Chenin Blanc, also called Pineau de la Loire, may have come to the Loire Valley more than a thousand years ago. It was firmly established by the 15th century, and like Cabernet Franc, was also praised by Rabelais, the great epicurean writer. Although widely planted in the United States and in South Africa, it attains its highest and most characteristic expression only in a one hundred mile stretch of the Loire Valley between Blois and Savennières. Unlike any other grape except Riesling, Chenin Blanc can be vinified in a range of styles from austere, mineral, and refreshing to rich, honeyed, and sweet, and its versatility surpasses Riesling in that it also makes excellent sparkling wine.
Chenin Blanc buds early and ripens late. This presents an element of risk in the Loire Valley, which is among the northernmost viticultural areas in France. But the grape compensates in many ways. In those years when the autumn is exceptionally warm, when there is no rain and when frost is late, Chenin Blanc is subject to botrytis cinerea. Also called “noble rot,” botrytis is the mold responsible for all great sweet wines, from Sauternes in Bordeaux to Germany’s Trockenbeerenauslese to Hungary’s Tokaji. Botrytis causes the grape skins to become permeable, allowing water in the grapes to evaporate, and causing the grapes to shrivel on the vine. The juice of these overripe grapes is highly concentrated and very sweet, but balanced with a refreshing acidity, the marks of a great dessert wine. The vineyards of Quarts de Chaume, Bonnezeaux, Coteaux du Layon and Vouvray, for example, can produce long-lived sweet wines that are the equal of any.
Sweet wines can only be produced in those exceptional vineyards where shelter from wind and exposure to the sun create very particular conditions, but in other vineyards Chenin Blanc produces dry wines of the first quality. The wines of Savennières and the dry wines of Vouvray possess all the rich pungency of their sweeter occasionally aged in oak, the taste of wood is always restrained, leaving the character of the grape intact. This fruitiness, paired with the natural acidity of Chenin Blanc make these superb table wines.
Finally, Chenin Blanc is the primary grape for many of the Fines Bulles (or fine bubbles), the sparkling wines of the Loire Valley. Although other grapes may be added (according to the standards of the individual appellation) Chenin Blanc is almost always dominant in these delightful wines.