Decades ago, chenin blanc was a dirty word. In its established local home in Western Australia, it was either hidden away in white blends or fronted the slightly sweet local style. Everyone knew blended semillon and sauvignon blanc were a good match for the state’s climate, but chenin seemed to stretch the friendship.
Chenin blanc’s traditional home in the Loire Valley – one of France’s coolest wine regions – was a complicating factor. You’d expect that most of Australia's regions would be inappropriate for the grape and Tasmania might be the pick.
Yet chenin blanc is a surprising chameleon, a fact uncovered by South African winemakers. It was shipped to the country in the 1650s and has never looked back. There, as in Australia, it proved popular thanks to its almost unbreakable acid tension, even in the country’s hot interior. While originally a workhorse variety, chenin blanc has shown itself capable of making incredibly complex and long-lived wines in the Cape, particularly from old vines, of which there are plenty.
It is also a wine where old vines can bring a strong terroir influence, which is only just starting to be uncovered in Australia. Luckily there are already small patches of older vine material here for our winemakers to cut their teeth on.
The most famous local use of chenin blanc was in Houghton’s classic White Burgundy, which used the grape in its fruit salad mix of varieties. Aside from that, as a standalone with reductive winemaking, it had been a hard slog for those winemakers brave enough to take it on. Something had to change and it did: a new generation is running with it, in a number of different directions, with experimentation the order of the day.
It is still early days for the modern Australian chenin blanc movement and, with no wine yet identified as the definitive local style, winemakers around the country are throwing every trick at the variety to unlock its magic.
Some, such as the team at Marri Wood Park (marriwoodpark.com.au), have gone down an almost chardonnay road with an oaky style, fermented and aged in barrel and large format oak, and regular lees stirring to bring texture and complexity to build on chenin’s shy varietal signature.
At the other end of the spectrum are the chenins of LAS Vino (lasvino.com), with wild yeast ferment in old oak before ageing in barrique and amphorae, also with lees stirring, no fining and minimal filtration at bottling. Winemaker Nic Peterkin suggested opening his wine two hours before tasting and the transformation was miraculous – from closed and lean to beautifully expressive and savoury.
South African Remi Guise from Tripe.Iscariot (tripeiscariot.com) already had a healthy respect for chenin blanc from his homeland and continues to push the boundaries in Margaret River, with skin-fermented wines that also undergo malolactic fermentation.
Vino Volta (vinovolta.com.au) in Swan Valley chimes in with a chenin blanc pét-nat, another side to this chameleon. Chenin blanc has much in common with chardonnay; it is a blank canvas for winemakers to colour as they see fit. It is well suited to minimalist winemaking styles – which is also a strong movement back home in the Loire Valley.
In Australia, it’s the warmer areas of South and Western Australia that seem best suited to this variety; wineries in the long-ignored Swan Valley are making chenin blanc their signature variety. Along with wines from McLaren Vale, these are the bolder and fuller-bodied examples of Aussie chenin blanc. Margaret River is also staking a claim with wines that are bright and acid driven.
The past decade has seen a revolution in Australian chenin blanc and there is little doubt it will establish itself among our top handful of white grape varieties.
2020 Aphelion PIR Chenin Blanc, McLaren Vale, A$35 (in 6)
Citrus and smoky gun flint aromas, with waves of creamy melon and guava fruits on the palate, punctuated by a lovely acid bite with old oak adding a savoury edge.
2018 Marri Wood Park Chenin Blanc, Margaret River, A$40
A highly complex wine, with barrel ferment, maturation and lees work adding layers of savoury, spicy complexity beautifully matched by powerful fruit and typically zesty acidity.
2019 Tripe.Iscariot Absolution Wilyabrup Chenin Blanc, Margaret River, A$32 (in 12)
Acacia, honey and citrus aromas are joined by oatmeal barrel ferment and spicy oak. The palate is then chalky and tight, driven by long tangy acidity. Love to see this in 3- 5 years
2020 LAS Vino CBDB Chenin Blanc, Margaret River, A$50
Subtle citrus, green apple and lanolin fruits are lifted by some exotic peach skins. Beautiful energy and vitality on the palate driven by firm acidity with pretty floral touches on the finish.
2019 Brash Higgins CHN Chenin Blanc, McLaren Vale, A$39
Rich honey, guava and lanolin aromas. Powerful fruit and firm acidity, with wild barrel ferment on a drying finish. A wild ride.
2010 Vino Volta Funky and Fearless Chenin Blanc, Swan Valley, A$35
A savoury and textural masterpiece. Green apple and lanolin fruits. Delicious drinkability if you like wines on the savoury side.