15. GRAPE VARIETIES Number 4: Chenin Blanc
Chenin Blanc is the great grape of the Loire Valley, France's longest river. It is grown around Tours (Touraine), Saumur and Angers (Anjou). Andrew Jefford says of it in his book "The New France" that the best examples "are among the finest white wines on earth, rivalled only for longevity, and for the beauty of its cellar metamorphoses, by Riesling (Chardonnay isn't even in the running)."
It is "probably the world's most versatile grape variety" (The Oxford Companion to Wine), producing everything from searingly dry to lusciously sweet styles (with and without botrytis), also sparkling, and at all levels of quality from oceans of characterless jug wine (USA and South Africa) to serious, brilliant, fascinating Loire examples.
The distinctive feature of the Chenin Blanc is its acidity, which is the secret to its longevity, and also explains why it is so useful as a component of mass-produced jug wine: in the Loire yields are kept very low (below 50 hectolitres per hectare, equivalent to less than 3,000 bottles per acre), and the wines display a strong varietal character â€“ they often start life as Sauvignon Blanc lookalikes, obviously fruity and floral (though some, particularly those from SavenniÃ¨res, can be disarmingly sharp and mineral), but with time develop aromas of damp straw, honey and wet wool â€“ always with a vital streak of acidity running through them; in the industrial vineyards of California, where the vines are grown to produce the maximum amount of juice, the yields are up to 10,000 bottles per acre, and the wine simply tastes of cheap white wine with no varietal characteristics, but it does still keep its acidity, which is useful for blending purposes.
The only country that seems able to produce Chenin Blanc that retains its distinctive characteristics is New Zealand, where Millton Vineyards are producing very impressive wines.
Chenin Blanc is the most widely planted grape variety in South Africa, where it is known as "Steen", and rarely shows even a hint of its character â€“ again, it just tastes like perfectly nice, but characterless white wine. In both the USA and South Africa the acreage planted with Chenin Blanc outstrips that of its home in the Loire.
The most northerly vineyards for this grape variety are situated in the appellation of JasniÃ¨res, which is on a perfectly exposed south-facing slope along the banks of the Loir, a tributary of the more famous Loire. The soil is flinty, and sheltered by woods along its northern edge. It can be difficult to ripen the grapes this far north, and the wines have a crisp mineral edge which distinguishes them from their (slightly) more southerly neighbours along the banks of the Loire. The wines, however, are utterly fascinating, and for those who discover and appreciate them, provide some of the greatest drinking pleasure imaginable â€“ the famous French gastronome and wine writer Curnonsky said of JasniÃ¨res, "Trois fois par siÃ¨cle, le JasniÃ¨res est le meilleur vin blanc du monde" (Three times per century, JasniÃ¨res is the best white wine of the world).