526 THE ADVOCATE
VOL. 76 PART 4 JULY 2018
Ampelographers note the first apparent references to the variety in the
ninth century. It has been part of South African winemaking since the 1600s
when cuttings were sent to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company, and
it made its way to Australia in the 1800s.
Chenin is somewhat of a chameleon, adapting to different styles of winemaking.
Even its name varies. In the Loire it has several names, the best
known being “Pineau de la Loire”. In South Africa, it is most commonly
called “Steen” (Dutch for “stone”). In this article I will stick with “Chenin”.
Chenin has a wide stylistic repertoire, ranging from steely, bone-dry versions
to rich, botrytised dessert wines. Like Riesling it has high acidity
(which gives it the ability, properly made, to age well) but in its dry versions
often displays a mix of damp wool, steel and honey. Younger versions also
have green apple and pear and, if from riper grapes, tropical fruit.
Again, like Riesling, that high acidity gives it potential longevity in the
bottle. The top versions from Vouvray can last for decades. A famous tasting
of 18 wines from 1911 and 1970 (most before 1950) was conducted by the
famous producer Marc Brédif, where the wines all held up and, interestingly,
became sweeter (rather than drier as with most wines) as they got
older. Apparently, this comes from the fact that its high acidity masks the
residual sugar in the wine when young.
Unfortunately for its reputation, Chenin has often been used as fodder
for cheap bulk wine production in South Africa, Australia and the United
States, being added to white blends to lend some acidity and prevent the
wine from tasting flabby and lacklustre. Fortunately, Chenin no longer has
to slum in that company. It is now being featured as a solo act.
Chenin grapevines bud early in the growing season and ripen mid to late
in the harvest year. Consequently, especially in its home in the Loire,
ripeness can be variable depending on the weather. However, in warm
years, the balance between the Loire’s marginal climate and the warmth
needed to attain full ripeness has the potential to produce wines with complexity
and finesse. The most famous are from the Vouvray and Saumur
appellations. The production runs from sparkling wines (especially in
Saumur) through dry table wines to complex dessert wines, akin to
Sauternes or Tokays. The dry versions have vibrant fruit flavours with racy
acidity and can be enjoyed young. As one writer puts it, “That boldly
assertive acid acts as a seasoning in the way that lemon juice does in fruit
purée.”2 The fruit-forwardness dies away after a year or so in the bottle, to
be replaced over time with that classic steel, wet wool and honey of an aged
Chenin mentioned earlier.
Like all grape varieties, quality in Chenin wine is intimately connected
to the care taken in the vineyard. However, in its case there must be extra