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Chenin Blanc - The Chameleon of Grapes

Chenin Blanc - The Chameleon of Grapes

Chenin Blanc is a funny grape - an incredibly old variety, referenced by name in the Loire Valley as early as the mid-1500s, with uneven ripeness and terrifically high acidity that can produce memorable and profound wines in just about every style possible. 

France - The Loire and beyond

Historically, the most important wines from the variety were sweet dessert wines from the Loire, particularly in the Anjou were noble Botrytis rot shrivels the berries into raisins and creates rich and honeyed wines that age beautifully over decades. Sparkling Chenin is also made in the Loire, particularly in Saumur and Vouvray, by the traditional method with the resulting wines combining wonderful freshness with baked apple and honeysuckle aromas.

In the 21st century however, the trend in the Loire is certainly towards dry still wines. In Anjou, Saumur, Vouvray and elsewhere winemakers, many of whom work under organic and natural ethos, are producing thrilling wines brimming with minerality, tension and complexity that are favourites of sommeliers at top restaurants around the world.

Chenin Blanc has also migrated South, with producers in the Languedoc and Southwest making use of its naturally high acidity to produce wines that retain freshness in their warmer climates.


Moulin Touchais Coteaux du Layon 2005 - £45.95
Staunch traditionalists based in the heart of Anjou sweet wine country, Moulin Touchais follow a meticulous method to produce this incredible nectar of a wine. First they pick a small portion, around 20%, of slightly under-ripe grapes to contribute extra acidity to the final blend. Then, after the misty conditions have brought on the noble rot, they make two or three passes through the vineyard to select only the most affected bunches. After fermentation the wines are bottled early, as the Touchais family believe they mature better in bottle than in barrels, and aged this way for a minimum of 10 years before release. Their cellars are legendary, containing up to 2 million bottles of vintages dating back to before the First World War.

Complex sweet aromas of honey, peach jam, pineapple and marmalade fill the room when you pour a glass. The first sensation on the palate is the intense sweetness, but the bright acidity quickly cuts in to keep it fresh. This wonderful balance is present throughout the exceptionally long finish. These wines are surprisingly versatile for pairing, working with creamy or fruity desserts as well as cheeses, foie gras and rich seafood like crab or scallops.

Brendan Stater-West Saumur Blanc 2018 - £26.95

American Brendan Stater-West did not expect to become a winemaker when he moved to France, originally planning to work as English teacher in Paris. A coworker introduced him to the world of wine and he wound up working in a wine shop, where he tasted a 2008 Breze Chenin Blanc from maestro Romain Guiberteau. He was so taken by it that he then, in his own words, 'harassed Romain ... until he gave in and accepted to take me under his wing as an apprentice.' 

In 2015 Romain agreed to lease Brendan 1ha of the Les Chapaudaise vineyard, in the village of Bizay, a similar limestone site to that of the Breze that had changed his life. Farming it organically, like his mentor, the results have been spectacular!

Fermented and aged exclusively in stainless steel, to preserve the taut, steely minerality that Brendan loves in Chenin this is a bone-dry white with magical intensity. Notes of green apple, honeysuckle and a hint of peach play second fiddle to texture and minerality. An incredible expression of terroir and brilliant paired with oysters, sushi or goat's cheese.

We also have stock of two of Romain Guiberteau's single vineyard Chenins, for anyone interested in comparing the disciple to the master:

Guiberteau Clos de Guichaux Saumur Blanc 2021 - £48.50

Guiberteau Le Bourg Breze Saumur Blanc 2021 - £48.50

South Africa

While Chenin Blanc may have originated in France, today the country it is most closely associated with is undoubtedly South Africa. First brought to the country by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s, Chenin makes up nearly a fifth of all South African vineyards, a total area nearly double that of France's plantings.

For many years South African Chenin, locally known as Steen, was largely a weedy, bland and uninteresting white wine due to overcropping and poor winemaking. However in the last twenty to thirty years more and more winemakers have put Chenin Blanc front-and-centre as their signature variety, taking advantage of the abundance of old vineyards across the country. From hot, dry Swartland to cool, coastal Elgin there are a number of unique regional styles and fantastic value from daily drinkers to special occasion wines.

Secateurs AA Badenhorst Chenin Blanc 2022 - £14.95

The Swartland region on the Western Cape is among South Africa's warmest and driest, and is also home to an impressive array of old vineyards. Most vines here are planted as individual bush vines to make them more resilient to drought without the need for irrigation. Among the many producers working in this area, Adi Badenhorst stands out as one of the very best. After stints with Chateau Angelus and Alain Graillot in France, and 7 years as winemaker at Rustenberg, he bought the Kalmoesfontein farm with his cousin to begin producing his own wines.

Alongside stunningly complex single vineyard Chenins (such as the Klip Klop Haut Granitika which we sell for £36) they produce the Secateurs, a wine that punches well above its price bracket vintage after vintage. From a selection of naturally farmed vineyards around the area, fermented and aged in old French oak barrels, it is a wine of impressive complexity and wonderful freshness. The Swartland warmth contributes to a riper fruit profile - notes of pineapple and yellow apples, with lovely lime freshness to balance. Hints of creaminess and wild herbs and further interest on the palate.

Angus Paul On a Flight of Furious Fancies Chenin Blanc 2022 - £25

Stellenbosch is the traditional heart of South Africa's wine industry, famed especially for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends. A lot of Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch can be on the heavier side, often with more oaky flavour. This beautiful wine from young winemaker Angus Paul bucks that trend, with a style majoring on minerality and crisp fresh fruit.

The major factor is the unique vineyard the fruit comes from. Planted in 1988, high in the Polkadraai Hills where the altitude keeps temperatures down and the decomposed granite soils contribute robust acidity and flinty minerality. Paul follows a minimal intervention philosophy for winemaking - no yeasts, enzymes or other adjuncts are used, and there is only a very small addition of SO2 just before bottling. It sees oak, but only used barrels, so as to contribute to the texture and smoothness without adding overpowering oak flavour. The nose is very pretty, with apple blossom and honeysuckle aromas alongside citrus fruit and seasalt. On the palate it is crisp and direct, but with a weight and persistence that belies its 12.5% alcohol. This would make an outstanding pairing for fish in creamy sauces, or pasta carbonara.

Tembela Chenin Blanc 2021 - £28.50

Winemaker Banele Vakele is a remarkable success story. Growing up in Khayelitsha, one of Cape Town's poorest townships, he got a scholarship to a high school in Constantia, very close to the famous vineyards of the area. This then lead to studying winemaking at Elsenburg and stints in Oregon, Burgundy and the Yarra Valley. He then took a job as assistant winemaker to Duncan Savage, a job he was drawn to because of Duncan's natural winemaking style (and his numerous awards). It is from the Savage cellar in Salt River, Cape Town, that Banele launched his own label starting in 2020. 

Tembela is his mother's name, which means 'hope' in Xhosa, the majority language of his hometown. The Chenin Blanc comes from a tiny 38 year old vineyard in Durbanville, dry-farmed and organic on sandy soils. He ferments the wine in a concrete egg, which encourages natural movement of the lees and gives lovely roundness to the body, before aging in used French oak. The resulting wine is a revelation; vibrantly aromatic with notes of mandarin, peach and rooibos tea, full-bodied without being heavy and singing with vibrant minerality in the finish. A remarkable achievement for only Banele's second vintage! Try this with quiche, pork belly or just savour its complexities on its own.

Rest of the World

While Chenin Blanc hasn't taken off globally the way its close relatives Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have, there are winemakers championing it in every winegrowing country from Spain to New Zealand. It is doing particularly well in the USA, with members of California's new wave seeking out the variety for its ability to retain acidity in their increasingly warm climate.

Birichino Jurassic Park Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2016 - £28.99

The brilliantly evocative name of this vineyard plays reference to the ancient Jurassic soils of the site in the cool Santa Ynez Valley of California's central coast in 1978. The Chenin Blanc grapes from this site are highly sought after, with many of California's trendiest winemakers competing to buy grapes. Alex Krause and John Locke of Birichino are among them, and with their typically hands-off approach have guided those grapes into an exceptional wine.

The fruit leans towards apple and pear, with a hint of canteloupe and honeyed quince suggesting a riper style. On the palate it is brimming with vitality, minerality and has a lovely waxiness to the texture. A bit of bottle age has now brought out some toast, pastry and almond notes for added depth.

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