Chenin Blanc: An Insider’s Guide

Chenin Blanc: An Insider’s Guide

Chenin Blanc has a rich and captivating history, from its humble beginnings in France to its exciting journey to South African shores. But how did it become the most planted grape variety in South Africa, and what can you expect to discover when you open a bottle of Chenin Blanc? In this blog post, we will explore the origins of the variety, how it came to South Africa and how it has grown in popularity over the last few hundred years. We will also share with you the various styles and how they affect the flavour profile of the wine, as well as compare the flavours of Chenin Blanc to Sauvignon Blanc.

Chenin Blanc: A Historical Snapshot

The story of Chenin Blanc goes back as far as 845 with Charles le Chauve, also fondly known as Charles the Bald, who was the King of West Francia, King of Italy and Emperor of the Carolingian Empire. In one of his essays, he wrote about a variety called “plant d’Anjou” and mentioned donating it to the Saint-Maur de Glanfeuil Abbey in the Loire Valley, France.

When Charles became King of England and France, his court favoured serving Anjou wines and began purchasing these wines from the monasteries in the Loire Valley. The monasteries in this region of France each had their own enclosed plot of vines at this time and played a pivotal role in developing the Anjou-Saumur wine region that we know today. Due to the demand for Anjou wines, the vineyards began to expand rapidly, and in the 15th century the variety was exported to the Touraine region of the Loire Valley, where it was christened with a new name ‘Chenin Blanc’ in honour of Mont Chenin.

Anjou-Saumur wine region

The Journey to South Africa

Chenin Blanc has a rich and captivating story in wine history in South Africa, tracing its roots back to the year 1655. It’s believed that it was among the first vine cuttings introduced to the region during the era of Jan van Riebeeck, the Dutch colonial administrator who served as the Commander of the Cape from 1652-1662. The varieties brought included Fransdruif (Palomino), Groendruif (Semillon), and Steen (Chenin Blanc).

On the 2nd of February, 1659, the first pressing of these grapes took place and are believed to come from two-year-old vines grown from the cuttings that arrived on the ships Dordrecht and Parel. The assumption is that these documented pressings were of the Steen variety, made from the cuttings that arrived from France in 1656.

Chenin Blanc - Grapes being Harvested

The true identity of Steen remained a mystery until 1962 when Professor C.J. Orffer of Stellenbosch University found a revelation in Volume III of GALET. He came across the term ‘Franche’ and an illustration of a vine leaf that bore a striking resemblance to that of Steen. To confirm his hypothesis, he brought over Chenin Blanc shoots from the Loire region and grew them in South Africa. He then compared these leaves with those of Steen, and upon finding an exact match, he declared Steen to be the same as Chenin blanc which at the time was already widely cultivated in South Africa.

Cultivation in South Africa

Up until the early 1970s, Chenin Blanc was the main variety grown in the South African wine industry as there was an increased demand for clean, crisp and off-dry white wines that were fairly neutral in flavour. Chenin Blanc’s popularity hasn’t waivered, and in 2021, it was the most widely cultivated grape varieties in South Africa, with about 19,000 hectares recorded. 

Chenin Blanc Grapes

Chenin Blanc thrives in South Africa due to a combination of factors, including the climate, soil conditions, and the vinification methods used. South Africa’s climate is remarkably suitable for growing Chenin Blanc, and the grape is notably resistant to heat, but it particularly flourishes in regions where it can receive ample sunshine along with some cooling elements. The balance found in many South African wine regions allows the grape to ripen fully while still maintaining its trademark acidity.

In terms of soil, Chenin Blanc is adaptable to a variety of types, and the diversity across different wine regions allows for a wide range of expressions of the grape, which ultimately contributes to its versatility in style from dry and crisp to sweet and rich.

Person Holding Soil in Hands

The vinification methods employed by South African winemakers also play a significant role, and they have been incredibly successful in producing well-made Chenins that showcase impressive ageing potential by using both inoculated and natural fermentation processes. 

The establishment of the Chenin Blanc Association in 2000 has greatly contributed to the growth and development of this varietal in South Africa. The association has promoted the production of high-quality Chenin Blanc wines and aims to help boost the varietal on the international stage.

Flavour Profile

Chenin Blanc is a white grape variety that offers an exciting range of flavours and aromas, making it an appealing choice for wine enthusiasts. When young, this wine is fresh, crisp, and vibrant, with notable tastes of green apple, quince, and pear. Its high acidity gives it a zesty, refreshing quality that can be quite invigorating on the palate.

As Chenin Blanc ages, it evolves beautifully, developing more complex and layered flavours. The fresh green apple and pear notes mature into baked apple and ripe pear while the bright acidity mellows, allowing sweeter elements like honey to come forward. These changes bring an intriguing and satisfying depth of flavour to the wine.

Chenin Blanc - Wine Glass with Chenin

The winemaking style plays a key role in shaping the final profile of Chenin Blanc. When produced in a dry style, the wine can be lean and mineral-driven with a focus on its bright fruit flavours and high acidity. In contrast, when made in a richer style or allowed to undergo malolactic fermentation, Chenin Blanc can exhibit a creamy, full-bodied texture that balances its natural acidity with a luxurious richness. To enhance the complexity of the wine, winemakers may also choose to age Chenin Blanc in mature oak barrels as opposed to steel barrels to impart a smooth, butter-like flavour to the wine.

Whether you prefer your wine fresh and fruity or rich and complex, Chenin Blanc offers something for everyone. Its versatility, combined with its inherent charm and complexity, makes it a fascinating wine to explore.

Is Chenin Blanc Dry or Sweet?

The Chenin Blanc taste can exhibit a spectrum of flavours ranging from bone-dry to lusciously sweet, so the answer to the question ‘Is chenin blanc sweet or dry?’ will depend on the bottle you purchase. We recommend reading the tasting notes of the bottle you wish to try to ensure it aligns with your preferred level of sweetness. 

Below, you can see the broad array of styles that Chenin Blanc can provide, which only further highlights its versatility and adaptability:

  • Dry Style: The grapes undergo complete fermentation, which retains their freshness, resulting in a crisp, mineral-rich wine with hints of florals and flavours of tart pear, apple, quince, pepper and straw.
  • Off-dry Style: This style leaves some natural sugars unfermented in the wine, leading to a flavour profile of ripe pear, baked apple, peach, guava and honeysuckle.
  • Sweet Style: These tend to have flavours of tropical fruits, marmalade, honeycomb and ginger and with noble rot, these wines can provide hints of saffron and smoke.
  • Sparkling Style: Regardless of the level of sweetness of the sparkling wine, the flavours of quince, yellow apple, plum, ginger, and floral tones tend to shine through.
Chenin Blanc - Women Tasting Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc vs Sauvignon Blanc

When it comes to comparing Chenin vs Sauvignon Blanc, both are popular white grape varieties originating in France, yet each offers a unique set of characteristics and flavour profiles. The flavour profile of Chenin Blanc typically includes notes of quince, apple, pear, and honey when it’s made in a sweeter style. In a drier style, it might exhibit minerality with high acidity, featuring flavours like green apple, lime, and ginger.

Unlike Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc is usually made in a dry style and is rarely used to make sweet wines. It is known for its high acidity and intense aromatics. Classic flavour notes include green apple, gooseberry, passion fruit, and freshly cut grass. The average Chenin Blanc alcohol content tends to be around 13.5% ABV, whereas Sauvignon Blanc usually ranges from 12.5–14% ABV, depending on the style.

People Tasting White Wine

HER Wines

The HER Wine Collection is a trailblazer in South Africa’s wine industry. We are proud to be the first enterprise to be wholly owned and run by black women. Every step of our journey, from the nurturing vineyard to the exquisite bottle to production, marketing and distribution, is lovingly handled by black women. We recognise the intrinsic value of exchanging ideas, motivating one another and broadening our bonds throughout the beautifully diverse communities across South Africa.

Chenin Blanc - HER Wine Chenin Blanc

When opening a bottle of the Her Wine Collection Chenin Blanc, you can expect aromas of delicious tropical fruit followed by flavours of white pear, green melon, and yellow apple on the palate. Our Chenin Blanc is delicious as a food and wine pairing with fresh salads, pasta salads, light curries and cheese boards.

The HER Wine Bursary

Our all-female team at the HER Wine Collection recognises the challenges that need to be faced in order to attain professional success. We understand the uphill battle that young people face in carving their own path in this world, and this shared journey has sparked in us a desire to give a hand up. That is why we’ve pledged to give back 2% of our profits to a bursary fund that is dedicated to fostering the dreams of ambitious young minds, helping them turn their aspirations into reality.

All applicants who are eligible for this incredible scholarship come from families who are working on the vineyards that supply grapes for the HER Wine Collection. The chosen recipients will receive financial aid for their education, along with mentorship to guide them through the complexities involved in studying at a tertiary institution and establishing a career.

HER Wines Chenin Blanc

If you are looking to try some of the best Chenin Blanc in South Africa, then why not try the HER Wine Chenin Blanc? You can purchase our wines on our online shop, where our Chenin Blanc sells for only R90.00 per bottle, and if you choose to purchase a case, you will receive FREE shipping. To stay up to date with everything happening at HER Wine Collection, you can follow us on Instagram and Facebook. If you need more information or queries about our wines, please email us on or give us a call on 021 873 3170.