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Chenin Star

By Debra Meiburg MW

Like a good actor, chenin blanc, is an elusive grape to define. Chenin’s classic theater is France’s Loire Valley where this versatile grape is produced into crisp whites, lively sparklers or honeyed sweet wines.

Chenin blanc pairs so impeccably with Cantonese cuisine that it should get top billing on every wine list in town. Two Loire villages that excel in producing dry chenin blanc are Vouvray and Savennières. In keeping with French tradition, the village names are featured on the bottle’s label – not the grape variety – so look for Vouvray on the label.

While chenin from the Loire Valley can produce stunning, long-lived dry white wines, this vibrant variety reaches its apogee as a sweet wine. A thin skinned grape, chenin blanc is vulnerable to an elite mould called botrytis, or noble rot. If the Gods come together with auspicious weather conditions, the mould gently shrivels the grapes somewhat like raisins while still on the vine. The result is a concentrated, unctuous, honeyed white wine along the lines of great Sauternes.

Though sweet wines are customarily typecast as a dessert ingénues, do not hesitate to serve these luscious wines – in small quantities — before dinner as an aperitif. If sipping sweet chenin before dinner uncomfortably brings to mind your mother’s admonishment “sweets spoil the appetite,” then consider the advice of my friend Marie Hélène Inquimbert, consulting enologist at Chateau Belgrave in Bordeaux. “French women” says Marie Hélène, “believe that a glass of sweet wine will help you eat less during dinner.” Who can find fault with such a seductive slimming technique? Loire villages producing these superstar sweet wines are Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaumes.

In spite of its diva status, chenin blanc is an obliging workhorse. Given a flicker of sunshine and a squirt of water, it is amongst the highest yielding grape varieties. Chenin blanc is the third most widely planted grape in California, though the majority is produced for bulk wine production conveniently sold in jugs or cardboard casks. Australia also produces vast quantities of characterless chenin blanc, but there are pockets of indie winemakers who coax a subtle performance out of the grape, such as Amberley, Margaret River, Chenin Blanc.

South Africa is France’s closest rival for the finest chenin blanc in the world. During the apartheid era, ostracized South Africa had limited access to international grapevine rootstocks. While the world was having a love affair with chardonnay, South Africa focused its viticultural attention on their plentiful cuttings of chenin blanc. Known locally as steen, some of South Africa’s finest white wine is produced from this versatile variety. When it comes to South African dry chenin, expect slightly warmer alcohol levels than the cool Loire styles and more obvious fruit character. Villiera’s Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch region is a fruit basket of pineapple, guava and ripe yellow apple flavors and Bolland Cellar offers a simpler performance featuring ripe tropical fruit.

* Wine in China Conference 2014 * November 5 * Hong Kong * Get Your Tickets Here *

Comments One Comment for “Chenin Star”
  1. Matthew Rinkerman on 10.18.14 at 18:19

    Always Loved Chenin Blanc with Chinese food.

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