Your intrepid liquor reporter was trying to impress his dinner date at a quaint little seafood restaurant last week, and needed something more unique and interesting than a bog-standard Chardonnay to go with the oysters.
Luckily, your humble narrator has long been a fan of the Chenin Blanc grape varietal, and the waiter was more than happy to trot one out for our enjoyment.
For those not in the know, Chenin Blanc is a white wine grape with a long history, dating back to the 9th century in the Loire Valley of France, and has been experiencing a resurgence in popularity over the last few decades.
Even the most novice of wine drinkers will likely recognize the Loire Valley of France as the wellspring of many of the noble grape varietals, and home to some of the most highly regarded wines worldwide.
Chenin Blanc has been making outstanding wines for centuries, and is even a genetic ancestor to the more well-known Sauvignon Blanc grape.
As the wine snobs say, the Chenin Blanc grape is very expressive of terroir. No, gentle reader, that doesn’t mean that the grape shrieks in fear when picked. Rather, it means that the taste of the wine is very dependent on the climate and soil conditions in the vineyard.
When grown in a cool climate such as the Loire Valley, Chenin Blanc tends to have crisp acidity, floral aromas, and an herbaceous mouth feel. Contrast that to a hot climate such as South Africa, and the wine will be less acidic and much more fruit-forward.
This makes Chenin Blanc a very versatile grape, able to produce either dry or sweet wines, sparkling wines, and even fortified wines.
While France is the historical home of the Chenin Blanc grape, it has done very well in the New World, and is now the most commonly planted grape in South Africa.
While Chenin Blanc does very well on its own, its versatility leads many winemakers to blend it with other grape varietals to jazz up the flavor of a bulk wine to make it more appealing.
California winegrowers will often use excessive irrigation to produce very high yields of Chardonnay. This produces a very inexpensive and boring wine, which is then blended with relatively small amounts of Chenin Blanc to make it more palatable and command a higher price on the market.
This has lead to Chenin Blanc being referred to as the most popular grape that no one has heard of, because it is blended with so many other grape varietals to liven them up.
My dinner date and I ended up with a bottle of Chenin Blanc from the Winery of Good Hope in the well-reknowned Stellenbosch wine region of South Africa.
A delightful little wine that retails for around $15 at your local booze merchant, it was packed with crisp acidity, which was well balanced with the bursts of tropical fruit on the palate, as is typical for this grape.
This particular winery chose to leave the wine to age on the dead yeast cells (or on lees for you wine snobs in the audience). This gives the wine flavours of mineral, toasty biscuits, and spice to increase the complexity of the finish.
For those looking for something a little closer to home, the Quails Gate winery near Kelowna produces a Chenin Blanc that made the news last year for being served to the young royals Will and Kate while on their Canadian tour. This wine has been consistently popular for years, and your intrepid liquor reporter always brings home a few bottles when touring the wineries of BC.
Because of the versatility of this grape, it can be paired with a variety of foods.
The natural acidity of the Chenin Blanc grapes makes it pair well with both oysters and shellfish.
However, when Chenin Blanc is made in a medium-dry style, it goes well with rich dishes such as pâté or foie gras.
If made in a sweeter style, it can balance spicy Thai or Mexican dishes very well. In a nutshell, pair the intensity of the food with the intensity of the wine, and you will do just fine.
So, the next time you are in the mood for a white wine, reach past that tired old Chardonnay on the shelf and try out a Chenin Blanc.