Tasting French wine – Loire Chenin Blanc
February 26, 2017
Always refreshing and hugely versatile, it’s surprising that Chenin Blanc wines with their aromas of apples and pears and honey are so under-appreciated. Apparently this variety used to be planted in many parts of the world. However it’s an obligingly easy-to-grow variety that, if left unchecked, produces masses of rather dilute grapes lacking in aromas and flavours. Many producers took advantage of this to make large amounts of wines that had nothing special apart from their fresh acidity. Unsurprisingly consumers found they preferred other varieties, like Sauvignon Blanc, and Chenin Blanc became unfashionable. Nowadays this variety has just two strongholds in the wine world – the Loire in France and South Africa. In both countries, producers who want to make serious wines have learned to keep yields low in order to get the best from this wonderful variety.
In the Loire, Chenin Blanc grapes are used to produce every style of white wine, from dry through to lusciously sweet, and both still and sparkling. Some of the sweet wines are so good, they can evolve in the bottle for decades. South Africa has recently carved a name for itself for some very quaffable fruit-driven styles, sometimes from old vines. And the really great news is that Chenin Blanc wines are very affordable.
I’m sure you’ve already picked up on the telltale signs of an enthusiastic new convert: yes, I have most definitely fallen in love with this variety. For a refreshing aperitif or a food-friendly white, I might well ditch Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay in favour of this unfashionable variety and, if you want to taste a serious botyrtised sweet wine, a Bonnezeaux is definitely a great option (see this post for more details).
Here are my notes from a recent Chenin Blanc tasting, revealing just how versatile this variety is.
Wine 1: Laroche L’Horizon Chenin Blanc 2014, Western Cape, South Africa. The only South African wine available in Chile – available at Mundo del Vino at around CLP10,000.
A pale, lemon-green coloured wine, this was a simple Chenin Blanc with fruity aromas of citrus fruit (lemon), stone fruit (greengage, peach) and green apples and pears. There was a touch of honey from the bottle-ageing.
This was a dry wine with high acidity and with medium levels of alcohol, body, flavour intensity and the finish was medium. A fruity mouth with citrus fruit, stone fruit and green apples and pears with a hint of honey.
This wine is a straightforward, generic Chenin Blanc from South Africa, suitable for drinking now and is predominantly enjoyable for its fruit-forward aromas and zesty acidity.
Wine 2: Bellingham ‘The Bernard Series’ Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2015, Coastal Region, South Africa. 14% ABV. Available in the UK from Majestic Wine Warehouses at £13.50 ,
The grapes for this wine came from low-yielding, bush-trained vines with an average age of 45 years. The grapes were hand-harvested and pressed in whole bunches before single-lot fermentation. The wine was wood-matured for 12 months in 50% new French oak and 50% second fill barrels with extended lees contact and regular batonnage for richness and added depth and dimension.
This wine was pale lemon in colour. A medium nose with lots of fruity aromas of stone fruit (peaches, apricots, greengages), tropical fruit (pineapple, lychees) and green apple. There was a hint of butterscotch and some notes of honey from the ageing process.
This was a dry, medium-bodied wine with refreshing, high acidity, high alcohol and a fairly long finish. A fruit-filled mouth with notes of peaches, apricots, greengages, tropical fruit like pineapple and lychees and green apple. This wine is a nice example of South African Chenin Blanc and has more personality than the Laroche wine.
Wine 3: Paul Buisse La Grille Vouvray 2014, Vouvray, Loire, France. 12% ABV. Available in the UK from Majestic Wine Warehouses in the UK for £8.99
This pale lemon-coloured wine had a medium nose, with herbaceous notes of angelica and grass, a hint of blossom and some subtle citrus notes and green apple. This was an off-dry wine with high acidity, medium body, medium alcohol and a medium finish. The flavour intensity was medium, mainly fruity flavours of apples, pears, citrus and stone fruit. A refreshing wine which would pair well with a range of food.
Wine 4: François Chidaine Les Choisilles 2014, Montlouis-sur-Loire. 13% ABV. Available in Chile from Edwards Fine Wines for CLP22,200.
François Chidaine is a biodynamic producer with a range of small vineyards in the Loire. The grapes for this wine were grown in the small Montlouis-sur-Loire appellation. The must was fermented with native yeasts in 600-litre oak barrels, and the wine was aged on its lees in oak barrels. Many wines from Montlouis and neighbouring Vouvray can be off-dry or sweeter, so it’s wise to check the sweetness level before you buy.
This wine was a richer colour than the previous examples, more pale gold than lemon. This is because of the time spent in oak, which results in some oxygen contact with the wine. The nose was medium (+) and very complex with primary notes of apple purée or apple pie and very ripe golden pears, as well as some tropical and stone fruit notes (pineapple, peaches, apricots). The lees ageing had lent it a slightly creamy, buttery note. There were also notes from the oxidative oak-ageing (cinnamon, sweet honey, syrup, brown sugar and some smoke). This wine was dry, with high acidity, full body, medium alcohol, a long finish and medium (+) flavour intensity with pleasant flavours of apples and pears, stone and tropical fruit. This wine was very good, with good complexity, concentration and typicity.
Wine 5: Mouline Touchais Coteaux du Layon 1996, a one-off bought from Averys in Bristol for £30.00.
This wine was medium gold in colour. The nose was pronounced with a whole pantry full of delicious aromas from the 21 years of ageing and some botrytis notes: honey, orange marmalade, orange blossom, spice, dried fruit like raisins, sultanas, prunes and dried apricots and golden syrup.
This was a sweet wine with high acidity, full body, medium alcohol and a long finish. The mouth was smooth and velvety in texture and packed with complex, concentrated notes of honey and caramel, dried fruit, orange blossom and orange marmalade. This wine was a really superb example of an aged late harvest Chenin Blanc with some botrytis. It had great balance, concentration and integration, though it lacked the depth of the fully botrytic Bonnezeaux I recently tried. This wine is ready for drinking now but could gain further in complexity over a few more years.
Wine 6: François Chidaine Méthode Traditionelle Brut NV, Montlouis-sur-Loire. 12% ABV. Available from Edwards Fine Wines for CLP$15,700
This is a sparkling wine from the same biodynamic producer as wine number 4. The base wine was made in the same way as Les Choisilles, with the must being fermented with its native yeasts in 600-litre oak barrels, hence the colour. The second fermentation took place in-bottle and the wine was kept over its lees for 12 months.
This wine was medium gold in colour. A fairly aromatic nose for a sparkling wine, featuring notes of cooked apples and pears, ripe quince and peaches, as well as secondary notes from the in-bottle fermentation (toast, brioche and yeast). There was also some honey from the bottle-ageing. This was a dry sparkling wine with high acidity, full body and a long finish. It had good balance and medium alcohol. Absolutely delicious and so much more interesting than the many very neutral styles of sparkling wine so in vogue. I would definitely pick this wine for a special celebration.
For details of other French wines, check out these posts:
Tasting French wine – Bordeaux and SW France
Tasting French wine – Loire Cabernet Franc
Tasting French wine – fruity white Alsace wines
I’d love to hear from you. Have you tried a Chenin Blanc you could recommend? Have you come across any great Chenin Blanc wines produced in Chile or anywhere else in the world?