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Chenin blanc can make everything from full-bodied, creamy whites to crisp light whites, sparkling and sweet wines (Photo: Joelle Thomson)
Chenin blanc can make everything from full-bodied, creamy whites to crisp light whites, sparkling and sweet wines (Photo: Joelle Thomson)

KaiSeptember 4, 2018

Great white: Meet the unsung hero of New Zealand wine

Chenin blanc can make everything from full-bodied, creamy whites to crisp light whites, sparkling and sweet wines (Photo: Joelle Thomson)
Chenin blanc can make everything from full-bodied, creamy whites to crisp light whites, sparkling and sweet wines (Photo: Joelle Thomson)

Chenin blanc is one of the most versatile grapes around, and it makes some truly excellent wine. New Zealand is an ideal place to grow it, so why is so little being produced here?

In the corner of one of Marlborough’s few hillside vineyards, there is a grape that makes some of the greatest white wine on earth. In the past 10 years, it has declined from 50 hectares to 22 hectares in New Zealand, so there’s precious little of it.

This grape makes wines that can age longer than almost all others, white or red. It can make bone-dry, full-bodied, creamy whites, which bear a striking resemblance to big, buttery chardonnays. It can make sparkling wines and intensely sweet wines.

And it can be used to make dry, crisp and refreshing light whites like riesling, only without the intense aromas of that misunderstood grape.

Meet chenin blanc. One of the least-known, least-produced, least-planted and least-understood grapes and wines in New Zealand today. Her key characteristics are that she buds early (at risk from spring frosts), is prone to botrytis rot, powdery mildew and wood disease, has big bunches and small berries (grapes) and ripens mid season. She has high acidity, so is versatile for making a wide range of wines, usually without needing oak to shine, so the cost of making chenin blanc is easy to keep a lid on.

She retains her trademark – fresh acidity – in cool climates, so that makes New Zealand an ideal place in which to make chenin blanc.

The only trouble is, few people ask for it by name or even consider chenin to be a valid dry white wine option.

Central Otago’s Mt Difficulty is one of the few New Zealand wineries to make chenin blanc. Pictured is winemaker Matt Dicey with chenin grapes (Photos: Joelle Thomson)

“It is very strange, in my view, that chenin has largely been ignored while other alternative grape varieties are being explored, because I think that chenin is a far better grape variety than any of the others we are experimenting with in New Zealand right now,” says winemaker Simon Waghorn, who makes chenin blanc in Marlborough from the hillside Wrekin Vineyard.

“Riesling and chenin are two varieties that can certainly – if well made and put in the bottle correctly – keep getting better and improve over time, so that’s why I’m pursuing it in Marlborough.”

This wine is one of the jewels in the crown of his wine brand, Astrolabe. And like a handful of chenin producers in this country, Waghorn is not only committed to continuing with chenin blanc, he is passionate about its future potential in New Zealand.

He’s one of the most experienced chenin blanc makers in the country, after all, having now made seven vintages of Wrekin Vineyard Chenin Blanc from Marlborough and chenin in many other guises since the late 1980s.

Waghorn first worked with chenin at Te Kauwhata in the 1980s when it was highly cropped and used as one of this country’s workhorse grapes.

“It seemed to fade out as it had been identified as a bulk variety, so people generally seemed to view it as poor quality or, at best, a grape with little promise or interest,” he says.

The exceptions to this are James Millton of Millton Vineyard in Gisborne and Gordon Russell of Esk Valley in Hawke’s Bay. Both winemakers have consistently made very good-quality chenin blanc and Millton is the country’s biggest producer and champion of the variety, having fallen for its charms many moons ago after he and his wife, Annie, tasted aged dry French chenin, which blew their minds.

The chenin blanc harvest in the Loire Valley. Chenin grapes now make up only 1.2% of France’s total vineyard area, a 50% reduction since 1958 (Photo: Getty Images)

Fast forward to today and the wines made from chenin blanc are, arguably, the best they have ever been, clearly demonstrating the potential to age well for the long haul.

This is why a Hawke’s Bay grape grower planted two new hectares of chenin blanc on his Two Terraces Vineyard in 2016.

That grape grower is Ian Quinn, who is trellising most of his new chenin vines on standard vertical shoot positioning wires (VSP) with a small block on a north-facing slope, which he has planted as bush vines in a nod to traditional French grape-growing techniques. In keeping with chenin’s preference for a cool climate, Quinn’s new plantings are on the southern terraces of the Ngaruroro River, inland from Bridge Pa. This area has a cooler climate than many others in the Bay.

The soils are shallow silt loam over red metal and the slight elevation makes for warm days with significantly cooler nights.

“During 2015, we went through a process of working out what additional grape varieties we would plant,” says Quinn. “We ended up selecting a mix that we wanted to grow, including chardonnay and syrah, because they are varieties in demand by winemakers we wanted to work with. Chenin blanc and gamay noir [the traditional grape used to make Beaujolais] were also on our list of varieties we wanted to work with, but we needed to be sure they suited our climate and environment.

“We talked to a few people well known for growing and making chenin blanc in New Zealand,” he adds.

This means that all the chenin blanc grapes he’s growing now are destined for Hawke’s Bay winemakers Rod Easthope of Easthope Family Winery, and Gordon Russell of Esk Valley Wines, which is part of the Villa Maria group.

“Chenin blanc really suits our direction, which is to concentrate on viticulture as we are growers, not winemakers, but to really target the premium wine niches rather than grow for more volume-oriented wines.”

The first harvest was this year and all the grapes went to the Easthope Family Winery, which makes Quinn keen to plant more.

The new plantings in 2016 total 10 hectares all up, and, at the time of writing, he was about to plant another eight hectares. This was to be made up of five hectares of albariño, three of a new chardonnay clone and a little more gamay noir.

“We have held back a small amount of land to see what people are after. I would like to plant a bit more chenin blanc, but feedback from winemakers and the market will really shape our decisions going forward.”

Chenin blanc in barrels at Kleine Zalze winery in Stellenbosch. South Africa has the highest percentage of chenin blanc growing today (Photo: AFP/RODGER BOSCH/Getty Images)

This sounds promising for chenin blanc and white wine fans. Even a small reversal can help stem the decline.

Global statistics also paint a depressing picture of chenin blanc since the late 1950s. In 2008 it represented less than 1.2% of France’s total vineyard area, with 9800 hectares. This is almost a 50% reduction since 1958, when there were 16,500 hectares of chenin blanc growing in France. But things are rosier in South Africa.

Bizarre as it may sound, this country has the highest percentage of chenin blanc growing today. It makes up approximately 18% of that country’s total vineyard area of approximately 100,000 hectares and much South African chenin today is having a new lease of life as dry white wine – a stark contrast to its history as the main ingredient in distilled grapes used to make cheap brandy. Like New Zealand, South Africa has cool climate areas (to preserve the grape’s acidity) and strong winds (which help reduce disease pressure on the vines).

And while French chenin may have declined, the best are fresher than ever, as Domaine des Baumard proves; its owner and winemaker is a maverick by the name of Florent Baumard, who is regarded by many wine critics as one of the greatest Loire Valley and white wine producers in the world. He became so annoyed with the high rate of cork taint in his chenins that Baumard bucked the traditional French cork-loving trend and converted 100% to screw caps in 2005. He hasn’t looked back.

Keep going!