branding of ‘old vine’ is that some cooperatives have now produced separate bottlings from old vine vineyards. A great example of this benefit is what is happening with the Koelenhof cooperative, who have been making a wine from a Chenin Blanc block owned by the Du Bois family who planted it in 1982, and which is part of the certified old vine scheme. They first made it in 2017, and their goal, explained by winemaker Handré Vidajie, was to try to make a big, bold wine. This wine, which retails for R200, has changed the approach of the cooperative: in the past these grapes would have gone into a much cheaper wine, and this has given them confidence to be more ambitious with other wines.

But there are also some excellent, more affordable Chenins available in supermarkets. In fact, if I’m drinking blind off a simple wine list where I don’t recognize any names, or I have to pick up a wine in a supermarket, South African Chenin Blanc is one of the safest bets of all.

One of the criticisms levelled against Chenin is that because it is so versatile, then you don’t know what style of wine you are going to get. I’d say the simplest way to navigate style in Chenin is by price.

At the cheap end, the wine is likely to be crisp and unoaked, with good acidity (this is a feature of the variety), and refreshing, without too many surprises. Pay a little more and the fruit will be less focused on citrus, and more on pear and peach, offering some richness. Then, as the price goes up we enter the realm of oak, and here a quick inspection of the label will help. More expensive Chenins tend to be either taut and mineral, with good concentration, or they are equally concentrated but have bold fruit and some spicy oak. Often, if you are shopping at this level, there may be someone who can advise on the style. Unlike Chenin from the Loire, you are unlikely to run into any off dry styles.

Finally, the other secret about Chenin is its ability to age over the mid-term. Two to five years in the cellar really benefits the more ambitious of the South African Chenins – and sometimes they will age even longer, but then it becomes a question of taste.

It’s an amazing variety that deserves more attention globally.