Wine enthusiast Tim Atkin once opened a Chenin Blanc that was bottled in 1921, and to his surprise, the wine was supremely sweet, with a fresh, crisp profile that could compete with any young wine on the market today. If Chenin Blanc can age so well for more than 50 years, why isn’t it on every serious collector’s shelf? Atkin says this is because Chenin Blanc varies dramatically in quality. He jokes, “Bad Chenin leaves your teeth feeling as if they’ve been seen to by the sadistic dentist Laurence Olivier plays in the film Marathon Man.” It’s also true that the extra high acidity of this wine makes it less accessible for the average drinker than even the most acidic Sauvignon Blanc, and it is all but impossible to drink quality Chenin Blanc young. However, more collectors are buying dry white wine, and its versatility (it can be sweet like Sauternes or dry as a desert) and ability to age are making collectors sit up and take a second look.
Why Chenin Blanc Fell Out of Favor
In its homeland of the Loire Valley, botrytis is a key component of fine Chenin Blanc, since this noble rot gives the wine its sweet flavor without sacrificing the acidity that allows it to age. In the past, when botrytis didn’t latch onto the grapes naturally, winemakers would pump extra sugar into the vats as they processed the wine, a process called chaptalization. The result was an overly-sweet, artificial-tasting vintage that few collectors wanted to drink. As Chenin Blanc made its way to the New World in regions like California, winemakers had a similar problem. They over-sweetened the wine, releasing low-quality Chenin Blanc by the jug. Like Grenache in the 1980s, the wine was flabby and cheap, and quickly fell out of favor.
In 1980, Napa Valley had 2,000 acres of Chenin Blanc vineyards compared to 1,600 acres of Chardonnay. Today, Chardonnay rules the land, with 7,000 acres compared to just 20 acres of Chenin Blanc. However, we are starting to see a change of heart among producers. More winemakers are seeking out plantings from Loire Valley, repeating the biodynamic traditions that originally made the wine famous. Rather than adding sugar to the wine, modern winemakers like Baumard are letting the varietal speak for itself, putting in the time and dedication required to make these grapes truly impactful.
A New Revolution
Loire Valley’s winemakers frown on chaptalization and are getting back to biodynamic techniques, and as a result, more sommeliers are recommending Chenin Blanc to customers. Writer Carson Demmond calls Chenin Blanc “that magical animal of the wine world,” comparing it to a Simpson’s episode in which Homer lists out the many uses of pork, everything from bacon to chops. Chenin Blanc is similarly diverse in what it can become, which is part of the reason for its comeback in 2016. Vintages grown in Loire Valley are typically bone dry and have a strong mineral taste like German Riesling, while others grown in warm climates can be sweet as honey. All wine varietals can be made into very different wines depending on climate and winemaking techniques, but few have as many personalities as Chenin Blanc.
The Best Chenin Blanc Worth Collecting
Nearly all high-quality Chenin Blanc vintages age well in a cellar, regardless of their flavor profile. That’s because the wine retains a strong acidity regardless of whether it is sweet or savory. Generally, the more mineral-heavy and acidic a wine is, the longer it will cellar, but you can expect even the sweetest Chenin Blanc to age for at least a decade if it’s high quality. Don’t open a bottle of your best Chenin Blanc until it’s spent at least 20 years in cellar, since they are notoriously difficult to drink when they’re young.
If you’re the type of collector who loves honey-like white wines, you’ll want to choose Chenin Blanc from Anjou, or one made from grapes exposed to botrytis. If you’re into more savory, earthy wines, invest in Savennieres Chenin Blanc, as these wines usually have notes of spice and beeswax. For strong minerality, stick with Vouvray, which has a great deal of limestone in the soil. Producers like Domaine Delesvaux and Huet make some of the best Chenin Blanc vintages largely due to the traditional techniques they use to grow and process the wine.
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