Dr Vino recently interviewed South African winemaker Ken Forrester, Talking Chenin Blanc with Ken Forrester of South Africa, 29 October 2010. The article caught my attention, because Forrester has made chenin blanc a specialty at his eponymous winery in Stellenborsch. I had tasted the Redgate Chenin Blanc 2010 and the Voyager Estate Chenin Blanc 2009 at the Margaret River in Sydney event last week, so I was keen to learn a little more about this aromatic and lively white wine.

In the interview Forrester explained his relationship with the grape: “It is like a cat: when you call it, it looks at you quizzically, then an hour later he’s there rubbing your leg with a look saying, ‘you called’? Same with Chenin: you put it in barrel and taste it and it doesn’t taste like much right away. But when you come back in six months, it has transformed, leaving you wondering, ‘Gee, where did that come from?’ ”

Chenin blanc is the white wine variety of the Loire Valley in France, where it is also known as Pineau de la Loire. Its high acidity gives it great versatility. Wines utilising chenin blanc range from dry to semi-sweet to rich botrytised dessert wines and sparkling whites. Well made chenin blanc is any style typically exhibits floral, honeyed aromas, tropical fruit flavours and a zesty acidity that mellows as the wine develops depth and complexity with age.

Probably the most famous French expressions of chenin blanc are the Loire’s great sweet wines. Domaine le Haut Lieu (Gaston Huet) Vouvray, for example, makes sweet wines that are almost on the same pedestal as the fabled Chateau d’Yquem. These wines are renowned for their ageability, the best lasting decades or longer.

Outside of France chenin blanc has a spotted history. In South Africa, where the variety is also called Steen, chenin blanc is widely planted, but only in recent years have winemakers like Forrester enforced careful vineyard management practices to restore its reputation as a serious single variety. (South African Wine, Part 1: Ken Forrester, Winanorak.com)

In Australia Jack Mann first used it in 1937 as the basis for the blended Houghton’s White Classic (formerly White Burgundy), which is still one of Australia’s top selling wines. Houghton holds back wine from select vintages for Museum release to highlight its longevity.

Coriole in McLaren Vale first planted the grape in the late 1970s, and today its dry Coriole Chenin Blanc is the winery’s flagship white. Fresh, lively and clean with spirited tropical fruit characters and aromas of passion fruit, pear and green melon is how critics typically describe the Coriole Chenin Blanc.

Western Australia has taken to the variety more than any other region in the country, and the original clones are believed to have been imported from South Africa. Sometime used as a blending variety with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and semillon, several Margaret River wineries are making very fine single variety expressions. For Amberley’s Chimney Brush Chenin Blanc, the winery picks the grapes at varying degrees of ripeness to create a complex yet balanced wine which shows elegant fruit characters whilst exhibiting the flavour intensity of the riper, late picked grapes.

So if you looking for a reasonably priced alternative to sauvignon blanc, give the fresh, delicate yet full flavoured chenin blancs a try. By all accounts the wine works well with spicy Asian and Indian cuisines!

Photo credit: The Ken Forrester vineyards in Stellborsch, South Africa, (South African Wine, Part 1: Ken Forrester, Winanorak.com)